Returning home after spending several harrowing years in an Auschwitz concentration camp, Hélène (Julie Depardieu, daughter of Gerard Depardieu) slowly attempts to put the pieces of her life back together. Despite starting up a seamstress business and marrying her childhood sweetheart Henri (Hippolyte Girardot), a fellow camp survivor whom she has loved since age 13, she cannot shake the longing she has to reunite with her friend from the camp. Placing a yearly advertisement in a Yiddish newspaper, to no avail for 15 years, Hélène finally manages to make contact with her pal Lili (Johanna ter Steege), who now lives in Amsterdam.
Arranging to spend a leisurely couple of days in a beach community in the north of France, Hélène is shocked to discover that Lili has brought along Rose (Suzanne Clément); a woman who she not only thought was dead, but is also the reason the three friends met in the first place. As the women reconnect while shopping, preparing meals, and trying to navigate the tiny rental apartment they share, it is clear that the emotional reverberation from Auschwitz still impacts their lives today.
Lili, whose ability to speak Dutch help to save the trio, constantly wants to talk about their time in the camp, much to the chagrin of Rose who wants to discuss anything but that. Quick tempered, Rose tries to suppress her deep guilt for tragic decisions she was forced to make while in Auschwitz through her extravagant shopping purchases. By contrast, on the surface, Hélène’s life seems to be the most stable of the group. However, she is not without her share of problems. The biggest one being that she is no longer happy in her marriage.
It is the latter issue that drives a large portion of Jean-Jacques Zilbermann’s film. Inspired by the lifelong bonds Zilbermann‘s mother formed with two other women while in Auschwitz, À La Vie (To Life) has its heart in the right place, but misses the mark in fully conveying that to the audience. The film wants to be everything to everyone and ultimately loses sight of itself in the process. The script frequently bounces around from being an uplifting tale of friendship to a somber meditation on the Holocaust to a colorful 1960s exploration of an older woman’s sexual discovery. However, the film does not balance these themes in a meaningful way.
À La Vie rarely lets moments sit with the audience. Somber memories flood back to the women at random, which is to be expected given the nature of the trauma they endured, but they are quickly washed away as if they were never there to begin with. Since the audience only truly gets to really know about Lili and Rose in these fleeting moments, at times, it is hard to understand the true depth of the trio’s bond. The thing that ultimately unites the women is the one thing the film is not that interested in exploring.
The true strength of the film is in the performances by the three women. Julie Depardieu is very strong as the repressed Hélène. She does a wonderful job of bringing out the sense of sexual innocence from a woman who has witnessed a lifetime’s worth of hardship during her time at Auschwitz. Suzanne Clément, who is always a delight to watch no matter what film she is in, and Johanna ter Steege also do a solid job trying to bring weight to their thinly written characters. The chemistry of the trio hints at the strong film À La Vie could have been had it spent more time exploring the emotional pain within each woman.