With a star turn from Rebecca Marder, Simone: Woman of the Century shines a light on an important figure from French history, but lacks the human element of a great biopic.
In a summer defined in part by Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer, a lengthy, time-hopping biopic about one of the defining figures of the Second World War and its aftermath, the release of Simone: Woman of the Century feels fitting. With a fraction of the budget and a cast largely unknown outside of France, Olivier Dahan’s film can’t be expected to compete commercially with Nolan’s. But in presenting a portrait of a gifted individual haunted by antisemitism, the horrors of war and its socio-political aftermath, Oppenheimer finds in this drama from the La Vie en Rose director a not-so-strange bedfellow from across the Atlantic.
For the unacquainted, Simone Veil was a French magistrate, politician and Holocaust survivor, an icon of European politics – first as a French minister and later as the European Parliament’s first elected president. She died in 2017, leaving behind a titanic legacy with which Dahan’s film attempts to grapple. It primarily moves back and forth between Veil’s harrowing experiences as a teenager in the Second World War and the various causes she championed throughout her career. While many of the key experiences depicted in this film took place in a France barely recognisable today, the fights that defined her life, from abortion rights to HIV/AIDS activism, remain pertinent to contemporary society. In Simone: Woman of the Century, we see how Veil’s passion for change was underpinned by the compound injustices she suffered as a child, painting a portrait of true intersectionality long before the term entered common parlance.
Even at a sizeable 140 minutes, this is a lot for one film to get through, and its level of success in doing so is varied. Dahan struggles to cover all bases with any sense of fluency, as he attempts to balance the duel objectives of crafting an intimate character study and depicting the sweeping societal changes of the post-war era. The script is replete with exposition, each conversation feeling more stilted than the last as characters discuss the state of the nation and ongoing social issues. The grand speeches and rhetoric are all well and good when the action takes place in the political realm, but the dialogue between Elsa Zylberstein’s Veil and her family and friends is often lacking in the naturalism that such scenes demand.
There are notable exceptions to this: namely the scenes depicting Veil’s experiences in concentration camps, where she is portrayed by rising star Rebecca Marder. A deeply personal account of the Holocaust is charged with empathy and subtlety, Marder’s performance being the highlight of the film. These sequences are less verbose than others and she speaks volumes with little more than the expressions on her face, which is drained of its colour and framed persistently in claustrophobic close-ups. This uncomfortably tight photography returns at several points throughout the film, as the older Veil faces various challenges in her professional and personal life, shrewdly depicting the shadow such unfathomable trauma casts, even on the life of someone as successful as Veil.
Not only a period piece, Simone: Woman of the Century takes on a more contemporary purpose as a portrait of a changing France. Its depiction of Veil’s career within the European Parliament serves as an impassioned rallying cry for a unified Europe, a message with resonance she could not have foreseen as Euro-scepticism continues to spread across the continent. However, Zylberstein struggles to cut through the clunky dialogue and equally restrictive prosthetics as her character ages, presenting a sort of caricature that belies the complexity of the human being she portrays.
This latest biopic from Olivier Dahan recounts a remarkable life story whose telling is no small responsibility. For the most part, Simone: Woman of the Century is too conventional, too interested in hitting certain historical checkpoints, that it forgets to apply the human touch. While it’s encouraging to see a female icon join the likes of J. Robert Oppenheimer and Oskar Schindler in getting the big screen treatment, this particular cinematic depiction only partially succeeds in conveying the immensity of her life and its legacy.
Simone: Woman of the Century will be released in US theaters on August 18, 2023.