The heart is both a life-giving blood pump and a highly symbolic organ in Heal the Living (Reparer les vivants), the ambitious third film from French writer-director Katell Quillevere. This adaptation of Maylis de Kerangal’s novel Mend the Living is a bipartite drama that first looks at the death of a surf-loving teenager and, then, the 50-year-old former musician and mother of two who is waiting for a heart transplant. Like Quillevere’s second feature, Suzanne, this is a sprawling narrative, though now instead of a handful of characters followed over several decades, we get a huge cast that experiences a rather turbulent couple of days as the unexpected death of one character makes the continuation of life a reality for another.
Though the film’s two halves aren’t equally as strong, with the second half lacking some of the complexity and breathtaking sweep of part one, this is an impressive step up for Quillevere. With a uniformly excellent cast chock-full of Francophone name actors — including Tahar Rahim, Emmanuelle Seigner, Anne Dorval, Bouli Lanners, Kool Shen, Alice Taglioni and Dominique Blanc — as well as the audience’s familiarity with the 2014 best-seller (also shortlisted for the Booker Prize), this should do well at home, where it’ll open in November. Art house pickups elsewhere are likely, with the film’s festival life starting as a Venice Horizons and Toronto Platform title.
With a skin not unfamiliar with pimples, blond streaks in his hair and a shoulder tattoo that extends to his scrawny chest, Simon (Gabin Verdet) looks like he’ll grow into a California surfer dude look-alike in a couple of years. But that’s not to be: After the Lyon teenager has gone riding some waves with his buddies, they end up in a car accident that leaves him brain-dead. His parents (Emmanuelle Seigner, Kool Shen), married but living separately, have — very understandably — a hard time accepting the loss of their child. Indeed, the initial reaction of Simon’s dad, when a hospital specialist (Rahim) suggests thinking about organ donation, is to angrily leave the room.
People grappling with the death of a loved one in a hospital is perhaps one of the most cliched staples of modern drama but Quillevere, who wrote the adaptation with Gilles Taurand, avoids facile melodrama without relying on the mannerisms of slow or more extreme art house fare. The fact that there is no clear protagonist — except, perhaps, Simon’s heart — means that the film feels more coolly observational than really lived in, with the audience identifying more with the characters’ plights and situations than with who they really are as people, since they all only have a handful of scenes. But that also means that there’s more time for audiences to ruminate over many of the concepts connected to life, love and death that the film explores as well.
The most expansive part is the first half, which looks not only at Simon, first seen caressing his girlfriend, Juliette (Galatea Bellugi), in bed before jumping out of her window and onto his bike, but also his separated parents and a handful of characters that are touched by what his post-accident condition sets in motion: Rahim’s Thomas is an organ transplantation coordinator obsessed with goldfinches while, at the same hospital, Pierre (Lanners, effectively cast against type) is a rap-loving surgeon and nurse Jeanne (Monia Chokri, from Heartbeats) is overworked and in love.
Precision writing and editing (the latter courtesy of Thomas Marchand), as well as an impressive grasp of the power of mise-en-scene, come together to deliver resonant scenes even if we don’t know the characters very well. After having heard the news, Simon’s welder father returns to work and puts on ear defenders to block out the noise; his mother, sitting nearby watching her husband, does the same. It’s a short and seemingly simple scene without dialogue but it speaks volumes about how the duo may be separated as a couple and want to block out everything around them, but also how they are both, with their ungainly headgear, going through something very similar.
This scene segues to the film’s only flashback, which shows the first time Simon musters the courage to talk to his schoolmate Juliette and, when she hops onto a funicular to go home, he bikes uphill like a madman to meet her on top. Without overdoing it, the message is clear: Juliette almost literally sends his heart racing. Quillevere then cuts from the teenagers’ ebullient kissing to a frontal shot of the ashen-faced parents together in their car, subliminally suggesting not only that they’re thinking about their son’s young life being cut short but also what might have made them love each other as a couple long ago, a memory that might help them get through this together. And, except for the teens’ awkward first conversation, played to perfection by Verdet and Bellugi, all of this is suggested without much dialogue but with the constant accompaniment of Alexandre Desplat’s expressive, piano-driven score, which here pulsates with life even as it contains shades of melancholy.
The film’s second half, which focuses on Claire (Dorval, from Mommy), the mother of two children of university age (Finnegan Oldfield, Theo Cholbi) who has a degenerative heart condition, feels more linear and intimate, with the director paying precise attention to the clinical details of the operations to the detriment of the section’s secondary characters, a host of surgeons (Karim Leklou, Alice de Lencquesaing, Dominique Blanc) that never really registers beyond their profession.
Despite the fact it is clear that both Claire and her sons keep secrets from each other, for either their own or the others’ (perceived) benefit, this second part (extrapolated from the novel, where Claire was a barely sketched character) never grows as complex as part one. Crucially, it also lacks the earlier directorial flourishes — the funicular flashback; Simon feeling on top of the world riding within a wave; the road of the accident transforming into the ocean — that made part one really sing. That said, the film’s insistence on documentary-like precision concerning the heart transplant does beautifully underline the idea that everything that the characters experience in part one (and, thus, in life) can possibly be extended through the procedures so minutely detailed in part two.
Production companies: Les Films du Bellier, Les Films Pelleas, Mars Films, Jouror, CN5 Productions, Ezekiel Film Production, Frakas Productions
Cast: Tahar Rahim, Emmanuelle Seigner, Anne Dorval, Bouli Lanners, Kool Shen, Monia Chokri, Alice Taglioni, Karim Leklou, Alice de Lencquesaing, Finnegan Oldfield, Theo Cholbi, Gabin Verdet, Dominique Blanc, Galatea Bellugi
Director: Katell Quillevere
Screenplay: Katell Quillevere, Gilles Taurand, based on the novel by Maylis de Kerangal
Producers: David Thion, Justin Taurand, Philippe Martin
Co-producers: Jean-Yves Roubin, Cassandre Warnauts
Director of photography: Tom Harari
Production designer: Dan Bevan
Costume designer: Isabelle Pannetier
Editor: Thomas Marchand
Music: Alexandre Desplat
Casting: Sarah Teper, Leila Fournier, Elise Vogel
Sales: Films Distribution
No rating, 104 minutes