Film Review: ‘To Life’

"To Life" Locarno Film Review

Having told the true story in 'Irene and Her Sisters,' Jean-Jacques Zilbermann clumsily fictionalizes the summer where his mother reunited with the two friends she met in Auschwitz.

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.

Film Review: 'To Life'

Reviewed at Locarno Film Festival (Piazza Grande), Aug. 10, 2014. Running time: 105 MIN. (Original title: “A la vie”)


(France) A Le Pacte (in France) release of a Elzevir Films production, in co-production with France 3, with the participation of Canal Plus, Cine Plus and France Television, with support of Region Ile de France, Pictanovo with the support of Region Nord Pas de Calais, Cofimage 25, Palatine Etoile 11, the Foundation for the Memory of the Shoah. (International sales: Le Pacte, Paris.) Produced by Denis Carot, Marie Masmonteil.


Directed by Jean-Jacques Zilbermann. Screenplay, Zilbermann, Daniele Dumas, Odile Barski. Camera (color), Remy Chevrin; editor, Joele Van Effeterre; production designer, Valerie Grall; costume designer, Olivier Beriot; sound, Francois Valdish; line producer, Philippe Roux; assistant director, Jean-Christophe Delpias.


Julie Depardieu, Suzanne Clement, Johanna ter Steege, Hippolyte Girardot, Mathias Mlekuz, Benjamin Wangermee.

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  1. phillygirl says:

    Totally kept my interest. Quite a different take, with very human characters dealing with the aftermath of survivor’s guilt. Highly recommend it.

  2. Kay Elfant says:

    I saw this film in dc last night. Despite a bit of hesitation at seeing still one more holocaust film (as a Jew and film buff I’ve seen so many)..I absolutely adored this film! It she’d light on many issues of the early period of attempting normalcy, the intricacies of women’s relationships, with a delicate balance of humor and tragedy..and I’m stunned by the level of plot giveaways that I have often begged critics to stop, including the excellent NPR critic, Bob Mondello who absolutely stopped giving away much of the plot afterwards. This review was way off the mark! I adored Force Majeure also, I imagine this critic thought it worthless.

  3. sarah faerman says:

    Peter Debruge is off base. I just saw “To Life” . One of the best movies I ever saw including amazing photography. All who saw it with me were emotionally moved and very impressed.

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