14th Jul2017

‘Heal the Living’ Blu-ray Review

by Rupert Harvey

Stars: Emmanuelle Seigner, Tahar Rahim, Anne Dorval, Bouli Lanners | Written by Katell Quillévéré, Gilles Taurand | Directed by Katell Quillévéré


This French-Belgian drama initially allures with an opening sequence that sees teenager Simon Limbres (Gabin Verdet) climb out of his girlfriend’s window and head to the beach with his buddies for a pre-dawn surf. It’s a mesmerising sequence with a dreamlike quality, as Simon observes the magnificence of nature from beneath the waves. On the way home, Simon falls asleep in the passenger seat. He will never wake up. And we will not see filmmaking of this quality again for the next 100 minutes.

Simon’s mother, Marianne (Emmanuelle Seigner), arrives at the hospital, to be told that her son is brain-dead. A young doctor, Thomas (Tahar Rahim), explains the rareness of Simon’s condition: he won’t live, but he has a body full of organs which are ripe for donation.

A concurrent story concerns Claire (Anne Dorval), a middle-aged woman suffering from degenerative heart disease. She’s struggling to communicate with her sons and she’s struggling to climb stairs. She feels like a burden on everyone, including her ex-lover, a female pianist who could have offered her a different life.

Beta-blockers on the wane, Claire is told by her surgeon that a heart transplant is the only way she can continue living. The tragedy of young Mr Limbres is about to become the potential saving grace for a woman he never met.

There’s the setup, but what Katell Quillévéré’s film lacks is depth. Argument. Conflict, whether internal or external. Instead, Maylis de Kerangal’s novel (“Mend the Living”) is transplanted into a mid-brow issue movie whose narrative real estate is wasted on cute but irrelevant texture moments – a middle-aged surgeon’s love of rap culture, for example, or a lonely nurse’s elevator-based sexual fantasy. Medical professionals are idiosyncratic, just like the rest of us! Who knew?

Key character relationships are sketched in the most rudimentary way: all setup and no conclusion. How can a movie hope to inspire any discussion of the issues it raises if we never bear witness to the struggle of, say, coming to the decision to donate a child’s organs? Instead, Quillévéré focuses on the periphery. This is sometimes effective – the parents’ silent drive home from the hospital after learning their child won’t wake up, for example. But what starts as profound becomes elusive, which in turn becomes a basic lack of forthrightness – a tendency which has, unfortunately, become an arthouse cliché.

Instead of seeing Marianne and her estranged husband setting aside their differences in order to make the hardest decision of their lives, it’s a conversation had off-screen. Furthermore, the narrative dodges burning issues like the driver’s literal guilt, or survivors’ guilt, or the guilt felt by the parents of the kids who didn’t die, by simply writing them out of the script. There’s nothing wrong with leaving questions unanswered, but at the very least we need the questions.

Then there’s the issue of tone, which is generally mournful in a most tip-toeing way (almost every health worker seems shell-shocked by the situation, as if they’ve seen nothing like it before), with frequent dips into sentimentality. Alexandre Desplat’s tinkly piano score is drippy and dull. And perhaps in part due to its bland, flat TV aesthetic (turning off the lights and making the hospital inconceivably dark won’t cut the cinematic mustard, frankly), some of the more in-your-face sentimental moments are actually laugh-out-loudable: the parents snuggling up bed beside their dead son; or Thomas barking at the surgeons to stop so he can play the sounds of the sea to the brain-dead Simon via an iPod.

As a movie, there is less exploration of its central themes than a solid episode of E.R. or Casualty. Indeed, the most interesting parts of the film are the surgery scenes. The main transplant is unbearably tense. Instructive and visceral, it suits Quillévéré’s coldly functional style. If only similar attention to detail had been shown to the script and the characters. Pun intended: Heal the Living never gets to the heart of the matter.

Extras are limited to a 15-minute interview with the director, and a trailer.

Heal the Living is out on Blu-ray now from Curzon Artificial Eye.


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