This is the second time director Jean-Jacques Zilbermann has tackled the true story of his mother’s relationship with the two women she met at Aushwitz concentration camp who became her lifelong best friends. The first was the documentary Irene and Her Sisters and now A la Vie which details the lives of the three woman as they are reunited 15 years after the close of the camp. Despite its compelling subject matter and the chance for an original take on the endurance of the human spirit, contrary to expectations A La Vie is oddly lifeless and unmoving.
Ever since she left the camp on the notorious death march from Aushwitz in January 1945, Hélène (Julie Depardieu) has been looking for her friends Lili (Johanna ter Steege) and Rose (Suzanne Clément). After many years, she finally tracks down Lili believing Rose to have died after she was left behind in Aushwitz. Hélène and Lili agree to meet to spend a week together at Berck plage in the north of France. And Lili has a surprise for Hélène. She has found Rose who survived the camp and now joins them in Berck. Together the three woman set out to rebuild their friendship, but soon discover that Auschwitz and the intervening years have left an indelible stamp on them all.
Zilbermann’s attention to detail in recreating 1960s postwar France is impressive. The cars, the clothes, the music are all spot on. And after A la Vie‘s opening scenes set in the camp at Auschwitz, the change of scenery to Berck-plage holds a real sense of optimism and joie de vivre reflected in the reunion of Hélène, Lili and Rose after a decade and a half’s absence. But the story then takes a strange B-road into Hélène’s unhappy marriage and a fling she has with a much younger man she meets on the beach. The affair dominates much of the film, while the more interesting story of how the woman have dealt with the experience of the concentration camp and the effect on them post-Aushwitz is largely unexplored. There is a hint that Lili in particular has a secret she wants to share but frustratingly never finds the courage to spit it out. Rose initially refuses to talk about what happened in the camp and when she does it’s dealt with briskly and clinically before rapidly moving on. Zilbermann has roundly failed to recreate the complicity and depth of affection between the three woman reflected in the film’s final scenes which show real footage of the women together. In a few minutes there is more laughter and emotion than in the preceding hour and a half.
An emaciated Depardieu fails to bring credibility to Hélène who is irritatingly wide-eyed and seemingly naive about everything especially men and relationships. Ter Steege remains mysterious throughout and only Clément seems comfortable as Rose. The Canadian actor is a regular in films by her fellow countryman, Xavier Dolan including Mommy, Laurence Anyways and I Killed my Mother and hits just the right note as the coquettish Rose who seems to be more deeply damaged than the others. French films celebrating the richness of female friendships are thin on the ground and here Zilbermann has missed a real opportunity to bring to the big screen the extraordinary tale of these three exceptional woman.