In 2008, French politician Simone Veil became only the sixth woman ever inducted into the Académie Française, an august institution tasked with the regulation of the French language. As a newly minted “immortal” — the unofficial name given to the Académie’s 40 members — she was presented with a sword that bore three engravings: the motto of France (“liberté, egalité, fraternité“), that of Europe (“Unis dans le diversité“) and her Auschwitz prisoner number, which remained tattooed on her arm until her death in 2017. The sword glints briefly in Olivier Dahan’s “Simone: Woman of the Century” and though its symbolism is apt for such a crusading figure, it also reflects the film’s shortcomings: this is a reverential, ceremonial biopic content merely to inscribe Veil’s achievements across the surface of history, ornamenting a remarkable legacy, rather than exploring it.
Dahan works to the same fragmentary, triumph-and-tragedy template he employed in “La Vie en Rose,” for which Marion Cotillard won an Oscar, and in “Grace of Monaco,” for which Nicole Kidman did not. As illustrated by the divergent receptions of those films — both also portraits of towering 20th-century women — a great deal rides on the leading lady. Or more specifically, on how convincingly she can embody her famous character, especially given Dahan’s emphasis on physical mimicry. “Simone” is in this regard neither as solid as his Edith Piaf biopic nor as risible as his Grace Kelly portrait, falling somewhere in between.
As the younger Veil, Rebecca Marder is appealing and has many of the most wrenching scenes, including this maudlin movie’s strongest section, when the usually overheated filmmaking is cooled down and stripped back to provide a stirring and somber glimpse of Veil’s harrowing Holocaust experiences. As Veil later in life, however, Elsa Zylberstein might be doing great work but it’s hard to tell, underneath layers of facial prothesis that perhaps help her resemble the elder Veil of photographs, but that simply do not move the way human flesh is supposed to.
Those distractingly waxen jowls are a problem, because we spend a long time looking at them, as Dahan elects to frame his non-chronological retelling of Veil’s life as a series of flashbacks. The older Veil sits on a sunny day in her villa’s garden staring meditatively out at the Mediterranean, occasionally interrupted by her husband Antoine (Olivier Gourmet), as she ponders her memoir. There is much to ponder.
The more recent victories of her political career — abortion rights, AIDS-victim advocacy, becoming the first female President of the European Parliament — are interspersed with older struggles that for a long time skirt the central trauma of Auschwitz, as though it’s a memory too bright with pain to confront directly. Instead we witness her falling for Antoine (played as a younger man by Mathieu Spinosi), their marriage, and her support of his career, before she decides to qualify as a lawyer herself. Her professional drive (“It’s not a job, it’s a vocation!” she hisses) puts a strain on her growing family – pressures alluded to and dismissed in one scene of Antoine getting exasperated at her absentee-mother status, and her young sons clustering round to tell her they’re proud of their headline-making maman.
She campaigns doggedly on behalf of mistreated female detainees in French-run Algerian prisons. She loses a beloved sister. As a child, she plays in an eternally sunlit garden, or splashes about in an eternally sparkling sea. All of this is conveyed in Manuel Dacosse’s romanced visuals, that swoon especially hard when depicting halcyon scenes just before disaster hits. During a dinner party with her sister, who is soon to perish in a car accident, the camera swirls around the fairy-lit garden like it’s drunk on the foreknowledge of impending tragedy.
It’s not clear why Dahan believes such flourishes are necessary to embellish an already deeply dramatic story, but embellish he does, not just through showy camerawork, but through the emotional signposting of Olvon Yacob’s score, and a luscious attention to the details of period clothing and decor. Yet despite the exhaustive way her life is dressed and described, we never get to know who Simone Veil really was. It would even be possible watch the whole movie and remain unaware of this pioneering politico’s party affiliations (center-right despite the progressive/leftist slant of many of her achievements). The cheek putty thickens as Veil ages and — aside from that impressively moving late sequence as the dwindling family is force-marched from camp to camp in the waning days of the war — the film similarly fails to get under its fascinating subject’s skin. “I prefer discomfort to lies,” Veil declares. But fussing about, plumping the cushions of history, her biopic goes in the opposite direction, favoring a deceptive, discomfort-free approach that watches Veil with such a dazzled gaze, it barely sees her at all.