There have been many films made about war and its immediate toll on humans, but precious few about survivors returning to their lives and their struggle to adjust after all the horror they have lived through. Director Jean-Jacques Zilbermann’s (Man is Woman) film beautifully deals with how survivors of the Holocaust adjust to a return to “normal”. This is especially interesting and unique as it is from the perspective of three women.
Hélène (Julie Depardieu – A Very Long Engagement, Rush Hour 3), Lily (Johanna ter Steege – Immortal Beloved) and Rose (Suzanne Clément – Mommy, I Killed My Mother) met in Auschwitz, where the three women were deported. Thanks to the German-speaking Lily, the two French women survived. On the 27th of January, 1945 the Germans evacuated the camp and began a death march. Rose perished before the death march. After the liberation of the camp they lost touch.
Six months later in Paris Hélène returns to her flat. It has been untouched. She returns to working as a self-employed seamstress. After all that she went through, Hélène finds herself not able to speak to people. She does, however, reunite with former lover, Henri (Hippolyte Girardot – Paris, Je T’aime).
Determined to find her old friends, Hélène puts an ad in a deportees’ newspaper. In July of 1962, against monumental odds, the ad is answered by Lily, who lives in Amsterdam. They agree to meet in the north of France on the coast, Berck-sur-mer. When Lily arrives she has a surprise for Hélène – Rose. She did not die. Rose lives in Montreal and is married with children. The friends begin to catch up.
Female friendship is something that has been examined and celebrated in film and on television. This time it is looked at from a different angle. One that still shows the strength and power of it, though. These women get together after being apart for roughly 17 years and it is like they have not skipped a beat. Instead of glossing it up like a series like Sex in the City was guilty of, female friendship is shown in a very real light. This is probably due to the fact that the film was based on Zilbermann’s mother and her two friends. All Holocaust survivors. He had previously, before the death of his mother, made a documentary on the three women called Irene and Her Sisters.
The idea that despite all this the Holocaust and Auschwitz looms like a cloud over the women and all they have done since. Understandably, they have been marked and have not forgotten. The message is that you can dwell upon what happened there like Rose does or choose to move on like the harder-edged Lily has. Hélène is somewhere in the middle.
A highlight of the film is watching these three women reconnect. After all they have been through it is like they are finding the support group they needed for the past 17 years. Each has something about their past/time in Auschwitz that they need to get off their chests and have found the people they trust enough to confess to.
What was a little distracting is the overemphasized period piece look of the film. Obviously, getting the look right was paramount for Zilbermann. At times he seems more concerned about getting the look right rather than focusing on the dialogue or storyline.