It all starts at daybreak, three young surfers on the raging seas. A few hours later, on the way home, an accident occurs. Now entirely hooked up to life-support in a hospital in Le Havre, Simon’s existence is little more than an illusion. Meanwhile, in Paris, a woman awaits the organ transplant that will give her a new lease on life.
Stories about organ transplants are inherently melodramatic: one person’s tragic death gives another person miraculous life. As a filmmaker, it would be easy to overplay emotion or resort to cliché in the telling of such tales. But Heal the Living, the third feature from young French writer-director Katell Quillevere (Love Like Poison, Suzanne), is such a graceful, compassionate and finely wrought drama that it never for an instant feels mawkishly manipulative.
The film opens as 17-year-old Simon (Gabin Verdet) wakes in bed beside his girlfriend, Juliette (Galatea Bellugi). She opens her eyes to give him a sleepy smile before he disappears out the window into the darkness. He’s on his way to a surfing appointment with two mates. They drive a van along deserted roads and in the blue light of pre-dawn, they launch themselves into the wild ocean. The camera hovers at the waterline, sometimes submerged in white wash before it catches a glimpse of the slick, wet-suited youths. We see Simon stooped on his board, riding through a tunnel of water, and then he’s floating in the depths, eyes open and looking up in wonder at indigo swirls, like dark clouds above him. It’s a scene that’s pure poetry, so full of life and nature and danger. It’s no spoiler to say that Simon’s life will be cut short very soon, and yet there’s no sense of overweening fate at work; just a universe filled with accident and mystery.
"Heal the Living is such a graceful, compassionate and finely wrought drama that it never for an instant feels mawkishly manipulative."
Adapted from Maylis de Kerangal’s internationally acclaimed 2013 novel Réparer les Vivants, the film follows a network of characters affected by Simon’s sudden death. There’s the head of the ER department (Bouli Lannes), a middle-aged doctor bopping along to hip-hop (‘Don’t piss me off’ he sings) as he drives to the hospital where’s he’s gentle but authoritative. There’s the young emergency doctor (Tahir Rahim), who stays sane by watching Youtube nature videos of goldfinches singing; and the weary nurse (Monia Chokri) who sinks into sexy memories while she’s riding the lift to the ground floor for a cigarette break. With almost documentary rigour, the film shows the medical technology and administrative processes (computer records, phone-calls, EEG machines and explicit surgical procedures) that accompany organ transplantation, while always giving humanity to the professionals involved.
Then, of course, there are Simon’s distraught parents (Emmanuelle Seigner and rapper-actor Kool Shen). They’re a mismatched couple who are married but no longer live together. There’s a world of backstory in the almost wordless performances of these two. Seigner especially, is wonderful as the woman dragged from bed to face every mother’s nightmare. With messy hair and puffy eyes, she conscientiously attempts to give the doctors an accurate medical history of her son – skateboarding injuries, mumps and wisdom teeth – as if this might help them save him.
Half way through the film, we transition to a story of another mother in another city. Claire (Anne Dorval, best known from her bravura performance in Xavier Dolan’s Mommy) is fading from degenerative heart disease. She has a close relationship with her two college-age sons, but she’s given up the love of her life (Alice Taglioni) to spare her the pain of dealing with the terminal illness. But in just one piece of subtle symmetry, the tearing apart of the young lovers, Simon and Juliette, means a second chance for this older couple, though through several poetic loops backwards in time, the youthful love story is given weight throughout.
“I’ve always been fascinated to see how brave people are in just living their lives,” Quillevere has said in an interview with Film Comment. Premiering at the Venice Film Festival in 2016, Heal the Living allows each of its characters, no matter how minor, this bravery and dignity. Special mention must be given to composer Alexandre Desplat’s sublime but understated piano score, and Tom Harari’s gliding camera that moves effortlessly between observant realism and some unforgettable moments of lyrical beauty, especially in the transitions between characters and scenes, with a recurring motif of waves and water. Not just another medical drama, Heal the Living is a film of great beauty and sensitivity.
Heal the Living is screening as part of the French Film Festival 2017, and will release theatrically through Sharmill Films later this year.
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