Heal The Living (Réparer les vivants)

France/Belgium (2016) Dir. Katell Quillévéré

Some film directors find a niche and stick with it, for better or worse, while others like to expand their creativity from film to film, covering a number of themes, styles and genres. France’s Katell Quillévéré fits in the latter category as her three films thus far have demonstrated.

Her debut Love Like Poison is a religion related coming-of-age tale while her follow-up Suzanne is a multi-decade spanning family drama, neither of which given any indication that her next project would be an adaptation of Maylis de Kerangal’s prize winning novel Mend The Living. It’s a simple and quiet film of extraordinary emotional clout centred on a heart transplant.

Except it isn’t as straight forward as that. The film opens with 17 year-old Simon (Gabin Verdet) waking up in the wee hours to sneak out of his girlfriend Juliet’s (Galatea Bellugi) bedroom to meet his two friends for a surf as dawn breaks. On the way back their car crashes, with Simon catapulted through the windscreen from not wearing a seatbelt and pronounced brain dead at the hospital.

However, the rest of his organs still in full working order, so donor consultant Thomas Rémige (Tahar Rahim) asks Simon’s parents Marianne (Emmanuelle Seigner) and Vincent (Kool Shen) to consider donating his organs to needy patients. Claire Méjean (Anne Dorval) is such a person, on the waiting list for a new heart which she is actually quite frightened of receiving.

There is your plot pretty much in its entirety save for a few minor details, so where is the big selling point you may be asking? Isn’t this just another run-of-the-mill medical drama? Actually, no it isn’t by a long stretch which is the film’s main selling point although it may not be immediately apparent if one does prepare themselves for another run-of-the-mill medical drama.

Something all of Quillévéré’s films have in common is that they don’t follow the normal narrative structure of a three-act storyline; in her films things happen but within a defined framework – Heal The Living is no exception and it works too despite its open defiance against the conventions of the medical drama. The point of this film is really to raise awareness of organ donation and the benefits it has on the lives of others outside one’s own family.

In other words – and forgive me if this reads as a spoiler but it is crucial to share this information as it helps to understand the film’s MO – there is no real drama per se in that Simon’s parents don’t spend half the film resisting the request to donate Simon’s organs while Claire’s cruelly life ebbs away elsewhere across the country. It doesn’t need this narrative because this about the whole procedure from start to finish and the many disparate parties it brings together.

Naturally Claire’s part of the story is called upon to provide most of the emotional traction around which this vital operation is built, but goes to prove it is not just about her. She has two young adult sons (Finnegan Oldfield and Theo Cholbi), one of whom is taking this seriously, the other still letting his mother smoke, that she doesn’t want to say goodbye too but not for her own hurting, but for theirs.  

And if this sounds a bit dreary then think again because Quillévéré is a filmmaker who understands the power of imagery and utilises this is a non-pretentious yet lyrically oneiric way in passing time or setting the mood. Admittedly the opening thirty minutes are a little slow through the unwavering depiction of some of the journeys undertaken, like Simon’s early morning bike ride or his parent’s solemn drive to the hospital, both expertly filmed but arguably tedious.

Eschewing the Hollywood model of shooting the surfing scenes as a face paced thrill ride, Quillévéré instead presents hers as a journey into a magical cave that happens to be in the form of a giant swirling wave, the slow motion movements of the surfers negotiating a pipeline in a dreamlike fashion. Hereafter, water becomes a leitmotif for pain, serenity or simply a whimsical method to segue into another scene; the most effective use is the road very slowly morphing into the sea horizon just moments before the car crash.

By embracing a semi-cinema vérité style in which much of the cast barely appear to be acting, Quillévéré details the lengthy and socially unfriendly process of an organ donation and transplant, from Simon’s parents’ agreement to registering the organs, having a team ready to operate, someone to transport the heart across the country to the hospital where the recipient is about to have her life changed.

We may take all of this for granted but as we see here, no-one, from the surgeons, to the administrators, the nurses and even of the patient, is exempt from having their evening plans disrupted to making this happen. It is all beautifully shot in stark detail and presented in a respectful and credible manner, again belying the fact it is actors who are (presumably) performing these tricky tasks.

Quite often the film will spend prolonged periods without any musical accompaniment and what does break the silence is usually a plaintive solo piano piece from composer Alexandre Desplat that reflects the mood rather than leads it, not forcing the audience to feel compelled to empathise with the melancholy or the anxiety because the music instructs them too. David Bowie’s Five Years Dead however is a peculiar choice to close the film but maybe Quillévéré was a fan paying tribute in the wake of his passing.

It’s hard to define Heal The Living because it achieves so much without seemingly doing anything which is a rare feat to pull off, and unless someone is au fait with this style of cinema they won’t get it. Quillévéré has a unique voice and enjoys challenging herself and her audience but her work needs to be seen to be truly appreciated.