Heal the Living *** ½ / *****
Directed by: Katell Quillévéré.
Written by: Katell Quillévéré & Gilles Taurand based on the novel by Maylis De Kerangal.
Starring: Tahar Rahim (Thomas Rémige), Emmanuelle Seigner (Marianne), Anne Dorval (Claire Méjean), Bouli Lanners (Docteur Pierre Révol), Kool Shen (Vincent), Monia Chokri (Jeanne), Alice Taglioni (Anne Guérande), Gabin Verdet (Simon), Galatea Bellugi (Juliette), Karim Leklou (Virgilio Breva), Finnegan Oldfield (Maxime), Théo Cholbi (Sam), Alice de Lencquesaing (Alice Harfang).
If I told you that Heal the Living is a medical melodrama – about a young man in a coma and how his accident effects the doctors, his parents, the organ donation coordinator, the person who receives his heart, and her family, you may well be able to guess what happens in the film. The events in Heal the Living are fairly standard in terms of melodramas of this sort – and the film is undeniably, and unapologetically, a melodrama. Yet, it’s a melodrama in a lower key than we normally see – a film that takes its story and its implications rather seriously, and doesn’t have the drama go at a fever pitch. The film is what Roger Ebert used to call a hyperlink movie – where you click on one character, and see their world expand, and the connections to other characters. It starts with the young man himself – sneaking out of his girlfriend’s bedroom late at night, and skate boarding down to meet his friends for a carefree morning of surfing. It’s on the way back when a car accident happens – director Katell Quillevere doesn’t show the accident, but instead shows a giant wave coming at the car – disaster looming in plain sight.
From there, the movie expands – the doctor who tries to save the young man, but knows it is hopeless – all he can do is keep him alive on machines in the hopes that his organs can be used to save others. The organ donor coordinator (Tahar Rahim), who has to talk to the grieving parents, and hope they will grant permission. Those parents (Emmanuelle Seigner and Kool Shen), a separated couple brought back together by their shared grief. Flashbacks show the sweet romance the young man (Gavin Verdet) had with the girlfriend we only saw briefly at the beginning of the film (Galatea Bellugi). We then move to Claire (Anne Dorval), a musician with a failing heart, who reconnects with an old lover (Alice Taglioni), while also dealing with her two grown sons (Finnegan Oldfield and Theo Cholbi) who have different reactions to their mother’s condition. We know how this story – at first unconnected to the rest – will eventually intersect with everyone else. And that’s just a few of the characters Quillevere will focus her camera on during the course of the film – although everyone she does, even if only for a scene or two, become real people, with inner lives of their own.
The film glides effortlessly through these characters and their stories in a way that feels natural. Stylistically, the film can be quite bold at times – the opening sequence has both the feeling or freedom and melancholy for example, and when it comes time for the medical procedures, Quillevere doesn’t turn her camera away. The surgery scenes are not bloody in a horror movie shock way, but in a way that recognizes the blood that is inevitable, and the intricacies of the proceedings. She finds even quiet, touching moments here though – like when Rahim tells the surgeons to stop for a minute before proceeding, so he can place ear buds in the young man’s ear – playing a song handpicked by his girlfriend. Music plays a big role in the film – the great Alexandre Desplat provides a wonderful score, underscoring the powerful emotional moments, without overdoing it, a central performance piece when Alice Taglioni plays a beautiful, complex piece on the piano – unaware that her lover is watching for the audience, and the final moments, when Quillevere plays David Bowie’s Five Years – a beautiful, poignant way to end the film, made more so by the recentness of Bowie’s own death. The cast is uniformly excellent – my favorite perhaps being the great Anne Dorval – frequent muse of Xavier Dolan – as the woman preparing for her own death, which she knows could happen at any time.
The movie marks Quillevere as a director to watch for – it isn’t her first film, but it’s the first of hers I have seen, and will hopefully find the audience it deserves. Perhaps the predictably of the narrative hurts it just a little bit, but Quillevere nails the tone – hopeful and melancholy at the same time. Melodrama is often looked down upon as a genre – to a certain extent, I get that, as overblown melodrama can be painful to watch. But when a film is as sensitive and intimate as Heal the Living, I don’t mind it at all.
Note: I saw this film at TIFF 2016, and am posting this as Film Comment listed April 14 as its release date. As far as I know, the same version I saw is the one being released.