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Olivier Dahan on Simone Veil Biopic ‘Simone, A Woman of the Century’

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Olivier Dahan’s “Simone, A Woman of the Century” completes the trilogy he began with the Edith Piaf biopic “La Vie en Rose,” starring Marion Cotillard, and “Grace of Monaco,” starring Nicole Kidman. Dahan spoke with Variety during the Unifrance Rendezvous in Paris, where the film had its market premiere.

“Simone,” starring Elsa Zylberstein (“Un plus une”) and Rebecca Marder (“Deception”), cuts back and forth across time, as it explores the life of French politician and former President of the European Parliament, Simone Veil (1927-2017), who played a key role in passing abortion legislation in France, protecting rights of prisoners, immigrants, AIDS victims and prostitutes, and preventing torture by French forces during the Algerian war of independence.

Born into a French-Jewish family, Veil’s world view was decisively shaped by the Nazi occupation of France, when much of her family was rounded up by French police and sent to concentration camps, where her mother, father and brother are all thought to have died.

Core underlying themes of “Simone” include the fight against racism and antisemitism, and relative taboo subjects in France, such as the Nazi occupation and the Algerian war.

In a speech at the end of the film, Veil says: “When people trivialize the Shoah as something to be put into perspective, I wonder whether our civilization is not losing its way… We are leading today’s youth along paths of hatred, racism, antisemitism and xenophobia. There are many false prophets in France, Europe and the world today.”

Principal photography was completed in 2019 and post-production was finished in late 2020. The pic’s release has been postponed on three occasions. After initially planning its release on Feb. 22 this year, Warner Bros. has announced that it will be released in October.

Produced by Marvelous Productions (Romain Le Grand, Vivien Aslanian and Marco Pacchioni), and co-produced by France 2 Cinéma and France 3 Cinéma, with the participation of Canal Plus and France Televisions, the biopic will be released in the U.S. by Samuel Goldwyn Films.

Why did you choose to make a film about Simone Veil?
In part it’s because of my own family history. My grandmother, and my father and his brothers, all French Jews born in France, were chased by the French police during the Second World War, but fortunately they avoided being sent to concentration camps. I grew up with that history. That was the first factor which attracted me to this project. At the end, I dedicate the film to my father. My relationship with him was complicated, but I wanted to make the movie for him. Unfortunately he passed away during the editing process and never saw it. It was my only film that he never saw. My grandmother always told me that she never met any Nazis, she was just escaping from the French people at the time. The wounds left from that time still exist in France. I wanted to look at these issues through the character of Simone Veil

I wanted to explore that French way of thinking. That’s why it’s called a “journey through the century” [in the French title “Simone: le voyage du siècle”]. I also wanted to explore issues related to the Algerian war and to health care. I wanted to show Simone Veil as an example of someone who can fight for what they believe in, without making any compromises.

Where did the original idea come from?
The initial proposal to make a film about Simone Veil came from the producers, Romain Le Grand, Vivien Aslanian and Marco Pacchioni. I made it very clear from the outset that I wanted to be free to write what I wanted and choose what I found interesting from her life. I had complete freedom of expression. That is something very important for me, especially given the situation right now in France and the growing menace from right-wing groups and increasing racism. The danger to freedom of expression already existed in 2019, without even talking about the atmosphere resulting from the pandemic. I had almost complete freedom to make “Simone,” but it was something I had to fight for. If I listened to what other people said, the film would be very different. It was the most difficult pic I have ever made. We had a lack of money to do some part of the film and at a personal level, my father was dying. It was very tough. I did my own editing. I wrote the music. It left me exhausted at the end.

You place great importance on having final cut on a picture.
Yes. Cinema is a very conservative medium. I have been fighting for a long time to get my vision across. For my last movie, “Grace of Monaco” I fought with Harvey Weinstein for months to get my cut approved. And it was ultimately all for nothing. All these little fights are a waste of energy and more importantly a waste of life.

How does “Simone” relate to your other films based on the lives of women, like “La Vie en Rose and “Grace of Monaco.”
They form part of a trilogy. The first was about Edith Piaf, an uncompromising artist. The second was about Grace Kelly, an actress who didn’t know how to choose a role – in my version, not in Harvey Weinstein’s version that was released in the U.S. It is about a woman who made wrong choices. I wanted to challenge the image we have of a pretty princess, that’s a big lie.

For “Simone” it’s a film about the transmission of history and the transmission of feelings. The star of the film is not the character. It’s the message that she conveyed. That’s why the film ends with a long speech written by her. I didn’t want to tell everything about her life. I think the deepest respect I can show for that person is to transmit her message clearly.

Has the repeated postponement of the release of the film been caused primarily by the pandemic?
That’s obviously a factor, but I don’t think it’s just because of restrictions that have impacted the theatrical release. It’s also influenced by the political situation. I think the distributor is more comfortable releasing the film after the presidential election in France. I would like an earlier release. I think we should be part of the debate.

What is your next project?
To be honest part of me doesn’t really want to make movies any more. Initially, I didn’t even want to make this film. Cinema always tends to be the same, the same way of telling stories. It’s very rare that a film can escape from that cage. I have worked as a painter since I went to school. Since I finished editing the film, over a year ago, I have dedicated more time to painting and have done some shows. Now I want to do something different. For a long time I have wanted to film a love story in Paris. I’m working on the script, based on a book, but I can’t disclose more details at present. I’m also working on a book, in part a fiction project, because everything is about fiction for me, but not in a classical way.