This is the third feature by the French auteur Katell Quillévéré. It’s adapted from a novel by Maylis De Kerangal and the screenplay is by the director and the highly-experienced Gilles Taurand. I’d seen and enjoyed Ms Quillévéré’s first two features, Love Like Poison (2010) and Suzanne (2013), and I was keen to see the third, although I knew it would be difficult for me to watch hospital scenes in an operating theatre (I’m very squeamish). The title is ‘bald’ in its meaning – to save lives by using the vital organs of healthy people who have died in accidents.
The film is unusual in taking an emotional subject and structuring the narrative in such a way as to possibly slightly distance the audience. I have to be circumspect here since I watched the last section of the film through my fingers. In the first part of the narrative we follow three young men obsessed with surfing. They drive out to a beach near the port of Le Havre very early one morning and enjoy an exhilarating session, but as they drive back there is a tragic accident and 17 year-old Simon is seriously injured. This opening sequence is almost dialogue free and it really is a tour de force. Simon’s parents are summoned to the hospital and it is the task of Dr. Thomas Rémige (Tahar Rahim) to explain to the distraught parents that Simon is actually ‘brain dead’ and that they might consider donating his organs. Meanwhile in Paris, Claire (French-Canadian actor Anne Dorval) is told that her weak heart is failing and that she needs a transplant. I don’t think I’m spoiling the narrative to then reveal that the third and last section brings the other two strands together.
What is unusual is that Katell Quillévéré has decided to present the film almost like an observational ‘day in the life’ documentary. Although Tahar Rahim is top-billed as the ‘star’ of the film, he is only on screen for a short time. This is an ‘ensemble film’, so Quillévéré gives us a number of other characters, each of whom plays a small part in the overall story, but each of whom is in a sense ‘humanised’ in what is a highly-organised medical process. These characters include Simon’s girlfriend and the newly-appointed nurse who looks after him on the life support system, Claire’s doctor in Paris and her two grown-up sons, her ex-lover etc. and in the final section, the two junior doctors (?) who accompany the heart on its journey from Le Havre to Paris and contribute to the surgery team.
It is a brave move to play down all the possibilities of a family melodrama and not to invoke any genre touches in presenting such an emotional story. Reading reader’s comments on the best-selling novel that forms the source material, I learned that the film’s title comes from a line in Chekhov’s play Platonov (1878): “Bury the dead and repair the living”. The novel in French has been translated twice in English (for UK/Canada as Mend the Living and in the US as The Heart). I think the film’s English title is clever in referring to ‘healing’ rather than the more prosaic ‘mending’, although on second thoughts, ‘mend’ is an interesting term too. I’m intrigued that a few literary reviewers referred to the ‘straight to video’ or ‘movie of the week’ material of the narrative and commented on how the literary style ‘lifted’ the material. I thought of emotional drama/melodrama, but putting down such stories as implied by the comments above reeks a bit of snobbery, I think. I would have to agree, however, that it is Katell Quillévéré’s sheer skill in her staging of events and direction of her ensemble cast, all of whom are very good, that makes this such an accomplished film. Despite its ‘documentary/procedural’ feel, she also offers us at least two moments of fantasy that are beautiful to watch and work very well in the presentation of the story. The cinematography and editing are particularly good. The score is by Alexandre Desplat and it complements the editing and provides an emotional base for the narrative. The novel emphasises that all the events are contained in a 24 hour period. The film doesn’t explicitly state this (and I didn’t think about it) but there is always a sense of ‘controlled urgency’.
Heal the Living didn’t get much of a cinema distribution in the UK and even where it was available, not much of an audience. That’s a shame. I think Katell Quillévéré is a real talent. I’m not sure this is my kind of story but I was still engaged throughout and very impressed by how it is presented. If you are a fan of such stories I urge you to seek it out. (It’s on Curzon Home Cinema and no doubt other outlets.)
Here is an example of auteurist cinema which justifies the French approach to nurturing young talent. After a series of short films over a period of six years Katell Quillévéré (then aged 30) directed this, her first feature, in 2010. Written with Mariette Désert, the film features a riveting performance by Clara Augarde as a 14 year-old girl at a crucial moment in her young life. Winning the Prix Jean Vigo after a Cannes screening for Un poison violent, Quillévéré and Désert went on to make Suzanne in 2013, this time achieving several César nominations. Successful careers have been established with the hurdle of the ‘second feature’ having been cleared to acclaim.
Both the films appear to have had UK releases which I missed and I’m grateful to BBC2 for a late night screening of Un poison violent which I recorded. An auteurist film in this context means a feature which receives funding support from a range of French public funding bodies. In this case a budget of €2.32 million was put together by the independent production company Les Films du Bélier with pre-sales and co-production investment from Arte France Cinéma, pre-sales from Canal + and Ciné Cinéma, and backing from the Brittany and Pays de la Loire regional funds (details from Cineuropa). Similar deals in the UK for first time writer-directors would probably mean a much smaller budget and the need to focus on a genre narrative of some sort. Un poison violent is arguably a ‘coming of age’ story but the approach is much more about character than narrative drive.
The film’s title derives from a Serge Gainsbourg song (from a soundtrack album Anna with Jean-Claude Brialy in 1967) and Katell Quillévéré chose to make the connection because:
“. . . . a Serge Gainsbourg song, [which] uses this expression to define love. In a more profound way, to me it refers to everything that makes us feel like we’re alive, including things that can make us suffer. It’s a contradictory impulse that guides our relation to the world. For Anna, the heroine, the “poison” is in relation to the freedom she is going to experience, which is inherently a form of solitude.” (See the interview on the Artificial Eye website for the UK DVD)
Anna starts her summer holidays, returning to a family house in Brittany from a Catholic boarding school where she has been sent because her parents are in the process of splitting up. Her mother is in the house alongside her father-in-law, Anna’s grandfather, and an older couple whose relationship to Anna is less clear. In this ‘bourgeois provincial family’ (the director’s description) Anna’s mother has turned to her beliefs and to a young local priest (an interesting performance by Italian actor Stefano Cassetti ‘cast against type’). Anna herself is due to be confirmed and the film narrative begins in the local church. I was surprised to be shown a packed church with some glorious choral singing – far too beautiful a sound for any church service I’ve ever witnessed! In fact music of all kinds (mainly folk music) plays a major role in the film alongside excellent camerawork (Tom Harari, another young filmmaker on one of his first feature film jobs) and use of landscape and mise en scène.
The ‘poison of freedom’ quoted by Quillévéré manifests itself in Anna’s emotional reaction to her parents’ separation and the expectation of her commitment to Christ and the Catholic church. She struggles with how she feels and is drawn into two contrasting relationships – one is with her elderly grandfather, a wonderful old rogue played by the comic actor Michel Galabru and the other with a local boy Pierre. These are healthy relationships in which Anna is introduced to all kinds of pleasures which are probably not what the church might approve of for confirmation candidates. However, the use of music and camerawork/mise en scène suggests that Anna feels an erotic surge in church as much as with her two companions – she faints twice during formal services. The scenes with Grandpa and with Pierre work very well because of their sense of realism. Michel Galabru was in his late 80s when he took the role and Youen Leboulanger-Gourvil as Pierre is shorter than Anna – creating that familiar couple of young teenagers in which the girl is more fully developed. Katell Quillévéré again on how she cast the film:
“I wanted earthy people, not ‘models’. The religious theme called for bodies that personified their character powerfully, otherwise the film’s stance would seem redundant. I only chose actors having a body filled with life and sexual energy, for that is precisely what the Catholic religion tries to smother, and something that a camera will immediately capture.” (DVD interview)
Clara Augarde as Anna was also a non-professional actor at this point. She plays the role so wonderfully mixing a genuine sense of innocence with a maturity that suggests she knows what is happening in terms of her developing sexuality and desire that I confess to perhaps neglecting some of the other cast members in focusing entirely on what happens to her. Quillévéré argues that the film is also about the family and that sometimes Anna’s story must make way for an exploration of what is happening to her mother (played by the Portuguese actor Lio), the young priest and her grandfather (who faces his own death as he relishes Anna’s journey of self-discovery).
The director discusses her story in terms of other “pious young women” (the interviewer’s term) in French film and literature, stating that she loves the heroines of Georges Bataille. The interviewer suggests that this interest in religion and desire is unusual in ‘young French cinema’ (i.e. among younger filmmakers). I certainly can’t remember too many recent French films like Un poison violent and I found it a riveting watch. I’m surprised it didn’t make more of an impact in the UK or North America.
UK trailer (with Radiohead’s ‘Creep’ – in a choral version):