Heal the Living is a French art house drama with decidedly European sensibilities dealing with the touchy subject of organ donation. It is actually three stories in one, based on a novel by Maylis de Kerangal.
Three young surfers leave before dawn on a pilgrimage to the raging sea. They are on their way back home when a car accident leaves one of them, Simon (Gabin Verdet) – a 17-year-old – brain dead, breathing only with the help of a machine. He looks fine, but he is anything but.
The doctor in charge has the onerous task of telling his parents, Marianne (Emmanuelle Seigner) and Vincent (Kool Shen). The couple are still married, but living apart. While they are still trying to take in just what has happened, another medico, Thomas Remige (Tahar Rahim) approaches them. He’s in charge of organ donations, and tells them Simon is a perfect candidate – but the decision is up to them.
Meanwhile, in Paris, a middle aged woman, Claire (Anne Dorval) has a failing heart. Nothing the doctors are doing for her seems to be working. She is put on notice that without a transplant she will die. Separated from her husband for some time and having thrown off a meaningful gay relationship because of her condition, that worsens.
Director and co-writer Katell Quillévéré was captivated by de Kerangal’s book and by its concentration on the scientific, the poetic and the metaphysical. Quillévéré explains that Maylis de Kerangal gracefully moves from one character to another in her novel, exploring the very essence of each, never fearing she will digress from her subject matter.
While such freedom was inherent to the written word, the director’s challenge was to translate that cinematically. Of course the different art form imposes a set of different constraints.
Given the subject matter, as you would expect, the film is moving and exacting. It is a slow burn picture that develops heart and soul as it progresses.
What immediately strikes you is the attention to detail. In amongst the trauma, there are the personal stories of the key and second characters that are touched upon – some developed more than others. Overall, while the film signaled early on where it was heading, what elevated it above the expected was the nuance.
As noted, it unfolds as three stories in one. There are the journeys of Simon and his immediate loved ones; Claire and those dear to her; and the medical teams working tirelessly for the best outcome.
Although most of the performances are heartfelt and profound, at times I wished Heal the Living was less obvious and less lyrical. The film’s impact is however unquestionable. Rated MA, it scores a 7 out of 10.
Director: Katell Quillévéré
Cast: Gabin Verdet, Emmanuelle Seigner, Kool Shen, Anne Dorval
Release Date: 28 September 2017 (limited)
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David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television