'150 Milligrams' ('La Fille de Brest'): Film Review

150 Milligrams -Still 1 -H 2016
Courtesy of TIFF
'Erin Brockovich' but with lab coats and in French.

Sidse Babett Knudsen stars as a doctor battling against Big Pharma in director Emmanuelle Bercot's latest story of social justice, which played at TIFF and San Sebastian this year.

French multi hyphenate Emmanuelle Bercot explores further her interest in justice and how it is upheld – or betrayed – by bureaucracies in the enthralling medical drama 150 Milligrams. As with her last directorial effort, the juvenile-courtroom-set Standing Tall, and the screenplay she co-wrote with Maiwenn for cop-drama PolisseBercot deploys a nervy, quick-footed style to show how people navigate complex institutional frameworks, juggle their work-life balance and hold on to their humanity, even under adverse conditions.

Lead by an outsize but empathic central performance from Sidse Babett Knudsen (Borgen, The Duke of Burgundy) as real-life whistleblower Irene Frachon (think Erin Brockovich but with a medical degree) this wordy but always watchable film examines the medical realm, from governing bodies’ meeting rooms to coroners’ labs where corpses are dissected, all with the same unblinking eyes. Having played TIFF and opened San Sebastian, 150 Milligrams is likely to be parceled out in further doses on the festival circuit before finding its footing theatrically.

Starting as it means to go on, the opening scene shows doctors performing open-heart surgery, complete with bone saws and rib cages being winched open, in the university hospital in Brest, Northern France. Dr. Irene Frachon (Knudsen), a specialist in pulmonology, observes that the valves in the heart of a middle-aged woman, Corinne Zacharria (Isabelle de Hertogh) appear severely damaged. It emerges that the valve condition has been found in several other patients who all took Mediator, a drug produced by French pharmaceutical company Servier, which was designed to treat diabetes and help patients lose weight.

Irene is convinced that Mediator is to blame for the pathology, but in order to prove that she needs evidence from a properly conducted epidemiological study. Several colleagues collaborate on gathering the evidence, but the contribution of research scientist Dr. Antoine Le Bihan (Benoit Magimel) is crucial not only in terms of securing funding but in enhancing the scientific legitimacy of the study. They work long and hard on the study, but results seem to prove Irene#'s hypothesis conclusively.

Nevertheless, when Irene and Antoine present their case to AFSSAPS, the French agency that regulates health products (essentially the same as the FDA in the United States), their research is hauled over coals by the wily representatives of Servier and they fail to get Mediator withdrawn from the market. Disheartened and exhausted, Antoine nearly gives up but Irene battles on, buoyed by support from various quarters. She self-publishes a book about their research (the foundation for Severine Bosschem’s scrupulous screenplay here), which bears the subtitle How Many Dead? in the first editions, which Servier tries to stop. Not only is her husband Bruno (Patrick Ligardes) and several children entirely supportive even when it means she’s distracted from family life, but over time Irene also manages to get a reporter from Le Figaro, Anne Jouan (Lara Neumann) to help her publicize the case. Elsewhere, more covert support and assistance is offered from one of AFSSAPS own, Catherine Haynes (Myriam Azencot) and, most importantly, from a mole within CNAM, the national health insurance fund, who is in a unique position to tell Irene exactly how many people have died owing to the valve disorder clearly caused by Mediator.

It turns out about 500 deaths were linked to the drug, and most of the deceased were women. With quiet forcefulness, Bercot and Bosschem evoke how gender issues play a part in this complex story, from the way Irene is sometimes patronized by her male peers, to how it affects her home life. Even the fact the film’s French subtitle is La Fille de Brest points to the way Irene’s opponents sought to diminish her as mere provincial “girl” from the sticks. The film incorporates Knudsen’s Danish origins into the dialogue (she’s totally fluent in French, but the Nordic accent is noticeable to Gallic ears), effectively making the movie version of Irene a degree more fictional, but even that works on a thematic level by emphasizing her outsider status.

Even so, regardless of her character’s origins, Knudsen makes Irene into a force of nature, an excitable, sometimes goofy and sometimes infuriating creature who just won’t give up, and whose capacity for empathy with the victims drives her on. She’s a sturdy anchor for the film, in much the same way Catherine Deneuve was in Standing Tall, but this is nevertheless very much an ensemble piece where every character, no matter how fleetingly met, gets a few brush strokes to distinguish them from the pack. Bercot and her regular DoP Guillaume Schiffman (The Artist) rack in on small, telling gestures, the expressions on people’s face when they’re at their least self-conscious, for example while listening to an argument in a crowded meeting room, or getting their papers in order. Utterly absorbing all the way through, this showcase for Bercot’s skill with large casts and intellectually rigorous storytelling may be her best yet.

Production companies: A Haut et Court production in co-production with France 2 Cinema, Canal +, Cine +, France Televisions, Haut et Court Distribution, FranceTV Distribution, Wild Bunch in association with Cofinova 12, Soficinema 12, Sofitvcine 3, Cinemage 10, Palatine Etoile 13
Cast: Sidse Babett Knudsen, Benoit Magimel, Charlotte Laemmel, Isabelle De Hertogh, Lara Neumann, Philippe Uchan, Patrick Ligardes, Olivier Pasquier, Gustave Kervern, Myriam Azencot, Pablo Pauly, Eddie Chignara, Raphael Ferret, Christophe Meynet, Gilles Treton, Garance Mazureck
Director: Emmanuelle Bercot
Screenwriters: Severine Bosschem, Emmanuelle Bercot based on the book ‘Mediator 150mg’ by Irene Frachon
Producers: Caroline Benjo, Carole Scotta, Barbara Letellier, Simon Arnal
Director of photography: Guillaume Schiffman
Production designer: Eric Barboza
Costume designer: Pascaline Chavane
Editor: Julien Leloup
Music: Martin Wheeler, Bloum
Special effects: Pierre-Olivier Persin
Sales: Wild Bunch
No rating, 128 minutes