Director: Katell Quillévéré
Cast: Tahar Rahim, Emmanuelle Seigner, Anne Dorval, Bouli Lanners, Gabin Verdet
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The third feature from French director Katell Quillévéré (Love Like Poison, Suzanne), Heal the Living is an ensemble drama that may initially provoke some concern for anyone with traumatic memories of ‘we are all connected’ genre of films that had a notable resurgence last decade. Fear not, though, for this is no Crash, Babel or 360, much of which is down to an aversion to any grand ‘really-makes-you-think’ thematic statement, as well as Quillévéré’s authentically humane streak that runs throughout.
Working with her starriest cast to date, the director’s adaptation of Maylis de Kerangal’s novel, Réparer les vivants, scatters a number of top French and Québécoise names alongside some impressive rising talent. Making his film debut, young actor Gavin Verdet proves the most crucial component of the cast, despite relatively little screen time, thanks to the nature of his part. He is Simon, a 17-year-old we follow for the film’s opening 10 minutes or so. In the striking, largely wordless stretch, cinematographer Tom Harari’s gliding camera follows the heavily tattooed teen from a secret visit to his girlfriend’s bedroom to a late-night bicycle trip through his hometown, on the way to an early-morning surfing session with two friends.
We’re then treated to a majestic surfing sequence. It’s a patient couple of minutes, where the viewer is encouraged to linger in the beauty of the momentary details, as opposed to any narrative drive. It’s a chance to meditate in a dreamlike state, which extends to one of the boys, driving the group home afterwards, having his view of the road ahead morph into a vision of the rippling water they’ve just experienced. It is after this point that urgency, and the narrative proper, rear their head, as the driver’s half-dreaming leads to a crash that sends a seatbelt-free Simon hurling through the vehicle’s windshield. The ultimate purpose of the opening then becomes clear: to convey a sense of a soul now swiftly taken away.
Simon is technically alive after the accident – but barely, only through the assistance of machines, and left brain-dead with no hope of recovery. His parents (Emmanuelle Seigner and Kool Shen) are devastated, but must quickly make a decision regarding organ donation proposed by two doctors (Tahar Rahim and Bouli Lanners) treating their son.
So far, so ER or Casualty, but Quillévéré differentiates her perhaps stock-sounding medical drama story by transforming it into a symphony about suffering and love, treating us to vignettes regarding those connected to both Simon and the process concerning the eventual donation of his heart. These include a tender flashback involving Simon and his girlfriend; his parents debating what to do after initial opposition to the doctors’ proposal; Simon’s nurse experiencing a carnal hallucination, after a rough day dealing with the case; far-away medical staff arranging the assignment of organs to patients on waiting lists across the country; and, in a strand that takes up most of the film’s second half, time spent with the eventual recipient of Simon’s heart, played by Xavier Dolan favourite Anne Dorval, as well as her children and an ex-lover she mournfully makes peace with.
Through all these glimpses into the inner lives of everyone related to this one young man’s passing, however fleeting they may be, Quillévéré avoids any feeling of manufactured tear-jerking, because three-dimensional human beings are always at the forefront of her filmmaking, rather than plot contrivances. She is ably supported by the aforementioned Tom Harari, composer Alexandre Desplat and her excellent cast in forming a graceful ode to loss and hope. It all leads to a stirring final shot and closing credits needle drop, the latter of which happens to be one of the great musical odes to loss and hope by one of the many irreplaceable artists the world lost last year – as if the preceding 90-odd minutes hadn’t been enough of a hit to the heart.