Film Review: Heal the Living

The talented, intelligent and tasteful Katell Quillévéré proves herself a master of the medium with this ensemble drama. One of the year’s best films.
Specialty Releases

At the heart of the matter that is Katell Quillévéré’s brilliant third feature film, Heal the Living, is an actual heart. It belongs to a teenage surfer, Simon (Gabin Verdet), brain-dead from a car accident, and it may or may not go to the mother of two sons, Claire (Anne Dorval), who’s in desperate need of the organ.

Adapted from the popular novel by Maylis De Kerangal, Quillévéré’s film masterfully weaves together myriad characters and subplots, showing that it indeed takes a village to save a life. The people we meet are all absorbing, passionate, flawed and deeply human in a way that only comes from the most compassionate observation. From the opening sequence, shot in the darkling hours of dawn, when Simon takes one last memorably romantic look at his sleeping girlfriend before jumping out the window to join his buddies on their Gallic surf safari, through the ensuing scenes of family discord involving his estranged parents (a memorably ravaged Emmanuelle Seigner and rapper Kool Shen, and those of a dying but recalcitrant Claire and her furious, concerned sons (Finnegan Oldfield and Théo Cholbi), to a climactic, gripping, graphic yet inspirational depiction of the actual transplant (staged here, but you would never know it), the director truly takes you—to coin a cornball phrase—on a journey, reflective of life itself but informed with the radiant, omniscient vision of a real artist.

Along with great intelligence and emotional depth, the film is marked by another element, all too rare today in cinema—surprise. This quality extends itself to all of her characters, many of whom possess a lively quirkiness, like the middle-aged doctor who listens to raucous French rap on his car radio, or a younger one who spends his off-hours dreaming of getting a rare goldfinch, as he gazes at images of the bird on his computer. Then there’s Monia Chokri, a nervous newbie of a nurse, who suddenly gives herself over to an erotic daydream about a co-worker. It’s aspects like this which make you not only like, but love, all of them, with Tom Harari‘s perfect cinematography, Thomas Marchand‘s sublimely tactful editing and Alexandre Desplat‘s stirring music blending together beautifully. (Just before the fatal crash, Simon and his two beach buds are shown, sleepily driving home in a sun-kissed sensual image that Bruce Weber might have shot.)

Performances across the board are uniformly excellent, the standout being the superb Dominique Blanc’s harried, embattled yet irresistibly sympathetic head doctor. One of the very few convincing portrayals of a medico on film, it’s all there in her body’s wearied stance and empathetic Bette Davis (or are they Jeanne Moreau’s?) eyes.

Click here for cast and crew information.