Biopic on Simone Veil: “I wanted to make the viewer uncomfortable”

After The Mummy et grace of monaco, Simone, the trip of the centuryin theaters October 12, concludes the trilogy of female biopics directed by Olivier Dahan, this time about Simone Veil, who died in 2017.

But those hoping to see a detailed historical account of the creation of the Veil law (which decriminalized the use of abortion) will be disappointed. The film opens with his memorable speech to the National Assembly in 1974; then, the most notorious political fight of the former Minister of Health is quickly evacuated. To recount the life of this mythical and pantheonized French figure, Olivier Dahan has chosen another common thread: the deportation of Simone Veil and her experience in the camps.

Known a few weeks before the premiere, the filmmaker describes his film as “a moving portrait”. From Simone Veil’s childhood on the Côte d’Azur to the writing of her memoir, the film transports us from one era to another, through several significant moments in the life and career of the magistrate. In Germany, in Algerian prisons, in the European Parliament or in a hospital with an HIV-positive patient, this somewhat eventful “trip of the century” tries in two hours and twenty minutes to summarize all the battles of Simone Veil – at the risk of scattering , with incessant comings and goings that prevent the scenes from breathing.

As the film progresses, these short chronological fragments are interspersed with increasingly longer and more detailed passages recounting the deportation of Simone Veil, her sister, and her mother. Among these sequences, long scenes in the cattle cars, the night arrival at Auschwitz, the violence in the dormitories and in the fields, or even the final agony of Yvonne, Simone’s mother, played by Élodie Bouchez.

Holocaust reenactment

Making a biopic about Simone Veil without telling her experience as a deportee would have been incongruous, when the statesman fought so hard for her story and that of the other survivors to be heard. “This beginning of life conditions all its choices, in Europe, in what it does for women, and forever in the fight for the dignity of the human being”explains Elsa Zylberstein, who plays Simone Veil as an adult -despite the prosthetics, which unfortunately have become essential in any conventional biopic-, her interpretation and that of Rebecca Marder (who plays Simone in her youth) constitute the main salvation of the movie.

It was the actress who, after several encounters with Simone Veil, asked Olivier Dahan to direct “a good movie” in her life. For her, the question of memory is not the one that arose first, “but inevitably, it is intrinsic to the subject”. As for Olivier Dahan, himself a descendant of deportees, this is obvious to him: “It is a film about the Holocaust. […] What interested me, which I had seen little in the movies, was the silence imposed by the French state once the deportees returned. What Simone Veil will fight first: she wants to talk about her, and this right to talk is denied to her and to everyone else.

Excess staging

If the Holocaust were necessarily to be mentioned, the elections in simone challenge. What can and should we show about the Shoah in the cinema? Why reconstruct in such detail the atrocities in the camps? To linger so long on the gaunt and dying face of Élodie Bouchez in the role of Yvonne Steinmetz? The debate has been going on for a long time, and it resurfaces remarkably every time what a fiction pick up the topic.

In its famous critic you film cap or by Gillo Pontecorvo, in 1961, Jacques Rivette Estimate that the very fact of staging the experience of the camps, and in this precise case the death of the heroine, with classic cinematographic procedures, was immoral: “Absolute realism, or what can take its place in the cinema, is impossible here; any attempt in this direction is necessarily incomplete (“therefore immoral”), any attempt at reconstruction or make-up is laughable and grotesque, any traditional approach to “spectacle” is voyeurism and pornography”.

Reconstitution is the choice of Olivier Dahan, who admits to having wondered: “Let’s ask ourselves the question, and I asked myself the question, is it normalOlivier Dahan says. The question isn’t “can we make a movie about that or not?”, it’s how to make the movie. […] It is something that requires reflection and intuition. The precision and honesty with which it has to be done goes against something too spectacular or too graphic, so I tried to keep that at bay.

“I wanted to shock the viewer by putting them in a kind of breath hold to try to relate what the returning deportees were able to describe when they arrived at the camps.”

Oliver DahanDirector

However, some scenes simone leave little room for suggestion or modesty. The horror of the camps is staged in a graphic and sometimes excessive way, as in this endless passage about the harvest and the tattoo of the deportees: with close-ups on their skulls and an animated and distressing montage, the women follow one another under the blows of scissors.

When asked about his thoughts, the filmmaker develops: “I wanted the viewer to feel uncomfortable with quite a few scenes, in fact, that was my intention. Upon arrival at the camp for example. It wasn’t about getting comfortable, besides, the opposite would have been absurd. Let’s say I wanted to physically impact the viewer by putting them in a kind of apnea, either with images or with sounds, to try, vaguely, to account for what the returning deportees were capable of describing when they arrived at the camps”.

Transmission

For Elsa Zylberstein, whose family was hidden by the righteous during the war, transmission is clearly one of the goals of the film. The actress, who rubbed shoulders with Marceline Loridan-Ivens, Ginette Kolinka and Paul Schaffer, believes that, like Simone Veil, “These are people obsessed with streaming, lest we forget. And maybe unconsciously when I spoke [à Simone] of the film, I said to myself: she must have understood that it was also for that, so that it doesn’t happen again.

Olivier Dahan also explains that his desire was to recreate images aimed at a young audience still ignorant about the Shoah and its cinematographic representations. “I don’t show all the camps: I show the arrival, the death march, things we haven’t necessarily seen in a long time. And while great movies have been made about it, Shoah with Claude Lanzmann in mind, of course, I told myself that today in 2022, there weren’t many 15-year-olds who would get a chance to see Shoahnot even The pianistnot even schindler’s list and more movies. I intended to make an accessible film, so I gave myself the right to repeat things a bit.

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