SLIFF 2017 Review – HEAL THE LIVING
HEAL THE LIVING (Reparer les vivants) will screen at Plaza Frontenac Cinema (Lindbergh Blvd. and Clayton Rd, Frontenac, MO 63131) as part of this year’s St. Louis International Film Festival. Showings are Thursday, Nov. 9 at 6:40pm (purchase tickets HERE) and Friday, Nov. 10 at 9:30pm (purchase tickets HERE).
Three narrative threads built around the issue of organ transplantation – parents facing with the accidental death of their teen-aged son, the medical staff of a transplant team, and a middle-aged female musician dying of heart failure – are woven together in French director Katell Quillevere’s medical drama HEAL THE LIVING (Reparer les vivants). This is the third and most polished of her films, her previous works being SUZANNE and LOVE LIKE POISON.
In part, HEAL THE LIVING is a medical procedural, like countless television or movie dramas, but what sets it apart is its fuller emotional portrait of the patients and their families involved in this dramatic story, and its lush cinematic approach to the subject. Thankfully, that cinematic quality is less in the foreground in the surgical scenes, which are handled with taste and a minimum of blood, but it comes to the fore in depicted the rich inner lives of the people involved.
Emmanuel Seigner plays Marianne, a woman who gets the phone call every parent fears, that her 17-year-old son Simon (Gabin Verdet) has been in a car crash and is in the hospital near death. Once the teen is declared brain-dead, the doctors move into a new phase. Tahar Rahim plays Thomas Remige, the sensitive coordinator of organ donations who has the difficult job of talking to Marianne and her estranged husband Vincent (Kool Shen) about organ donation.
Fine acting, stunning photography, and music by Alexandre Desplat support the heart-wrenching emotion at the heart of this skillfully-told medical drama. Quillevere’s drama, which follows the donor and his family, the medical team, and the recipient and her family in turns, is full of emotion – human warmth, unspeakable pain, compassion, longing and loss – and is both beautifully acted and filmed.
The director treats both families with equal measures of care and compassion, but what reveals where her own heart lies on the subject of organ donation is how she depicts the medical staff. HEAL THE LIVING paints an ideal, perhaps idealized, picture of organ donation. The doctors and the staff handling the donation process are caring and sensitive, giving the grieving family the space to make their decision, and even carrying out the parents’ final request during transplant surgery. One can not imagine a more perfect medical experience for both families at that tragic time for one of them. Tahar Rahim as the coordinator who handles organ donation is the very paragon of flawlessly sensitivity to the grieving donor family, even challenging surgeons in the operating room. One hopes that organ donation is always handled with the degree of sensitivity shown in this film.
The moving, striking photography is one of the most unexpected aspects of this film, and is particularly strong in the first segment. That segment opens with handsome 17-year-old Simon climbing out of his girlfriend’s bedroom window, and follows him as he goes on a late-night bicycle tour of his city with friends, and then joins them in early morning surfing. The photography of the waves and water is beautifully shot by Tom Harari, symbolizing life and death, and foreshadowing what is to come. On the way home, the friend who is driving drifts off in a reverie about the ocean, until the devastating car crash jolts him awake.
The director blends the three stories well. Simon’s mother gets the call from the hospital, where her son is in a coma, and contacts her estranged husband. When Simon is declared brain-dead, his distraught parents are asked about organ donation. To give us an emotional breather from this heartbreaking situation, the director shifts the film’s focus then to the medical team, whom we follow as they go about their work, a segment that includes little touches to humanize them as well.
A third theme is added when we switch to the story of Claire (Anne Dorval), a successful musician who is facing heart-failure in middle-age. Her illness has forced her to stop working but she is coping with emotional support from her two caring college-aged sons, and a lover with whom she re-connects. Still, she is conflicted about her diagnosis and the prospect of going on the waiting list for a heart.
The acting and character development are strong, adding greatly to the emotionally power and individuality of the personal stories involved. Dorval, as the conflicted musician, is particularly strong, but all the cast are good.
The dedication of the film suggests a personal reason the director aims to promote the idea of organ donation, and to reassure and encourage donors, by painting as rosy a picture of the doctors and the process as possible. There are always more people waiting for organs than donor organs available. Whether the process is always as ideal as depicted in this drama is another matter but you have to give the director credit for making a touching, moving and cinematic film from a subject that has been handled with far less style, or compassion for donor families, in the past. It would be nice if HEAL THE LIVING became a guideline for medical personnel to handle the donors’ families with as much compassion and human gentleness as shown in this film.