From the Heart: Katell Quillévéré’s ‘Heal the Living’ is a moving story of loss and hope

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French director Katell Quillévéré’s Heal the Living, from Cohen Media Group, is an intelligent, moving and profound ensemble drama. A mind-boggling variety of characters from all walks of life are brought together by a heart transplant, taking the organ of a young surfer killed in a car accident (Gabin Verdet) and transferring it to the body of a mother of two grown sons (Anne Dorval). Sound forbidding? Maybe so, but the movie is anything but a dreary downer, and is in fact a warm, joyous and inspiriting celebration of life, as well as the possible restoration of it to the dying.

Quillévéré’s visual acuity—often capturing poetic images in the most unlikely places and times—and masterful handling of the myriad people and subplots in her film, informed by a humane observation at once compelling and often highly droll, mark her as a filmmaker to follow. The director met with Film Journal International during her visit to New York for The Film Society of Lincoln Center’s “Rendez-Vous with French Cinema.”

Katell Quillévéré: This was based on a book by Maylis De Kerangal, which became a bestseller—which was kind of a lot of pressure on me. I had discovered the book just two days after its publication date.

Film Journal International: Is it a work of fiction? Because it felt completely real.

KQ: It’s completely fiction. I chose it because I believe in my intuition. I was inexorably moved by the novel and felt that I had to do something with it. For me, discovering the work of someone is like meeting them. You’re attracted by them but don’t know exactly why. I met the author and tried to tell her how much I loved what she did and how I was going to be faithful to her work, and the way I will have to betray her. Because you always have to betray the source, but you have to be a good betrayer.

FJI: “Betray” is such a strong word. Maybe adapt?

KQ:[laughs] During the process, I understood the story better. What I related to was the life experience and what I’ve been through, intimately, experiences of hospitals and loss. It was also about resonance, because I am always obsessed with what I am going to leave the audience with, what will be on their minds when they leave the theatre and go home.

It’s impossible for me to end a movie desperately. I cannot do that because when I write something, it’s a way for me to deal with my fears and desires and to feel better afterwards. And that’s what I want the audience to experience in a deep way. I cannot make a movie that would not make sense and not be something strong in addressing the way you deal with death and the fear of losing important people in your life. You might lose them, but you have to find a way to build yourself back up—life goes on and you have to find a way to circle it.

My previous film really talked about this, and this story was a strange meeting with myself. It allowed me to speak about death and life in a really crude, rough way, but also metaphysically, so it was a good struggle for me.

FJI: Is De Kerangal a well-known writer?

KQ: Well, she was not so famous before, She had written three or four books before The Bridge, which was very successful. She became really famous after that. She’s about 48.The American translation is called The Heart. It’s really a great book.

FJI: Speaking of the heart, the transplant scene in your film is extraordinary. I’m a queasy audience member—even the surgery in M*A*S*H was hard for me to take—but I found myself riveted by its reality.

KQ: [laughs] It was staged, not reality. I knew these kinds of images are hard on an audience, but it was essential because if you see the actual process, feel the medical and scientific and rough aspects of it, you can then have access to the magic and mystery of restoring life.

Despite the awful imagery, when you are in front of this organ and have to wait and see if it’s going to beat again in a foreign body, it reminds you that we don’t always have the answers to the big questions in life. Sometimes when I go to movies, I close my eyes. And you have the right to do that and can with my movie as well. But I hope you can also stay and see the end, despite this obstacle.

FJI: How many films actually teach you something, besides moving or entertaining you? Yours does, whether it’s seeing a transplant being performed, making you realize the body is like fixing a car, that technical. I also love the way you humanized all of your characters. The doctors weren’t just guys in white coats. You had that older one who listens to rap, and the younger one obsessed with someday getting a rare goldfinch, as he yearningly gazes at them on his computer at work. So charming—was all that in the book?

KQ: I filled a lot of that in, which was not in the book. With the goldfinches, in the book he actually buys one, but I thought it would be funnier if he only dreamed of having one.

FJI: Your entire cast is superb. How long was the filming?

KQ: Ten weeks. Dominique Blanc played the surgeon, and is a great French actress, especially in the theatre. I love her. She arrives and is a total professional, completely ready. It’s crazy, for you have to tell this great actress to do something more, or less, or invent something else. She’s extremely present at all times, in the here and now.

Emmanuelle Seigner as the mother of the dead boy I have always admired. She is one of the strongest and most attractive actresses in France. I dreamed of directing her and chose her because she’s really luminous. It’s always important for me to find a contrast. I’m not going to cast a depressed actress to act a depressed woman. She’s really delightful and really sweet and has a kind of dignity I love. She went through many things in her life. I was confident that she would be able to deal with the drama, as she knew deeply what it was.

She was such a beautiful woman in her youth, and that can be complicated. She is still beautiful, but a real human being, who agreed to be in my movie without makeup. She’s much more beautiful in life than in my movie, and was really generous. It’s rare now to find actresses like that.

FJI: Do you give your actors a lot of direction, or rely on their basic instinct and talent, since you cast them in the first place?

KQ: I love actors and they bring something joyful and very important to any film. I adapt myself to them: We discussed their characters a lot, and in the hospital scenes, I asked them all to actually train in the job they were going to be doing onscreen.

Dominique followed a heart surgeon for many days and assisted in two heart transplants. The actors went to the hospital for one month, talking to nurses and the families of patients. I organized all of that specially and, when we were filming, there were real doctors and nurses in small parts, to help us out.

FJI: How did the eminent Alexandre Desplat come aboard as your music composer?

KQ: I was really lucky, because you know how occupied he is and I am a young filmmaker and really didn’t think it would work. When he agreed to do my score, it was a big surprise, and it was amazing to see the rapidity with which he could invent a melody to match the emotions of the actors. He takes the movie, digests it and then spews music out in such an amazing way, so fast.He’s extremely nice and has huge respect for directors, even young ones like me. He is a great composer in that he’s there to serve to your film, not his music.

FJI: What’s your next project? I can’t wait for another film from you.

KQ: None right now, I am taking my time. This film was well-received in France, and we received a César nomination for best adapted screenplay. It did quite well commercially for a film with such a hard subject. We dreamed of more of an audience, but it was really okay. People are scared to go to see this movie when they hear about this subject, but they have to be brave.