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Stephanie Gehring

A Face in Black and Ivory

Julia Haslett's Encounter with Simone Weil.

I first "met" Simone Weil on the cover of Gravity and Grace. Above the title (which was in pencil-thin red letters), there was her name in heavy black, and above that, against a pure ivory backdrop, a nearly abstract face given form by its shadows, stamped in black—the lips, a bit of shadow under the nose, the lashes and one lower lid, the solid irises each with one spot of light, the outline of the round horn glasses. No chin, no eyebrows; no edges to the face, exactly, and the black splotches on the side might conceivably be hair, or they might not.

"Two ways of renouncing material possessions," she wrote:

To give them up with a view to some spiritual advantage.
To conceive of them and feel them as conducive to spiritual well-being (for example, hunger, fatigue, and humiliation cloud the mind and hinder meditation) and yet to renounce them.
Only the second kind of renunciation means nakedness of spirit.

Weil abstracted herself nearly out of existence while she was alive (the black-and-white cover image is true to her in this, and her notebook entries, as above, avoid "I" whenever possible). Given this abstractness, it is striking that she should so often produce a powerfully personal response in those who encounter her words. "She scares me shitless," Stanley Hauerwas has said. "That ferocious intelligence coupled with her self-destructive tendencies." She asks such deep and honest questions; she is compelling. And yet she cannot simply be followed, and so she is terrifying.

Weil was overcome on the one hand by the unspeakable suffering that fills the world, and on the other hand by encounters with the love and the absence of God—and the God she had in mind is the one described by Catholicism. Those of us whose moral imagination has been captured by the young Parisian Jewish woman come to her words and the story of her life asking many different kinds of questions. Filmmaker Julia Haslett comes asking, "How am I to live in a world with such depth of suffering?" More specifically, Haslett wants to know, "How do I live compassionately in such a world without committing suicide? And why?" This is not an academic question; debilitating depression runs in Haslett's family. Her father killed himself when she was in her teens, and one strand in her film, An Encounter with Simone Weil, is a conversation with her older brother, also struggling with suicidal depression.

The film is the story of an extravagant quest, a life-or-death search for Simone Weil. It is Weil's line, "Attention is the rarest form of generosity," that first rivets Haslett. Somehow, she feels, if she can only come to terms with Weil, she will find answers to her questions. She spares no effort: in Paris archives, she watches hours upon hours of film from Communist Party meetings and protests at which Weil (though not a card-carrying member, because the party was insufficiently radical) might have been present. She visits Weil's first cousin Raymonde Weil; her student Jeanne Duchamp; and Florence de Lussy, who is compiling Weil's Oeuvres Complètes in many massive volumes. Haslett interviews her own brother, Timothy, as well as Anna Brown, an activist and political science professor who has been deeply shaped by Weil's life and ideas. She interviews Weil's niece, Sylvie Weil, who has recently written her own book about her aunt, and is said to look just like her. Sylvie speaks of growing up in her aunt's shadow, feeling deeply torn between her own personality, which was nothing like her aunt's, and the towering figure her father (Weil's brother André, an eminent mathematician) so deeply admired. "Really, I wanted to be Brigitte Bardot," she says, laughing.

Still, after all her interviews and reading and archival hunts, Haslett is unable to feel Weil "answering back." As a last expedient, she places an ad in New York City for a francophone actress whose job it will be to attempt to embody Weil. She hires Soraya Broukhim, and has her read Weil's writing and take a job briefly in a factory (as Weil did for a year, in spite of her crushing migraines, abnormally small hands, and the physical clumsiness that led to burns and other injuries). Then Haslett interviews Broukhim, who sits across the table chain-smoking just as Weil would have done. Even this fails to get Haslett any closer to Weil than the mute photographs did.

I felt decidedly furthest from Weil in the scenes with Brouhkim; even Sylvie Weil's non-Simone character (or Weil's cousin Raymonde, in her one-sentence appearance, bristling with dislike for Simone) felt closer to the woman Haslett was seeking. As the camera cut from Haslett, asking the questions, to Broukhim, it was not the actress's face but Haslett's own, elegant and marked by grief and weariness, that resembled the Simone Weil whom I know through photographs and words. Cigarette and curly black hair notwithstanding, Broukhim looked far too undamaged to be Weil. Weil barely consented to inhabit her own body; why would she be findable in an actress's face? This woman does not know the answers to your questions, I wanted to say to the screen. You know them much better yourself. My disappointment was heightened by a wordless shot of Broukhim, wearing eyeliner (which Weil is reported to have done only once in her life, in order to get hired at the Renault factory) and wrinkling her forehead to simulate the pain of a migraine.

One other scene with Broukhim strikingly embodies both the film's seriousness and the ways in which its quest founders. Throughout the film, Haslett reads powerful, resonant sentences from Weil's work; the film would be worth watching just for these lovingly chosen lines, which are convincing evidence that Haslett began her quest by reading everything Weil wrote. (It would also be worth watching for any of the many interviews, in which Haslett has clearly won her interviewees' trust and honesty.) But back to the scene: Near the end of the film, over a beautiful shot of a bare, stone-walled room with sunlight slanting in, Haslett reads, "Two prisoners whose cells adjoin communicate with each other by knocking on the wall. The wall is the thing which separates them but is also their means of communication. It is the same with us and God. Every separation is a link." This I found moving, especially given Haslett's avowed difficulty in identifying with the spiritual dimension in Weil's thought and life. But there is another shot set in the same space, of Broukhim silently leaning her forehead against the wall. That this second shot felt so deeply wrong, so far from Weil, had in part to do with the sense of hearing Weil that I had had in the previous scene.

Given Haslett's family's struggle with suicide, I see how Weil has failed Haslett in providing reasons to stay alive, and it seems entirely right for Haslett (and others) to reject Weil as a role model even while valuing her thought. There is a sense, however, that Haslett's questions finally limit what she is able to see of Weil's life and death. The conclusion that Weil was self-destructive and died of self-starvation is accurate but incomplete. The English coroner wrote in 1943 that "the deceased did slay and kill herself by refusing to eat when the balance of her mind was disturbed." Yes, and interpretations of Weil's death as an act of pure heroic spiritual asceticism are incomplete; but it seems to me that her final months are best understood as a continuation of the deep conflicts she wrestled with throughout her life. She found it conceptually impossible to love the particular, and yet she was helplessly in love with the specific beauties of this world—and with the people of her native land. Her death of tuberculosis and starvation at age 34 was really caused, so one biographer has written, by a broken heart over occupied France.

The strength of the film is in Haslett's honesty, her refusal to pretend to have found answers she hasn't found. Her courage is deeply moving. My disappointment at the failure of her quest finally to encounter a Simone Weil who can answer her questions is a function of the film's capacity to get me to commit to its central arc. Haslett had me asking her questions with her; I wouldn't have been disappointed if the film had not at first convinced me that against all odds, she was going to find Simone Weil.

But Weil is elusive; her writings are largely fragmentary, and almost all were published posthumously. Even people who knew her when she was alive struggled to get her into focus, to see her as more than a collision of black and white shapes. And like many of these people, Haslett is thrown off-balance by the bluntly spiritual questions that motivate Weil's thought. The film's ending suits its subject. Weil was herself a fierce seeker much more than a source of answers.

Stephanie Gehring is studying religion at Duke, writing on beauty as an ethically ordering principle in the life and work of Simone Weil and Käthe Kollwitz.

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