Film Review: An Encounter with Simone Weil

Honorable but self-indulgent attempt to bring alive the elusive French philosopher-activist-leftist Simone Weil, meshed this with the filmmaker’s personal family history.

The main problem with this documentary is that its “encounter” is too much with filmmaker Julia Haslett and too little with Simone Weil. While the latter—a French-Jewish activist, intellectual and philosopher in the late 1930s and early ’40s—is of interest, Haslett is not.

Haslett’s frequent voiceovers make clear her obsession with Weil and frustrating struggle to find footage of her subject and get at her essence. Also very much on the filmmaker’s mind and tongue is her own family, specifically those depressive and/or suicidal. Brother Tim is, like Weil, very immersed in social reforms.

But little of Weil is revealed here, except that she was bookish, extremely self-sacrificing and single-minded in her pursuit of causes, anguished with regard to faith, and dedicated to the oppressed. There are no clues regarding where all this might have come from. Instead, Weil emerges as an archetypal figure who will be familiar to many of the ’60s generation, but only in a superficial, even clichéd way. Because the roots of human behavior stay buried—whether the focus is on Weil or Haslett family members—Encounter is more an exercise of vanity than gift of clarity.

Born into a well-to-do French family, Weil (1909-1943) began early to embrace leftist, even Communist causes. An activist in a very literal sense, she was still in her 20s when she traveled south to Spain to participate on the Republican side, of course. She labored in a dismal machine factory in solidarity with workers, counseled their Communist unions, wrote extensively about politics, philosophy, social issues and religion, taught philosophy, and fought in the French Resistance. She also made a conversion to Christianity and mysticism.

In 1940, Weil and her family fled to southern France, then to New York, where they settled in Manhattan’s Upper West Side. In 1943, she went to the U.K. to work as a nurse and with DeGaulle’s Free French forces against the Nazis. She died soon after under murky circumstances: tuberculosis, according to this doc, or maybe self-imposed starvation, suggests Wikipedia.

By visiting places Weil lived and a few people who knew her (a cousin and niece, a former student, biographers, et al.), Haslett struggles to bring alive her subject. But her interviewees are little help in this regard. She even spends hours combing through old news footage, thinking she might spot Weil in crowd scenes. (“A fleeting glimpse will help me get closer to her,” she says.) Another fanciful ploy is using actress Soraya Broukhim to play Weil, with Haslett as interviewer. Broukhim and viewers might both realize that bringing Weil alive is not just a matter of playing a role but, considering Weil’s complexity, more of thinking deep and experiencing personal turmoil.

Weil’s commitment to a life of meaning, proactive reforms and intellectual pursuits won her admirers like Albert Camus and Susan Sontag. Still, Haslett, in her production notes, acknowledges that Weil “is a little-known figure, practically forgotten in her native France, and rarely taught in universities or secondary schools.” Unfortunately, the Weil on view here is less understandable as a person of compassion and seeking as one compelled to rebel and escape from comfortable bourgeois origins (Vive les sixties!). In spite of her relevance in these still-troubling times and the filmmaker’s good intentions, An Encounter with Simone Weil will do little to make Weil a heroine of today’s “Occupiers.”