Thursday, March 22, 2012

Julia Haslett's oddball but not uninteresting AN ENCOUNTER WITH SIMONE WEIL

Who was Simone Weil? You, as had I, may have heard of her off and on over the years: a Jewish writer/philosopher who was ascetic/
religious, and... uh... didn't she die in the Holocaust? You'll find out, should you watch the bizarre little documentary AN ENCOUNTER WITH SIMONE WEIL, written, produced, directed and edited by novice filmmaker Julia Haslett. One thing you are sure to learn is how to pronounce Simone's name. TrustMovies has always said Weil, as in Wile. But, no: It's Weil, as in Vay. Being a French name, the l is silent and the ei pronounced as a long a. And the W? Well, Simone was born of Alsatian parents, from the region nearest Germany, and so the W, I guess, is pronounced as a V. (TM is spending so much time on pronunciation because, well, the movie itself proves a bit of a cheat.)

"Encounter" begins with the filmmaker, shown at right, telling us about the suicide of her father and then how she came upon this bit of writing from Ms Weil: Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity. This may be Weil at close to her best. (Later we hear nonsense such as Not religion but revolution is the opium of the people. Of course: A good revolution is guaran-teed to put one into a sleepy, drugged up state!)  In any case, Ms Haslett is so impressed with the former statement that she makes it a point to learn all she can about Ms Weil, who died at the age of 34 in 1943. And we tag along with her, learning on the run. Haslett also has a brother, Timothy, shown below, with his own depression problems, whom she worries over -- quite genuinely and with good cause.

The filmmaker, it turns out, is suffering from guilt (and how could any of us not be, who have had close family members kill themselves), much in the manner that Weil herself suffered -- though in Simone' case, it appeared to be for the helpless masses rather than for particular individuals. In addition to severe health problems, this suffering was her cross to bear. And if that sounds a tad religious, so be it. The lady had quite a Jesus complex. Still, as one acolyte tell us, Weil embodied "the union between the most demanding intellect and the heart." Says another: "You can't come away from reading her unscathed." Yet, scathed, Haslett informs us, is what she desires to feel and be.

As the film moves along, you may feel that the filmmaker is growing awfully worshipful of Weil. Just wait. Soon, because she so desperately wants to have a "real" encounter with her heroine -- "Even a fleeting glimpse will help me get closer to her," Haslett tells us -- she is placing photos and writings on the floor and communing with them, perhaps hoping to "channel" Simone or head over into the paranormal realm.... "But I'm getting carried away," she admits at around the halfway point, and we heave a heavy sigh of relief.

When Haslett sticks to Weil's history, the movie is most interesting: Simone's time spent fighting in the Spanish Civil War (She was a pacifist: yet another contradiction), her first mystical experience, her move from politics to religion and her inability to give in fully to the latter (good girl!), why she was called the Red Virgin, her work during World War II, and much more.

As Haslett's brother's condition worsens, so does the filmmaker's own anxiety: Isn't her brother worth more than her Weil work? This is where the movie either falls apart (it did for me) or may come together for you. We don't really learn enough about Haslett's family to make what happens as meaningful as it ought to be. Instead we see a demonstration for the prisoners at Guantanamo (above), which of course mirrors, in its way today, the work that Weil did back then. Haslett even goes so far as to work in a factory, as Weil once did, to experience solidarity with the masses for whom she felt so strongly.

This philosopher said some lovely, true things (What separates us is also our link). But true to her constant contradictions, she also had a death wish. Haslett's movie will undoubtedly set some viewers off to learn more about Weil through her writings, and this is a very good thing. What the movie does most, however, is to reveal how difficult it is to effectively combine your own personal story with that of your biographical subject -- particularly when that subject exerts such a strong pull as does Ms. Weil.

An Encounter With Simone Weil (85 minutes from Line Street Productions) opens this Friday, March 23, at the Quad Cinema in New York City, and perhaps elsewhere soon. Click here to see all currently scheduled screenings -- though most of them listed appear to be in the past rather than the future.

All photos are from the film, except that of Timothy Haslett, 
which comes courtesy of

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