Simone Weil: Notes on a Timid Cinema

By Anat Pick


“May I disappear in order that those things that I see may become perfect in their beauty from the very fact that they are no longer things that I see.” – Simone Weil

How to show someone who was so modest that they left no trace behind? A woman dead at 34 in an ugly English town she did not know. The forces of gravity, she claimed, determine all earthly movement. Everything travels resolutely downward. Only the miracle of grace pulls us up, confounding, if only for a moment, the mighty laws of physics.

Simone Weil was born in Paris in 1909 and died in Ashford, Kent in 1943. We have been following the barely tangible leads of her case for a film and for a little while: from Paris, to London, Kent and back again. Passing from location to location, we begin to understand that cinema’s urge to show is here confronted by a single-minded timidity which, if this film tries to force it into the light, will be fouled and distorted.

A chance meeting: “we want everything which has a value to be eternal. Now everything which has a value is the product of a meeting, lasts throughout this meeting and ceases when those things which met are separated […] Meditation on chance which led to the meeting of my father and mother is even more salutary than meditation on death.”[1] Cinema is such a fleeting meeting point between persons, a point of absolute intimacy and distance.

belleville-an-uprooted-city.jpgBelleville, an uprooted city

Love is elsewhere, as the cinephile knows. “To love purely is to consent to distance, it is to adore the distance between ourselves and that which we love.”[2] Cinema must therefore accept this detachment and this distance. Instead of looking for her, it will go digging for refusals: all the places that deny her presence and from which she remains so stubbornly absent. Contrary to Stan Brakhage, who says film must “keep it personal,” cinema, like other arts, strives for anonymity. At its best cinema is self-forgetful. Always attentive, never expressive. Film ought to be very precisely local, but not personal, because personality itself has nothing to do with beauty or with truth.

INT. Gare du Nord, Paris, Eurostar terminal.

We pull into the station. The hardworking engines sigh and let us off and we arch our necks to study the solid shapes of the old steelworks. Inside, populations in transit and the insidious stench of railway food. Tourists flounder by the cash machine. Gypsies hover at the Metro tills. Body after body of commuters presses through the turnstiles. Twenty-first century Paris is like any other major city, an uprooted hub of splendour and gloom. Our journey from London to Paris is the one that Weil never made. I fear the absence of traces impinging on us like boredom.


On the Rue de Rennes, the woman at the desk is on the phone. Complaining about “une grippe phénoménale,” she pushes a visitors’ card our way. Thin as certain insects, with a slightly charred look, the hotelier cuts a stricken figure. She has cropped bleached hair and nicotine eyes. An array of Brazilian wristbands, green, gold and blue, crawl up her arm like ivy. Still on the phone she hands us the room key and puts up two fingers to send us to the second floor. We begin our investigation by way of a detour. At the Fondation Cartier, David Lynch’s exhibition The Air is On Fire is in its final days. We continue to where we know she is not. At Montparnasse cemetery, Simone de Beauvoir, Weil’s fellow student at the École Normale Supérieure, lies alongside Jean-Paul Sartre, in eternal monogamy at last. We stop by the grave of Henri Langlois, co-founder of the Cinémathèque Française. The stone is a cinema screen. There is Louise Brooks, and there too is Clarke Gable.

We follow Weil up the Blvd. Saint Michel, sniff around Lycée Henri IV, and are quickly shown the door by the caretaker who shrugs at the sound of her name. We skip the ENS and have our morning coffee at a local bar filled with pensioners. They are drinking beer and rosé at 10:30am. Of her birthplace near the Gare de L’Est nothing survived. Even the street name has changed: it is now Rue de Metz.

henri-langlois-grave.jpgHenri Langlois's grave

From Marseille in 1942, Weil left for New York via Casablanca, and finally London. In a rented room in Holland Park she pined for France. But the pain was logical, part of her network of ideas. She hassled de Gaulle’s people, the Free French, to smuggle her back into occupied France, preferably by parachute. They would not heed to her bizarre requests. They had little time or sympathy for her refusal to accept her fate: she was safe in London, while France had fallen to the Germans. At the Free French offices on Hill Street, Weil was increasingly unhappy. She refused to eat more than the rations available to her occupied compatriots. Starved, tubercular, dejected, she was slowly disappearing. In the end she asked to be moved from Middlesex hospital in Tottenham Court Road to the Kent countryside. There she died a week later. Neither suicide nor anorexia, hers was an act of supreme detachment, what she elsewhere called “decreation.”

So we head down to Ashford.

The Ashford Borough Council website provides the following information: “Simone Weil, the French authoress and philosopher, died in Grosvenor Sanatorium, Ashford, in 1943, and is buried in Bybrook Cemetery. Her vintager’s (grape-gatherer) hat was presented to Ashford Borough Council by Monsieur Eugène Fleuré, a member of the Association for the Study of the Thoughts of Simone Weil, during the official naming of Simone Weil Avenue in Ashford on Friday, 8th July, 1983. The hat is now on permanent display at the Civic Centre in Tannery Lane.”

gare-du-nord.jpgGare du Nord

In November 1994, Ashford International Became southern England’s main point of contact with the Continent, directly linking London with Paris, as well as further north with Lille and Brussels. Simone’s Weil’s resting place would in time transform itself into an international thoroughfare. It is tempting perhaps to imagine that it was by the sheer power of longing that the tunnel was built, but the dream is far inferior to the truth: that it was by mere coincidence.  

Today all that remains of Weil apart from the little gravestone at the rear of the cemetery is a dual carriageway bearing her name. On Simone Weil Avenue, the Ashford International Hotel boasts “177 spacious bedrooms each with a contemporary feel, yet with traditional touches.” Duller even than the M25, Simone Weil Avenue is truly without distinction, a conductor of brave new materials: the moneymen and women who slide slickly to and fro in an economy as supple as a whore. Weil, who so eloquently warned against the dangers of uprootedness, against the vast fluid networks of global capital, now lends her name to the road on which the greedy sleep.

Loneliness, unlike solitude, is anything but quiet. A traffic tunnel at night. The side-lit hollow runs right through the belly of the greedy as they lie in their rented beds and wait for sleep. Its sound is that of engines in drilling frenzy, rushing through the cavernous stomachs to the other side of sleep.

simone-weil.jpgSimone Weil

For this reason the second rate motorway that is Simone Weil Avenue is appropriate beyond intention. If it hadn’t been so awkward, it would have been almost innocent. Misconceived and ignorant, it is a most fitting memorial for Weil. She remains outside it, unfettered by the commemorative chains of the museum, or even of the artwork. The hotel on Simone Weil Avenue has never heard of her. The travellers and businessmen who drive along the road spare her not a thought. They haven’t the time or the inclination. And so the freeway stays free. A gateway and nothing more. It is a wonder someone thought to name a road after her. Who were they, and what did they know of her? Or was this a case of a road without a name, a municipal emergency? Who knows. Weil only spent one week in Kent, and that too by sheer misfortune. And now her grape-picker’s hat is there, and a freeway, and a grave. An assortment of trifles.

“To lose someone: we suffer because the departed, the absent, has become something imaginary and unreal. But our desire for him is not imaginary. We have to go down into ourselves to the abode of the desire which is not imaginary. Hunger: we imagine kinds of food, but the hunger itself is real: we have to fasten on to the hunger. The absence of the dead person is imaginary, but his absence is very real: henceforth it is his way of appearing.”[3]

A timid cinema is a cinema of disappearance, where the missing stay hidden and the places they once inhabited bear no trace. It is a mundane cinema – a cinema of locations, not of faces. A landscape piece rather than a portrait. Seeing the landscape for her, as it is when she is no longer here.


[1] Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace, Emma Crawford and Mario von der Ruhr trans. (London: Routledge: p.107).
[2] Gravity and Grace, p.65.
[3] Gravity and Grace, p.23.

Anat Pick lives and writes in London. She teaches film at the University of East London. “Timid Cinema” is an excerpt from a film Anat is writing about Simone Weil, called Simone Weil: Last Days of Grace.