'Breath of Life' ('L'Ordre des medecins'): Film Review | Locarno 2018

Courtesy of the Locarno Film Festival
General Hôpital.

Belgian actor Jeremie Renier ('In Bruges') headlines this first feature from French writer-director David Roux, which is set almost entirely in a hospital.

A hard-working pulmonologist is thrown for a loop when his own mother is hospitalized with cancer in the same institution where he works in Breath of Life (L’Ordre des medecins), the directorial debut from Paris-born filmmaker David Roux. Purely in terms of plot, there’s nothing here that audiences will not have seen before in countless TV movies looking at doctors and their professional and private lives, with only the high-caliber acting from Dardenne brothers regular Jeremie Renier, as the protagonist, and Marthe Keller, as his ailing yet strangely radiant mother, providing a sense of cinematic sheen. The film premiered in Locarno’s 8,000-seat Piazza Grande and will be released in France early next year. It will no doubt make the rounds of French film showcases around the world, but lacks that je ne sais quoi to go much wider in terms of distribution. 

Simon (Renier), in his late 30s, is a respected and generally fastidious respiratory physician in a French hospital. When talking to his department's interns, he makes sure to underline that it is a necessity to keep themselves from becoming emotionally involved in their patients’ lives. This strict division is meant to keep anyone working in the medical field sane, though it of course completely breaks down when Simon’s mother, Mathilde (Keller), is hospitalized. She’s had cancer once before and is now back for round two, which worries not only Simon but also his sibling, Julia (Maud Wyler), a mother of two who has decided she now wants a divorce, and their generally distracted father, Sylvain (Alain Lybolt). 

Roux, who also wrote the screenplay, tells his story chronologically and rather schematically and sticks close to the point of view of Simon, throughout. He goes back and forth between his work in his own department and the unit where his mother is staying, at least until he decides to finally take some time off from work. However, since he does so to look after his mother, he’s still at the hospital all the time. Throughout the film, there are short peeks behind the curtain of hospital life, with the staff telling each other darkly funny stories that involve former patients (including someone who died of a "Big Mac suicide") and colleagues partying wildly or secretly hooking up. While these fleeting moments suggest how medical professionals cope with being around sickness and death all day, they aren’t much more than generic backdrop material here, as besides the smart-cookie intern Agathe (Zita Hanroth), who becomes something of a sounding board for Simon, none of the other characters really registers. 

Since the plot is linear and Mathilde’s lot is quite obvious from the outset, Breath of Life is finally a classical hospital drama with an ending foretold. So what’s really needed here is something exceptional that turns the largely familiar and even predictable material into an interesting character study, but Roux struggles to deliver much more than the basics. The family's Jewish heritage, for example, is awkwardly integrated and finally used in a maudlin and rather facile moment that tries to explain why Mathilde always lived her life to the fullest. In reality robs, it robs her of much of her complexity as her own being.

Renier is a good actor who can be great when working with directors like the Dardennes (The Child, The Kid With a Bike), Ozon (Double Lover, Potiche) and Bonello (Saint Laurent). Here, he acquits himself admirably, even though he is saddled with some lines of dialogue that are at once blunt and mystifying, like when the pulmonologist tells Agathe that “My family thinks I will save her,” without elaborating any further. It never becomes clear if Simon’s loved ones really believe that or whether he just assumes that they think so because he’s a doctor, which is a major difference. Similarly, there’s a fascinating paradox that surfaces when it’s revealed that Mathilde’s desire for her son’s professional future and her own thoughts about her treatment are at odds with one another, though the subject is brought up once and then never really addressed at length. More generally, Roux has a tendency to point out possibly more interesting narrative inroads while never straying from the most obvious path himself. 

The supporting cast is fine, with newcomer Hanrot delivering grit as well as plucky charm and Keller — perhaps still best known stateside for her work in Marathon Man and Black Sunday — delivering another impressive performance as a tenacious woman carving her own path and Wyler subtly evoking Keller's strength in the way her character handles her upcoming divorce. That said, Mathilde always looks like she's about to pose for the cover of a Vogue special about palliative care rather than an actual late-stage cancer patient, which doesn't help the film's credibility one inch. 

With around 90% of the proceedings set in and around the hospital, there’s a sense of claustrophobic inevitability about where all this is headed as the carefully constructed walls between Simon's private and professional lives quickly come crashing down. But other than this unity of space, there aren’t a lot of cinematic ideas that help further deepen the understanding of Simon’s plight, a few secret smokes in the bowels of the hospital notwithstanding.

Jonathan Fitoussi’s electronic score, which sounds like a variation on the recent work of M83, quickly grows repetitive as it accompanies brief musical montage sequences that neither advance the story nor provide any relief from it. And with the repeated use of Yiddish choir music and songs such as French chanteuse Colette Magny’s 1965 evergreen "Melocoton," Roux further turns the film’s aural landscape into a motley yet repetitive collection of material that diffuses rather than helps center the drama. 

While Roux comes from a family of doctors and the screenplay was partly inspired by his own family history, Breath of Life is unlikely to scale the heights of the work of Thomas Lilti, to whom he will be inevitably compared. Lilti, whose films include Hippocrates and Irreplaceable, is French cinema's current doctor-turned-filmmaker darling, his movies aligning medical knowledge, filmmaking smarts and grand-public appeal — with especially the latter clearly lacking here.  

Production companies: Elianeantoinette, Reboot Films
Cast: Jeremie Renier, Marthe Keller, Zita Hanrot, Alain Libolt, Maud Wyler, Frederic Epaud
Writer-director: David Roux
Producers: Candice Zaccagnino, Olivier Aknin
Director of photography: Augustin Barbaroux
Production designer: Chloe Cambournac
Costume designer: Sophie Begon
Editor: Benjamin Favreul
Music: Jonathan Fitoussi
Casting: Sopgie Laine Diodovic
Venue: Locarno Film Festival (Piazza Grande)
Sales: Pyramide International

In French, Yiddish
93 minutes