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CANNES — The doctor is in, but he’s neither motivated, competent nor altogether sober. That’s at least the diagnosis in Hippocrates (Hippocrate), a darkly comic, socially potent portrait of a Paris hospital as seen through the eyes of a young intern making his very first rounds.
Starring — or rather slouching — Vincent Lacoste (“The French Kissers”) opposite the terrific Reda Kateb (“Zero Dark Thirty”), this gritty workplace dramedy recalls French films like The Class and Polisse, tracking the daily grind of disgruntled state employees through a mix of humor, realism and two-fisted compassion. While a tad stretched out at points, this sophomore feature from writer-director (and M.D. himself) Thomas Lilti should see strong local buzz for its fall release in France, while small-scale foreign distributors could take notice after a closing night premiere in the Cannes Critics’ Week.
Named after the ancient Greek physician whose eponymous oath has become the code by which doctors are supposed to live by, Hippocrates reveals a reality far different from their promise to work for the “good of patients” and “never do harm to anyone.” Or, as one baggy-eyed intern states at one point, a cigarette dangling from his mouth: “Medicine is not a career. It’s a curse.”
That’s not exactly how it first appears to med student, Benjamin (Lacoste), who begins a six-month internship in the ward run by his father, Barois (Jacques Gamblin). Slightly shaky when it comes to actual procedures, but already quite sure of himself, Benjamin learns the ropes the hard way, caring for elderly patients on their last legs while partying hearty with the other interns, whose boiserious meals and fetes resemble an episode of Doogie Howser M.D. crossed with scenes from Animal House.
But Benjamin’s education quickly takes a dark turn when an alcoholic patient (Thierry Levaret) dies on his watch, mostly due to his own incompetence. Faster than you can say “malpractice suit,” daddy’s covering up the affair, allowing Benjamin to literally get away with murder, though none of the overworked nurses and doctors see it that way. That is, everyone except Abdel (Kateb), an experienced Algerian physician forced to work as an intern because of his immigrant status, and who understands the hospital for what it really is: A place where the staff cares more about saving their own butts than saving the patients they’ve been put in charge of.
Written by Lilti and three co-scribes, the script offers up a rather bleak top-to-bottom vision of the French public medical system, revealing a crumbling institution mired by budget cuts, supply shortages and severe understaffing. But most of all, it’s the doctors themselves who seem to have lost all faith in their métier, scraping by begrudgingly on 48-hour shifts with extremely low pay, even if they show a certain solidarity with their fellow practitioners — until the plot further thickens in the third act, putting Benjamin and Abdel in a situation that may end their careers for good.
Capturing the proceedings through DP Nicolas Gaurin’s crisp, naturally lit widescreen lensing, with many scenes shot in the hospital where Lilti himself once worked, Hippocrates at times plays like a docu-fiction peppered by bits of dry comedy, with Lacoste engaging in some of the shenanigans that made him a breakout talent in Riad Sattouf’s 2009 Directors’ Fortnight entry The French Kissers.
But it’s Kateb — a rising star with three films in Cannes this year — who steals the show, portraying a man whose professionalism and humanity are constantly thwarted by the other staff members, especially the Gallic natives that don’t have to jump through the same hoops he does. The film ultimately reveals how Abdel may be the only true hope for the Hippocratic spirit to be carried on in France, underlining how much foreigners contribute to a field that both welcomes and rejects them at the same time.
Rounding out the sturdy tech package is a groovy electro-rock score by Sylvain Ohrel, Alexandre Lier and Nicolas Weil, and editing by Christel Dewynter that sometimes gets lost in the details, especially midway through. Certain scenes, including a running gag involving a spinal tap, are not for the faint-hearted.
Production companies: 31 Juin Films, France 2 Cinema
Cast: Vincent Lacoste, Reda Kateb, Jacques Gamblin, Marianne Denicourt, Felix Moati
Director: Thomas Lilti
Screenwriters: Thomas Lilti, Baya Kasmi, Pierre Chosson, Julien Lilti
Producers: Agnes Vallee, Emmanuel Barraux
Director of photography: Nicolas Gaurin
Production designer: Philippe Van Herwijnen
Costume designer: Cyril Fontaine
Editor: Christelle Dewynter
Music: Sylvain Ohrel, Alexandre Lier, Nicolas Weil
Sales agent: Le Pacte
No rating, 101 minutes
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