Irreplaceable (Médecin de campagne)

France (2016) Dir. Thomas Lilti

It’s a long held aphorism that doctors make the worst patients when they really ought to know better; then again drivers make the worst passengers so maybe it is a control issue. But sometimes even those who are there to help need help themselves but is it pride or fear that is stopping them asking?

Country doctor Jean-Pierre Werner (François Cluzet) has been tending to the people of a rural village for over twenty years and considers himself an irreplaceable member of the community. But when Jean-Pierre is diagnosed with a tumour on the left side of his brain, he refuses treatment and plan to continue with his duties, despite pleas from his friend Dr. Norès (Christophe Odent).

To help ease the workload and hopefully persuade Jean-Pierre to accept treatment, Norès sends Dr. Nathalie Delezia (Marianne Denicourt) to the village, receiving a less than warm welcome from Jean-Pierre. After some tough love, Nathalie proves herself to Jean-Pierre and the locals while Jean-Pierre struggles to face the reality of his own failing health.   

Writer-director Thomas Lilti is a former doctor himself who scored a big domestic hit with his 2014 film Hippocrate, another medical drama, but at least Lilti knows whereof he speaks. I know nothing about Lilti or his work to say if Irreplaceable is autobiographical in anyway but there is a pervasive sense surrounding the characters of Jean-Pierre and Nathalie that suggest some real life influence.

The story itself is standard fare suffused with a rustic charm to keep the developments grounded in some sense of reality, although for a film running less than 100 minutes there is a lot of medical care being dispensed to such a relatively small community. What Lilti has also down in relocate some modern city problems to the countryside which Nathalie is better equipped to handle than Jean-Pierre, both by being a woman and from her exposure to modern teachings.

Jean-Pierre is not a bad man – he is well thought of in the area and clearly knows his job, although true to the stereotype of rural life being behind the times, his mobile phone is the most modern piece of technology at his disposal. The very suggestion by Nathalie to get a computer to log all the patients’ files and medical records is scoffed at as an unnecessary extravagance.

Conversely, we have Nathalie, the townie who has to adapt to being surrounded by mud, chased by dogs and geese and people with closed-minded fears and attitudes. Whilst she wins over most of the locals with her friendly manner and seemingly adventurous but decisive diagnoses – she suggest one lad considered backwards might actually be autistic, shocking his mother – there is one patient that Nathalie and Jean-Pierre clash over.

92 year-old Mr. Sorlin (Guy Faucher) receives round the clock care from his family and friends but it is not enough. On their first meeting, Nathalie suggests it is best for Sorlin to go into hospital but Jean-Pierre resolutely puts his foot down and refuses to even entertain the notion. Later, when Jean-Pierre is out of town for his own check-up and can’t be reached, Nathalie makes the call to have Sorlin hospitalised.

Naturally Jean-Pierre is furious, explaining that he promised Sorlin he wouldn’t put him in a hospital because he knows at that age, he’d never get the proper care and would probably die in there. Nathalie doesn’t understand this personal bond being a newly qualified (mature student) doctor, instead is trained to look at the bigger picture, something some of the locals have trouble acclimatising to.

It’s an interesting if well worn angle to explore in film and TV dramas, especially for those of us living in suburban and metropolitan locations where we may have family doctors but generally, the relationship is professional at best. In a community where the simple life is king and everyone knows else’s business, the doctor is essentially the one horse of the town and becomes much more the denizens than a chap with a stethoscope.

The general thrust of this tale however is Jean-Pierre’s stubbornness in not revealing his own ailments to Nathalie or anyone else – Nathalie finds out via an x-ray of Jean-Pierre following an accident. Jean-Pierre is also frightened of being replaced after twenty years as the local doctor, perhaps not appearing openly threatened by Nathalie but it is clearly a tacit concern.

Yet for someone who is an integral part of a group infrastructure where communication and cooperation are essential, Jean-Pierre is not a convincing team player, preferring the lone wolf role. This is another lesson learned the hard way to give us the feel good ending to a story that was light on heavy drama and conflict in the first place, but thankfully isn’t served with lashings of saccharine.

Don’t take this conventional approach to mean this film is lightweight, it is a fascinating watch especially if you enjoy credible medical speak, which Lilti’s script delivers in spades. He clearly also schooled his two leads in how to perform their duties and recite the complex jargon with conviction and authority and they reward him through their committed performances.

Having most recently played a paraplegic in Untouchable, François Cluzet is mostly on the other side of the net now. In relating Jean-Pierre’s private struggle with his tumour, Cluzet cannily doesn’t go for the sympathy vote; we don’t know what is going through Jean-Pierre’s mind but Cluzet subtly lets us know only what we need to. As forty-something Nathalie, Marianne Denicourt doesn’t arrive as a youthful wind of change with big ideas, making for a unique and robust sparring partner for Jean-Pierre.

The most remarkable thing about Irreplaceable is how relaxed and unthreatening it is given the gravity of the main plot. The rural setting is treated less as a cliché and more as a different world with familiar and relatable problems. This is an easy watch but weighty enough not to feel underwhelming.