French-Belgian drama Heal the Living could easily have been reduced to a maudlin soap opera of a film, but under the assured direction of Katell Quillévéré, the life and death situations presented here have an urgent intensity that is never overplayed or simplified.
It’s still dark in the northern French port city of Le Havre as the camera fluidly follows 17-year old Simon (Gabin Verdet) out of his girlfriend’s bedroom window and onto his bike. Gliding down the town’s streets, he is soon joined by two of his mates. As the sun rises they travel by car down to the coast to surf.
The cinematography before and especially during the surf scene is a thing of great beauty, but the real technical tour de force occurs on the trip home. Drowsy from the early morning activity, the designated driver slowly falls asleep, the road ahead morphs into the ocean, which develops into a huge wave, and suddenly the car crashes.
Simon is taken to hospital, but the injuries he has sustained have rendered him brain dead. His estranged parents (Emmanuelle Seigner and Kool Shen), have the unenviable task of having to deal with their son’s loss and almost immediately having to make the decision about whether to donate his organs.
The narrative then focuses on 52-year old Claire (Anne Dorval) who has a serious heart condition and is on a waiting list to receive a transplant. She has two sons of her own, one who dotes on her, and one who never seems to be around.
The first section of the film is so powerful, that it takes a while to adjust to the switch to a different set of characters. The link between the two is the medical team taking care of Simon’s body, in particular Thomas (Tahar Rahim) who oversees the heart transplant while keeping in constant contact with Simon’s parents.
This is a very beautiful looking film. Tom Harari’s silky smooth widescreen cinematography is like a deep blue dream, and Alexandre Desplat’s score is the ideal aural match.
The film also benefits greatly from its high calibre cast and understated direction. Writer Director Quillévéré (adapting the 2014 novel Mend the Living by Maylis de Kerangal) has shown a deft hand at presenting familial relationships on screen previously with Suzanne and Love Like Poison. She handles the big dramatic scenes here with sensitivity and shows great compassion for her characters.
Heal the Living is emotionally harrowing at times, particularly during the opening stretches, but also life affirming and thoroughly engrossing.
Heal the Living is currently in limited release
Richard Leathem @dickiegee