Interview: Claire Simon on Our Body
This article appeared in the March 23, 2023 edition of The Film Comment Letter, our free weekly newsletter featuring original film criticism and writing. Sign up for the Letter here.
Our Body (Claire Simon, 2023)
At last month’s Berlinale, Claire Simon’s Our Body won no awards—by default, since it played in the noncompetitive Forum section—but it did emerge as a clear favorite of most attendees, flooring audiences with its three-hour immersion in the workings of a public gynecological clinic in Paris. Starting with a teenager (her back to the camera, her head ensconced in a hoodie) seeking an abortion, Simon documents patients at various points of life, seeking care for fertility issues, pregnancy, gender transition, endometriosis, and cancer. The film is a series of doctor-patient encounters, filmed up close yet without intrusion, striving to make visible the intangibles of the physical body and gendered healthcare: how hard pain can be to articulate and therefore to acknowledge; how the language of medicine can both widen and bridge the chasm between the body and the self.
Simon’s lens is humanist, with a focus on tender acts of care—on the interpersonal exchanges that make up the often impersonal bureaucracy of the health system. Yet, lest we forget that all we see is not all that there is, she zooms out into institutional critique in one powerful moment of rupture, leaving the hospital to film a protest against sexually abusive doctors taking place outside. Her approach is not merely observational, either; midway through the film, Simon receives her own cancer diagnosis, and, continuing a long-held tradition of feminist cinema, she turns the camera on herself. As Erika Balsom wrote in her dispatch from the Berlinale, the diversity of experiences captured in Our Body “allows Simon to withdraw from an individualistic approach and create an assembly of difference, an exquisite corpse made of the living. Yet it is notable that her title is Our Body—not ‘our bodies,’ in the plural. Her work proposes a common corporeal ground . . . [Simon] forms part of this ‘we’ while also standing outside it, taking responsibility as the film’s originator and organizing conscience.”
Between screenings at the Berlinale, I caught up with Simon for a conversation about the making of her corporeal epic. Our Body has since screened at the Museum of Modern Art’s Doc Fortnight festival and the True/False Film Festival. Next week, it screens at Cinéma du Réel in Paris.
For someone who lives in America, it is unusual and moving to see a public hospital where so much care and attention is paid to women’s health. Can you say a little about the institution you filmed in?
This is a public hospital in France that is free for everyone who has social security, that we pay for by working. I haven’t paid a euro for my treatment; nobody does. It means that when you enter a hospital in France, it’s like a utopia, because everyone is equal. They take care of you the same whether you are an important bourgeois or if you are homeless—it’s science. Unfortunately, the system lacks people and money and the wages are very low. Even though there are great doctors, sometimes they leave for private hospitals and clinics.
How did you end up at the particular hospital that the film is set in?
It’s Hopital Tenon in Paris, and [we chose it] because my producer was ill and had a lot of chemotherapy for two years in that specific unit. This unit is very special because it is all the gynecology a woman may need during her life. Nothing is separated: surgery, maternity, gender transition, family planning, and cancer… it’s all in the same unit, which is wonderful. It’s a very famous place for the treatment of endometriosis as well. I thought it would be interesting to follow all the, as Simone de Beauvoir would say, crises of women’s bodies during their lifetime. I had this idea right at the beginning—this arc of life.
I like that you used the word “utopia” earlier, because it describes your film for me. When I read the synopsis, I began preparing myself for something emotionally distressing, because I, like all women, have had bad experiences with doctors, who often dismiss women’s pain. But your film turned out to be full of positive and kind experiences. It’s a very affirming model of what care for women can be. Was that intentional on your part? Did you want to show positive experiences?
No, I didn’t want to show that it was positive. And I don’t think it’s all positive. My idea was not to give a good or bad impression of the hospital, but to show what women were going through during their lives, especially in this one gynecologic unit where women are treated whether they are young or old, trans, pregnant, ill. I didn’t particularly choose good doctors. And I personally felt that some were pushing women to have children, as if it was the only good life they could have. This hospital is in a populous neighborhood, and the patients are from different social categories, and from what I have seen, everyone is cared for with the same attention. On the other hand, in the middle of shooting, the professor in charge of this unit was under investigation for sexual abuse. And I do show a protest just outside the hospital where women spoke out against the behaviors of certain doctors, not only in this hospital.
When you learned about the protest and the allegations against that doctor, did you consider removing his presence from the movie, or acknowledging the allegations?
I had filmed this professor in surgery and in a group discussion of doctors. I thought it would be fake to remove his presence. My film was not about him and his behavior. I was not going to make a film about this investigation, or even about hospitals, this one or in general. The idea was just that all women go to the hospital all through their lives, and filming at the hospital was a way to show those phases of a woman’s life. Just because this investigation about this professor began, I was not going to change the idea of the film.
I filmed and kept the protest, because it was talking about women’s lives. Some people do not realize that a documentary film is also a film: it has a focus, a structure, a style, an idea. You’re not going to do a different film because you should be filming the everyday news.
You mentioned Simone de Beauvoir earlier, but the feminism of the film is much more complex than that of the time of de Beauvoir’s writing. I was amazed by the variety of experiences you include in the film, including those of trans men and women. There are some detours you take into men’s fertility treatments, too. How did you formulate the idea of a woman’s body in a way that feels so contemporary and open?
Well, I just followed the ages. Of course, it’s about women’s bodies, but it’s also about what medicine and science do with those bodies. I was amazed by how they cut the [viable eggs] into slices to make babies when there are fertility issues. I also thought it was really interesting that care for gender transition was in the same unit, and it is also free. I felt that the trans boys, who were girls before… I’m probably wrong, but I thought they had had enough of being women.
I think trans people would push back against that idea, that their transition is related to—
—social attitudes, yeah. I know. But I was very touched. Also, when I filmed, never, ever did a doctor say, “Are you sure you want to transition?” They assume that it’s a very strong thing that you don’t have to question.
I imagine getting access to film patient-doctor interactions in a hospital is quite complicated because of matters of confidentiality and consent. How did you acquire permissions?
I had the authorization to film in that hospital as long as no names were used, and as long as the patients agreed—and of course, the doctors, too. Each patient I filmed had signed an authorization before or after. Some of them asked to watch their sequences after they were edited. One refused permission: she was a very strong Muslim and hadn’t realized I would film her naked.
Did you have conversations with them explaining the concept of the film?
And what did you say? I’m curious, because if I was going to the doctor and they said a filmmaker was going to record us, my initial reaction would be to say no. But the way you shoot them is so tender, and they’re so frank in front of the camera.
I said that I was making a film about women’s bodies, and that I would like to film their consultations. I think a lot of people in documentaries realize that their experience is a testimony. They have a sort of generosity and decide, “I will testify for others. My story is one of ours.” This is important. It shows you have civic responsibility.
What kind of crew did you have?
We had three girls: myself, a sound engineer, and one of my former students, who was my assistant and was in charge of authorizations.
And you shot the film?
Yes, I never gave the camera to anyone else.
Pain is something that is hard to represent on screen. It’s such an internal experience. Maybe actors can do it, but when it’s real people… Women are so used to holding in pain. And you somehow make it visible—not through scenes of screams but just by filming them talking about their pain. Can you talk about how you captured that?
Pain is the most difficult thing to film. I stayed for two weeks in the maternity unit in order to film the pain of giving birth, and I couldn’t. I had seen one, and it was so beautiful, I’m sorry to say. She looked like Shiva. She was Indian. She was shouting and moving; it was extraordinary. I wanted to film her but her husband refused. I understand it. You have to have such a consciousness of your civic responsibility to say, okay, film me while I suffer. But yeah, pain is one of the most difficult things to film in a documentary; it’s kind of a limit. There is this wonderful woman in the film who explains how she suffered so intensely that she couldn’t believe it. She was shouting; she was furious because she couldn’t have an epidural. She was rude to her husband.
And the doctor was harsh to her. I think that scene is particularly striking because she says she talked to a doula who explained to her why she was experiencing that agony, and that helped her. That touches upon another theme of the film: the relationship between pain and language, how finding words for what you’re feeling can help process it. That’s the process of diagnosis, of course.
The whole film is about language and the body. The way you name the body is half of the pain. When you meet with a doctor, you can see a story—with words you can hardly understand but it’s a way of telling a story. You can bear the pain much more if you understand the words. In the film, you can see while they do surgery, the doctors say, “This is this, this is that, now we’re going here.” Because you see what’s inside, but you don’t recognize anything.
The body is the great unknown—even one’s own body. There’s something so beautiful about giving a name to these things you have inside you that you don’t know.
That’s why words that can hide and words that can explain are so powerful. When I see the doctor in the film, she tells me, “You’re going to have to get surgery.” And suddenly I say, “What do you mean by ‘surgery’?” She has to explain it to me.
Right, because what you’re really asking is: what are you going to do to my body? A difference of knowledge is also a difference of power.
Some people think, “Oh, the doctor has studied so much, so they must know.” But I was very pushy, asking them to tell me the truth and explain to me what is happening. I remember asking the surgeon, “Why do I lose my hair?” And she explained very clearly that it’s because the chemotherapy fights against cells that are growing very fast, and those cells are also the ones making your hair. So I said, okay, if I lose my hair, it’s good news. It changes your point of view completely.
I wanted to ask about your decision to include yourself in the film, after you discovered during the shoot that you were ill. It’s a very feminist gesture, to make this social and political portrait also a personal portrait.
When a surgeon tells the patient they have cancer, it’s called “the announcement.” Before I knew I was ill, I told the surgeon that I wanted to film an announcement, and she said it was impossible. She couldn’t tell someone that with filmmakers present. Afterwards, when I realized I had cancer, I thought, “Okay, I will film my own announcement.” [laughs] We’re all equals, you know? I also filmed the girl who did the sound on the film—she had a baby after the shooting. I thought it was a bad thing for me to be sick, but it was a good thing for the film. Then I could show that I was not above it; I was inside of it. And because I had already filmed so many women, I didn’t feel like it was going to be a nightmare. I was really optimistic—too much so. I thought it was important for women to see others [suffering] in the film, because it changes your point of view. You’re not the only one who is suffering.