heal THE living
REVIEW BY siomha mcquinn
For her third feature film, director Katell Quillévéré explores the human connections that form following an accident which leaves 17-year-old Simon (Gabin Verdet) braindead. His other organs remain functional meaning that there is an opportunity for them to be passed on. The film follows multiple strands including Simon’s parents (Emmanuelle Seigner and Kool Shen) in the aftermath of the accident and the struggles of a woman, Claire (Anne Dorval), who suffers from a degenerative heart disease.
The film, which is an adaptation of a novel by Maylis De Kerangal, rivals the imagination of the reader with its intense visuals. As part of the opening sequence the camera follows three boys into the sea, as they are about to surf, allowing the audience to experience the water with them. The sound of the waves is thunderous and the screen is filled with glittering water, transforming into thick clouds of darkness as the boys go under. The opening of the film is devoid of dialogue, giving importance to atmospheric sounds, the beautifully melodic score by Alexandre Desplat and the abilities of the human body. There is a focus on movement. In the opening frames Simon comfortably leaps from a bedroom window, cycling into the darkness on his bike moments later in the same shot. However, even his body is vulnerable and when he and his friends are involved in a crash, his failure to ensure his safety with a seatbelt, proves fatal. His once unstoppable body becomes purely a vessel for organs which could potentially save the life of another. The dream-like quality of the opening sequence is missing throughout the remainder of the film as the characters are forced to embrace the reality of the situation.
Despite demonstrating emotionally raw and sensitive performances, Heal the Living fails to cement a solid relationship between the characters and the audience. The film aims to flesh out as many characters as possible, including those who would generally be considered as peripheral in this narrative, such as the medical staff. However, by trying to engage with so many characters, the film fails to develop any of them fully. Simon’s mother discusses his medical history with the doctor, recalling a series of broken bones which resulted from what she identifies as behaviour synonymous with boyhood. This line lends itself to the assumption that Simon is a generic boy with a generic mother. Despite the emotion created when exploring such an upsetting subject matter a detachment remains throughout the film between the characters and the audience. There are some sweet, nostalgic moments which help to solidify relationships between characters such as the ‘meet-cute’ between Simon and his girlfriend and the evening Claire and her college-age sons snuggle up and watch ET together. These moments of connection are among the most emotionally stirring in the film.
An effective sense of claustrophobia accompanies how the performances are shot. The camera constantly hovers behind with the characters, denying the audience the opportunity to see their faces and decipher their emotions. The claustrophobia is particularly evident in Claire’s new apartment which is painted dark colours and framed tightly by the camera. Her illness is also highlighted as she now lives directly opposite a hospital. She is constantly reminded of her fragile body.
The narrative of Heal the Living is not new but the inclusive approach to its character makes it stand out. Despite the shortcomings of this approach it shows that portraying every character as equally complex is important in a story where human life and death is at the centre. Everyone has their struggles and not all are physical. Heal the Living allows the difficulties of every character to be recognised although, sadly, not all can be healed.