A toast to all that those who didn’t endure the Holocaust take for granted, French director Jean-Jacques Zilbermann’s “To Life” finds the silver lining in the 20th century’s darkest cloud, but feels a thousand miles removed from the events it describes. Inspired by the true story of Zilbermann’s mother and the two lifelong friends she met at Auschwitz, this unremarkably tasteful empowerment meller focuses on the seaside outing where these three Jewish women first reunited 15 years after the war, failing to capture either the post-traumatic heft of what they dealt with or the amazing chemistry between them.
To understand all that is lacking from Zilbermann’s stuffy re-creation, we need look no further than the final shot of the film, which reveals candid footage of the three women, well into their 80s, overflowing with the irrepressible (and almost uniquely Jewish) joie de vivre that their fictionalized counterparts seem to lack. Their bond was so strong that the trio met up every year at Berck-sur-mer, on the northern coast of France, but a straightforward documentary approach clearly would have done their story greater justice.
Sure enough, Zilbermann has already gone that route with his one-hour nonfiction portrait “Irene and Her Sisters.” Now that Irene Zilbermann has passed on, her son resolves to share those details that were perhaps too sensitive to depict during her life, changing the names of the three women involved and fictionalizing the particulars to ill-calculated effect. It feels too much as if he has undertaken this project in tribute to someone who has died, rather than taking into consideration his living audience, finding himself overly distracted by period details (the costumes, the cars) without having solved the film’s considerable dramatic and tonal challenges.
Here, Irene becomes Helene, played by an anorexic-looking Julie Depardieu (the polar opposite of her famous father in that respect), inexplicably skinny for someone 15 years past her concentration-camp horrors. After a brief prologue in Auschwitz, Helene returns to Paris and tries to pick up her life where she left off, making friends with a friendly communist activist (Mathias Mlekuz), but declining his marriage proposal in order to be with her prewar love (Hippolyte Girardot).
Of course, it’s not so easy to pretend that the Holocaust never happened — which is one of the recurring themes of Zilbermann’s film. No matter what the situation, Auschwitz is always the elephant in the room, hovering over even the couple’s conjugal bed, where Helene and her husband are unable to consummate their union, since he was castrated in the camps. But the survivors have a choice: They can dwell on the tragedies they experienced, or they can count their blessings and move forward.
For 15 years, Helene placed ads in the newspaper hoping to find Lili, her closest friend from Auschwitz — a soulmate whom she never would have met had it not been the awful situation they endured together. Such are the ironies of life, just as she could not have anticipated the pain that would accompany all the joy of their long-awaited reunion, when, in the early ’60s, the two finally manage to find one another at Berck-sur-mer. Traveling all the way from Amsterdam, Lili further surprises Helene by bringing along their friend Rose (Canadian actress and Xavier Dolan muse Suzanne Clement), whom she’d believed dead all that time.
Watching the delicate way this close-knit trio reconnects is by far the most compelling aspect of the film, as the characters discover in one another the foundation for a much-needed support group. But “Steel Magnolias” this isn’t, and despite the outsized personalities of the three dynamic leads (especially Clement, who plays Rose like a ’60s movie star on holiday), the characters read as phony. Well-observed details, such as Helene’s inhibited reaction to wearing a bikini on the beach or the way Rose recycles a teabag as if wartime rationing were still in place, never feel organic, and the camera constantly seems distracted by all the period touches Zilbermann has taken such pains to reproduce.
Emotionally, this get-together is all over the place, as each woman works up to the cathartic confession she needs to make in order to move on with her life (suggesting that all the healing happened that first summer, when in fact, it must have continued for decades), while a taxing subplot involving their efforts to get Helene laid by a perky young Club Mickey counselor (Benjamin Wangermee) feels beamed in from another dimension. Given the complexity of everything the characters went through, it’s a shame to witness their lives reduced to a sequence of TV-movie moments.