News from the Locarno Festival

The Drowned and the Saved

The Drowned and the Saved



It’s summertime in a popular beach town in the North of France. The fashion of the early 1960s has cheerfully colored dresses and bathing suits enliven the streets. Hélène is taking some time off from her husband: it’s girlfriends she’s spending this holiday with. A reunion. Only, the last time she saw them was in 1945, in Auschwitz.

The surprising contrast between a decidedly sunny mood and dark, cumbersome memories gives À la vie its unique tone: a perfectly effective mix of drollery and tragedy.
Primarily something is taboo not because of its intrinsic nature but because people can’t cope with it. Most people are bad at dealing with guilt, and even victims are burdened with it as much as perpetrators. Some of the Nazi’s prisoners were made to choose between the life of a friend or relative and their own. The injustice of such a choice does not make it easier to deal with, and whether at individual or society level, behaviors were and continue to be affected by the Holocaust. Some would do anything not to be reminded.

But taboos do not make things more sacred, they make them untouchable, with the inherent risk of neglecting their teachings. In telling his own mother’s story, Jean-Jacques Zilbermann chose an opposite approach. He takes the Auschwitz taboo apart, with small, scrupulous strokes, and with the most potent weapon one can fight back with – humor. The survivor’s sense of humor. And by doing so, he also, conveniently, finds the way of unlocking the flow of our emotions. Julie Depardieu is the shining star of this affecting movie. She wholly, deeply inhabits the character of Hélène, a woman we’re unlikely to forget. If the filmmaker’s goal was to write an indelible letter of love and respect to his mother, the success of this project is total: a vibrant homage indeed.

Aurélie Godet

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