By Kristin M. Jones in the March-April 2017 Issue
It’s hard to imagine a more intoxicating evocation of youthful oneness with nature than the opening of Katell Quillévéré’s adaptation of Maylis de Kerangal’s 2014 novel Réparer les vivants. Teenager Simon (Gabin Verdet) leaves his girlfriend’s bed before dawn, leaping through her window into the darkness and biking through the streets of Le Havre to join friends on a surfing trip. Tom Harari’s camerawork ravishingly captures the journey, the cliffs in the half-light, the surfers riding the cold swells, and a wave’s sparkling blue interior. Afterward, Heal the Living maintains a hypnotic, albeit more restrained beauty, whether depicting stark hospital rooms or landscapes seen from the air at nighttime, jeweled with lights.
The spontaneous adventure ends in an accident, with Simon incurring a traumatic brain injury, and the story proceeds to unfold over 24 hours, evolving into a medical drama at once sensual and austere. Like Quillévéré’s moving, grittier second feature, Suzanne (2013)—in which the ardent, unmoored central character stumbles in adulthood after growing up in a family scarred by her mother’s death—Heal the Living assembles an array of sensitive performances, but it takes place on a more metaphysical plane. Its characters often seem to have stepped outside the normal flow of time.
They include Simon’s stricken parents, memorably played by Emmanuelle Seigner and Kool Shen, and also doctors and medical experts who must scrupulously weigh their words and actions while navigating between their personal lives and a sterile, labyrinthine realm where life and death intertwine. Medical specialist Thomas (Tahar Rahim), who attends to Simon’s parents with integrity and compassion, relaxes by watching a rare goldfinch singing on his computer screen, telling colleagues, “This bird is my drug. It’s like a dream.”
In the novel, Thomas is himself a singer and has acquired a treasured goldfinch. The screenplay for Heal the Living, which Quillévéré co-wrote with Gilles Taurand, reveals less about the doctors’ lives but fleshes out the story of a middle-aged woman, Claire (Anne Dorval), who needs a heart transplant. In the film she is a violinist—a quietly radiant presence despite her physical frailty—whose illness has halted her career. One of her sons has found her a Paris apartment that she says looks like a porn set, where, while she waits for news from her surgeon, she sleeps on a round red bed that resembles a heart.
Claire also pays a stranger to carry her up the stairs to a balcony in a concert hall, where someone she loves is performing. That laborious ascent—and her blissful enjoyment of the music—subtly parallels a dreamlike flashback to the day Simon met his girlfriend Juliette (Galatéa Bellugi), when he introduced himself to her and, while she rode up toward the sky in a funicular, raced it uphill on his bike, kissing her after she emerged. Simon’s parents must make excruciating decisions, but Claire balks at the prospect of a transplant even in the face of her desperate situation, telling her surgeon, Lucie (Dominique Blanc), “I’m not sure I want a dead person’s heart. Maybe my time has come. My heart will stop. That’s nature.” Her doctor reminds her, “When a species is threatened with extinction, it mutates,” citing the clownfish’s ability to change its gender to survive.
That transgression of boundaries is especially evident when the surgeons wield their scalpels. And yet Simon’s heart has an otherworldly loveliness as it is seen beating on an ultrasound and an unexpected poignancy when it is exposed in his open chest, held in a surgeon’s hand as tenderly as a valentine. The doctors call it “perfect” and “superb.” But they also seem aware of the symbolism associated with the heart, the preciousness of the life that has slipped away, and the mysterious connections that surround them.