More resonant in theory than in execution, the post-Holocaust drama "To Life" never truly embraces the promise of its title or the roiling emotion beneath its surface.
Director Jean-Jacques Zilbermann, who co-wrote with Danièle D'Antoni, was inspired here by the experiences of his late Auschwitz-survivor mother, Irene, and her two fellow camp deportees and lifelong friends (warmly glimpsed in the film's coda). Despite an earnest effort to evoke these women and their extraordinary circumstances, the filmmaker has trouble zeroing in on an effective tone and pace as well as a credible dynamic for his fictionalized version of this trio.
The movie opens with a murky prologue set at Auschwitz, followed by the post-war return to Paris of Irene's proxy, Hélène (Julie Depardieu, Gérard's pencil-thin daughter), to pick up the pieces of her disrupted life. In short order, she reconnects with lost love Henri (Hippolyte Girardot), also a Holocaust survivor. They'll eventually marry, but not without complication.
In a jarring jump, we cut to 1962, when Irene and her Auschwitz friends/soulmates — Dutch native Lily (Johanna ter Steege) and Montréal émigré Rose (Suzanne Clément) — reunite for the first time since the war for some sun, fun and catharsis at the French coastal resort of Berck-sur-Mer.
Despite the thrill of seeing each other after so long, there's a seeming lack of chemistry and cohesiveness among these very different women as they navigate painful memories and latter-day choices. Except for Hélène's fling with a younger man (Benjamin Wangermee), events and conversations are mostly too measured and perfunctory to keep us fully invested.
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.
In French with English subtitles