"... self-knowledge is impossible and the best one can hope for is selfrevelation."
Simone de Beauvoir. "The Prime of Life." 1960
Over the years Simone de Beauvoir has revealed herself in part in four volumes of memoirs and in books of reflections on old age and death. Photographs of her handsome, turbaned head have been seen across the world, she has spoken openly of her relations with Jean-Paul Sartre and others, such sobriquests as The Beaver and La Grande Sartreuse are familiar to all. Yet she remains remote: the form of self-revelation she has chosen is also deeply self-protective. She is lengthily, and proudly, self-critical, to the point where self-criticism can be taken for self-praise.
Last spring, at the age of 70, Simone de Beauvoir was filmed talking to nine friends, including Sartre. The 110-minute film, "Simone de Beauvoir," directed by Josee Dayan, opened this week in three Paris movie houses. It starts with Simone de Beauvoir telling writer Claude Lanzmann why she agreed to make the film:
"One could say vanity, because I want people to know me: there are many people who haven't read me and will know me through this film. One could also say from a desire for recognition because among those who have read me there are many who are mistaken about me. Those who have not read me are often also mistaken. This film is a way of setting things straight, but the two go together -- vanity and a desire to speak the truth...
"There may be people who will dislike me even more after having seen me. But it seems to me that it will give a more correct picture than the one drawn not only from my books but from the reputation certain critics and journalists have given me."
The result, since Simone de Beauvoir chose both her interlocutors and the subjects they would discuss, is rather like a French intellectual's version of "This Is Your Life"; as discomfiting as the original but lacking its spontaniety.
The film, which is beautifully assembled, came about by chance. Josee Dayan and her collaborator, the actress Malka Ribowska, had been making a TV film on Wagner in Venice and thought of making Beauvoir's "La Femme Rompue" as their next project. They wrote unsuccessfully to Simone de Beauvoir, whose work had never been filmed, then returned to Venice for retakes.
"One day I saw Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir at Florian in the Piazza San Marco," Malka Ribowska says. "I was wearing my Cosima Wagner costume and couldn't approach them, bue I told Josee, who went racing over."
Surprised, Beauvoir agreed to meet the two in Paris and ultimately to write the dialogue for "La Femme Rompue," which was a success on French TV. "She was very moved by the film, she said she was more touched by the character as played by Malka than by the heroine in the book," Josee Dayan says.
From this, Simone de Beauvoir agreed to the documentary, for which she was paid an unspecified sum and which was filmed in 10 eight-hour days, in her apartment and in Sartre's. "Imagine the lucidity -- to be able to talk from 12 to 8 without flagging," Malka Ribowska says.
Talk she does, in rapid, grating tones, with the air of a lady prioress who is subject to novice-like blushes and hints of tears. The scenes with Sartre, with whom she has shared nearly 50 years, are most touching in their formal intimacy (they address each other as vous ), although not especially revealing (they include at least two segments already familiar from De Beauvoir's published memoirs). While De Beauvoir remains expectedly humorless, Sartre is slightly a tease, referring to her at one point as a dme de lettres and getting a predictable rise.
Of this very private woman's personality, little emerges. She confesses that she can be brutal and abrupt, and at the beginning proves hilariously insensitive when she asks Claude Lanzmann, a former lover, what he thought of her.
"When?" he asks desperately, fencing for time. "At first, or later?" "At first and later," she implacably replies. Lanzmann finally asks the camera to stop.
The picture of remoteness is enforced and legitimized: speaking of the causes in which she has been involved, Simone de Beauvoir says, "I gave them support but not very much action because I am, after all, an intellectual."
An intellectual indeed, and, with Sartre, the last example in the West of the intellectual as an international celebrity, as the images of "existentialist" St. Germain des Pres and of meetings with heads of state suggest. It is hard to measure Simone de Beauvoir's eventual place in French literature: possibly she will endure as the representative and chronicler of that murky and deeply important period, I'apres-guerre, most remembered for her picture of French intellectuals at the Liberation in "The Mandarins" and for her 1949 book, "The Second Sex."
"The Second Sex," she explains in the film, came about not because she was a feminist but because she felt, typically, that if she were to continue to write fiction and to begin her own memoirs, she must first make a theoretical study of what it is to be a woman. She only became a feminist fairly recently, long after the book's adoption by the women's movement.
Her intention in writing, Simone de Beauvoir says in the film, has been to speak of her experiences in the hope that they might help others, and to fix these experiences in eternity. She has often written of her lifelong fear of death, but says that this is now past.
Her fear may have passed simply because the old are, mercifully, less frightened by death than the middleaged and young, or it may have passed because, as she says, she reasoned herself out of her anguish and rage: "I cannot be angry at God, in whom I do not believe. I cannot be angry at my cells and my body, which are those of a person of my age. So I have no reason to be enraged."
What she finds unbearable now is the prospects of the death of those close to her: "The death of certain people would deal me a blow that, if not mortal, would make me lose all taste for life." (At the start of her Iiaison with Sartre, she wrote, "I knew no harm could ever come to me from him -- unless he were to die before I did.")
Having written so much about her life, its events are no longer very warm and alive to her, Simone de Beauvoir says. There is little trace of the exalted young woman who lived, as she has said, in a condition of Kantian optimism, where you ought implies you can. Instead, she is resigned.
She used to see life in terms of thunder or light, never gray, she says. "Now it is no longer light and dark, but gray -- often a rose-tinted gray because I still have much pleasure and happiness, but no longer the ups and downs between happiness and despair. One might say that I subside."