‘Simone: Woman of the Century’ Review: An Admired Leader in Focus

In “Simone: Woman of the Century,” the director Olivier Dahan applies the same ultra-glossy lacquer he lavished on biopics of Edith Piaf (“La Vie en Rose”) and Grace Kelly (“Grace of Monaco”) to the life of the French politician Simone Veil (1927-2017), a Holocaust survivor who, as health minister, fought for the legalization of abortion in France and who later served as the first female president of the European Parliament.

Veil’s remarkable, decades-spanning career — which also included advocacy for the rights of Algerian prisoners and for patients with H.I.V., at times when both were shunned — calls for a grand canvas. Dahan’s default mode is closer to bombast.

Early on, in a sequence set on the brink of the abortion law’s passage in 1974, he supplies a lengthy montage of male legislators shouting invective in close-up. Later, in this decidedly nonchronological film, Veil’s internment at Bergen-Belsen becomes an occasion for Dahan to execute a virtuoso Steadicam shot through the barracks. No matter how grave the situation, “Simone: Woman of the Century” treats it as spectacle.

Veil is played at different ages by Rebecca Marder and Elsa Zylberstein. Timeline-wise, the actresses switch sometime around the upheaval of May 1968, although the complicated, at times barely motivated flashback structure means that they are in effect coleads throughout.

Dahan, who also wrote the screenplay, provides a serviceable overview of Veil’s accomplishments and ethical sense (partly shaped by her experiences in the camps), and of the barriers she overcame in misogynistic civic spheres. But her biography deserved a more considered treatment — and a considerably less heavy hand.

Simone: Woman of the Century
Not rated. In French, with subtitles. Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes. In theaters.

Simone: Woman of the Century

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