Three narrative threads – parents facing with the accidental death of their 17-year-old son, the medical staff of an organ transplant team, and a middle-aged female musician dying of heart failure – are woven together in French director Katell Quillévéré’s medical drama HEAL THE LIVING. This is the third and most polished of her films, her previous works being SUZANNE AND LOVE LIKE POISON. Read on…
In part, HEAL THE LIVING is a medical procedural, like on ER or countless television dramas, but what sets it apart is its fuller emotional portrait of the patients and their families, and its lush cinematic approach to the subject. That cinematic quality is less in the foreground in the surgical scenes, which are handled with taste and a minimum of blood, but comes to the fore in depicted the rich inner lives of the people involved.
Emmanuel Seigner plays Marianne, a woman who gets the phone call every parent dreads, that her teen-aged son Simon (Gabin Verdet) has been in a car crash and is in the hospital near death. Once the teen is declared brain-dead, the doctors move into a new phase. Tahar Rahim plays a sensitive coordinator of organ donations who has the difficult job of talking to Marianne and her estranged husband Vincent (Kool Shen) about organ donation.
Fine acting, stunning photography, and music by Alexandre Desplat support the heart-wrenching emotion at the heart of this skillfully-told medical drama about organ donation. Quillévéré’s drama, which follows the donor and his family, the medical team, and the recipient and her family in turns, is full of emotion – human warmth, pain, compassion, longing and loss – and is both beautifully acted and filmed.
The director treats both families with equal measures of care and compassion, but what reveals where her own heart lies is how she depicts the medical staff. HEAL THE LIVING paints an ideal, perhaps idealized, picture of organ donation. There are caring, sensitive doctors who give the grieving family the space to make their decision, and even carrying out the parents’ final request during the surgery. One can not imagine a more perfect medical experience for both families, and the organ donation coordinator is the very paragon of flawlessly sensitivity to the grieving donor family, even challenging surgeons in the operating room. Actually, all the medical staff are the very picture of what should happen in this scenario, apart from a well-meaning error by a over-tired nurse, a error for which the doctor in charge chides her. One hopes that organ donation is always handled with the degree of sensitivity shown in this film.
The moving, striking photography is one of the most unexpected aspects of this film, and is particularly strong in the first segment. The film opens with handsome 17-year-old Simon climbing out of his girlfriend’s bedroom window, and follows him as he goes on a late-night bicycle tour of his city with friends, and then joins them in early morning surfing. The photography of the waves and water is beautifully shot by Tom Harari, symbolizing life and death, and foreshadowing what is to come. On the way home, the friend who is driving drifts off in a reverie about the ocean, until the devastating car crash jolts him awake.
Simon’s mother gets the call from the hospital, where Simon is in a coma, and contacts her estranged husband. When Simon is declared brain dead, his distraught parents are asked about organ donation. To give us an emotional breather from this heartbreaking situation, the film’s focus then turns to the medical team, who we follow as they go about their work, a segment that includes little touches to humanize them as well. A third theme is added when we switch to the story of the musician, a middle-aged woman whose illness has forced her to stop working but who has emotional support from her two caring college-aged sons, and a lover with whom she re-connects. She is conflicted about her diagnosis and the prospect of going on the waiting list for a heart.
Clearly, the director aims to promote the idea of organ donation, (and the dedication of the film suggests a personal reason) and to reassure and encourage donors, by painting as rosy a picture of the doctors and the process as possible. There are always more people waiting for organs than donor organs available. Whether the process is always as ideal as depicted in this drama is another matter but you have to give the director credit for making a touching, moving and cinematic film from a subject that has been handled with far less style in the past. It would be nice if HEAL THE LIVING stood as much as a guideline for medical personnel, handling the donors’ families with as much compassion and human gentleness as shown in this film.