Stéphane Freiss’ Where Life Begins beautifully explores the power of connection, poignantly allowing two people the chance to find their own version of peace.
Sometimes all it takes is a fleeting connection to irrevocably change the course of a life. It feels a little trite to call Stéphane Freiss’ Where Life Begins (Tu choisiras la vie) a ‘romance’, when it feels more profound than that. It’s not even necessarily a ‘love story’, but rather a film about how a flicker of desire, an innate understanding and a mutual longing for more can alter the ways in which we see ourselves, our faiths and our futures.
Every year the Zelniks, an ultra-Orthodox Jewish family from France, visit a farm in Southern Italy to harvest etrogim – ‘kosher lemons’ – for the religious holiday of Sukkot. The farm’s owner, Elio (Riccardo Scamarcio), is grateful for their visit as it helps the farm financially, even if he doesn’t consider himself religious in any way. He only took over the land in honour of his late father, leaving behind a life in Rome with an ex-wife, two children and dreams of becoming an artist. Esther (Lou de Laâge) has accompanied her father, the rabbi, on this year’s trip, even though she is deeply unhappy and desperate to leave the faith. But an unexpected connection between the two might just give Esther the courage to forge a life of her own making, and Elio the peace he so desperately craves.
Where Life Begins is a film that understands the power of subtlety. It isn’t flashy or melodramatic, nor is it interested in undermining those who choose to live a life of devout faith. Instead, it’s much more driven by its characters’ desire for a life that is truly meant for them. It’s a film about connection: about finding the right person at the right time who can give you courage and perspective, and who has the ability to ignite that flickering spark inside of you. Freiss’ film doesn’t concern itself with too much plot outside of Elio and Esther; it peppers their experience with supporting characters, hints at lives happening outside of the farm, but keeps its focus on the ways in which they find solace in each other.
Because, ultimately, the connection between them is the beating heart of the film. Esther arrives stifling: from religion, from expectation, from a desire for more. As the women in her family sit demurely in the garden, discussing aspects of traditional life, she perches on the edge of her seat, jittery and scared of her proposed future, looking a mere second from running off into the fields. She takes giddy pleasure in breaking little rules, finds solace in an online message board, and even prays to God for the strength to leave Him behind. It’s a really affecting, powerful performance from de Laâge that really encapsulates the tumultuous experience of realising that the life you have, the life that is expected of you, is not at all the life you want. And so, when she meets Elio, it makes total sense that she’d be drawn to him.
He represents freedom to her, and there’s a sense of longing between them that is equal parts for each other and for a sense of peace. Elio hasn’t appreciated his farm, the work he’s put in or the beauty of the land he cultivates, but Esther helps him see that. She appreciates the life he has, and he appreciates her bravery in claiming more for herself. When they are together, it’s the only time that Esther appears at ease and Elio opens up. Their connection feels really authentic, it develops organically and the chemistry between Scamarcio and de Laâge is really palpable. It’s a lot of glances, soft smiles and just being quiet in each other’s company; their moments together are chaste but incredibly charged, with the most sensual being them simply holding hands. Freiss really understands that less is more, and it’s really beautiful watching their connection flourish. Esther is radiant by the film’s bittersweet ending; Elio has given her hope and belief in herself, and she has given him peace.
Where Life Begins knows the power of a loaded moment and of soft intimacy. It’s a film that emphasises the importance of connection, and the ways in which the right person can shift something inside of us that helps us live more authentically. It’s tender but bittersweet, understated but really rich in emotion. It’s a film that lets us know the lemons life gives us are there for us to do exactly what we want with them, and the deepest connections we make are the ones that help us realise that.
Where Life Begins premiered at the 2022 UK Jewish Film Festival on 20 November, 2022.