This was the summer of “Barbenheimer” — seeing the release of both the feminist cinematic masterpiece that is “Barbie,” about the most popular and controversial doll made to cater to little girls, and “Oppenheimer,” a great sweeping biopic about the Jewish scientist who helped invent the atom bomb.
For those of you struggling to decide between the two, may I introduce you to the perfect middle ground: “Simone: Woman of the Century,” a biopic about the French political leader Simone Veil — a Holocaust survivor who made abortion legal in the country where she had been deported to Auschwitz from decades earlier. It’s both epic and feminist, a story of a woman who not only changed the face of history, but whose life work is more pertinent now than ever.
Director Olivier Dahan has proven he can create movies about great women in the vein of great cinematic oeuvres always made about legendary men. He directed “La Vie En Rose,” which followed the life of singer Edith Piaf and won its star Marion Cotillard both an Academy Award and Golden Globe (and which remains one of the highest grossing French films in the U.S. of all time). In “Simone,” he once again tells the story of a full life — from Veil’s young adulthood to the last decades of her life.
“Simone” is also the culmination of a decade-long dream of its star, Elsa Zylberstein, who told Kveller that playing the leader was one of the greatest honors of her life. Zylberstein gives us a fierce Veil in middle age and in the later years of her life, walking us through her story with words from Veil’s own autobiography. On multiple occasions, she makes me cry, like when she first publicly opens up to the press about her experiences in the camps and the loss of her sister, with whom she survived Auschwitz, and then when you see her get the honor of being the woman to head the European Parliament in 1979.
“Simone” is undoubtedly a tale about sisterhood and how the women in Veil’s life molded her into who she was. “My mother’s favorite word was ‘justice,'” a younger Simone, played by Rebecca Marder, tells her future French Jewish parents-in-law. Despite the fact that Veil was a strong believer in French secularism, the Jewish ideas of tikkun olam and pursuing justice were embedded in her.
This movie shows the horrors of the Holocaust, but they are just one part of a phenomenal life story. Veil is more than her survival — but all of her triumphs are informed by her lived experience. She saw the worse of humanity and she spent the rest of her life fighting for its potential best.
I have known about Simone Veil for most of my life, but I didn’t know just how much she accomplished in her long life before seeing this film. She helped make prisons habitable. She was involved in the AIDS crisis and fought for a better response to it. And she worked to ensure that the Holocaust was never forgotten. She was a warrior for dignity for all.
“Simone” is not only telling a story that deserves to be remembered and told; it is also trying to germinate the message of Veil — a message of humanism above all. And even though Simone says about herself that the reason she survived was her lack of softness, it paints a picture of a deeply feeling woman, too.
“I didn’t want to do a cold film. I wanted to make a film that makes people cry. I wanted to make strong film,” Zylberstein says. “Simone is known as a very strong character, kind of ‘femme froide,'” she adds, using the French term for “cold woman.”
“I didn’t want to do that at all. I want to find the feeling that I got when I met her,” Zylberstein adds, referring to a decade ago, when she met the leader at a Shoah Memorial event. “Even if she was secret, discrete, strong and powerful, I felt her emotion.”
Zylberstein and Marder paint a Veil that is both impossibly strong, emotionally sturdy and incredibly vulnerable – mostly in private. It’s a familiar kind of dichotomy — even today, female displays of emotion are taken as “unprofessional” and “unhinged,” where for men they are taken for passion.
Yet that dichotomy doesn’t only exist for Simone as a woman, but also as a survivor. She has to put a mask over her trauma and her anger at the indifference of those around her. In one scene, a young Simone, who has moved to Germany for her husband’s work, completely falls into a rage after attending a ballet, as if she can no longer take this kind of civilized scene in a place that was the setting for so much loss of life and dignity for her people. My own grandfather came back to Germany for medical school after his parents were killed by the Nazis — it suddenly made me think so deeply of the pain he too kept hidden.
Veil passed away in 2017 and was interred in the Pantheon in 2018 — and yet all the things she fought for remain so incredibly relevant today.
On the floor of the French legislator, the cries to denounce Veil’s efforts feel like they could come from American today — the arguments against abortion, yes, but also the way so many easily turned into antisemitic canards, and then overt antisemitism, calls of “dirty Jew.” To hear her cry fiercely that she has survived worse, to see her triumph over so much hatred — there is something hopeful and activating in that. And there is something so moving in hearing her talk about how important it is to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive, which the film itself does beautifully.
Simone Veil saw injustice and fought it until her dying day. At a time when reproductive rights and LGBTQ+ rights are under attack, when antisemitism is rearing its ugly head, when the extreme forces are trying to paint whole swaths of people as less than human, we need Simone Veil’s fight, and her story, more than ever.
“Simone: Woman of the Century” is out on August 18 at the Angelika Theater in New York and the Laemmle Royal Theater in Los Angeles and will be available to stream on Amazon Prime, iTunes and Google after its theatrical release.