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film review

Jean-Jacques Zilbermann’s À la vie is a subtle, touching film that pays homage to his mother and her friends who survived the Second World War.

It takes about half an hour for the French drama À la vie to warm up. First, we meet three young women – Hélène (Julie Depardieu, daughter of French icon Gérard), Lili (Johanna ter Steege) and Rose (Quebec star Suzanne Clément) – barely alive at Auschwitz at the end of the Second World War. Then we follow Hélène home to Paris, and watch her try to settle back into normal life. But stick with it, because once the sun hits the three as they reunite in 1962 on the beach in Berck-sur-Mer, France, they begin to open up and let each other – and us – in.

Each has overcome the horror of their shared past in different ways. Hélène, who was 20 in 1946, hasn't fully grown up. Lili, who lives in Amsterdam and "swore I'd be a free woman," is the strongest, with the most outspoken views. Rose, who lives in Montreal, is determined to revel in the present (Clément, who steals the show). She won't talk about the Holocaust; the others won't stop. Eventually, however, each woman allows her friends a glimpse of the shadows that haunt her.

Jean-Jacques Zilbermann made À la vie in homage to his mother, Irene, and her lifelong friends Paulette and Annie, who he chronicled in the documentary Irene and Her Sisters. He has an ear for female friendships – the way women tease each other, argue, make up and help each other through. He also has a blast with the early-1960s colours and styles, which explode after 15 years of postwar drabness. And he's good at conveying the beauty of simple pleasures: doing the Twist on the beach, eating ice cream on a bench, singing on a sand dune.

À la vie is a gentle toast – the film sticks to its subtle tone, which is both its strength and its weakness. We feel the women's tentativeness, but not always their joy or their unshakeable bond. What we do see, however, is the tip of what is obviously a very deep iceberg. And that's enough.