For some, Katell Quillévéré’s third feature film, ‘Heal the Living’, has slotted itself nicely in the honourable mentions for film of the year in 2017. As of writing, Mark Kermode just put out his annual mid-term report of his favourite films from January – June where ‘Heal the Living’ didn’t quite crack his Top 10. A lot of these didn’t make the cut because there have been so many excellent releases that it is impossible to wither it down into ten favourite picks. On the other hand, what makes ‘Heal the Living’ different from its contenders is that it takes a narrative that is more accustomed to television soap drama unlike the wacky nature of ‘Okja’ or Verhoeven’s subversive ‘Elle’. The result is perhaps just as bold as 2017’s other key releases here in the UK.
Based on the novel by Maylis de Kerangal, the character’s lives in ‘Heal the Living’ are affected by a tragic and horrendous accident. The 17-year-old surfer, Simon (Gabin Verbet) has been left brain-dead following a road crash. Simon’s parents, Marianne (Emmanuelle Seigner) and Vincent (Kool Shen) are now living in an inescapable nightmare and must make the difficult decision to donate their son’s working organs to people who they shall never meet. On the top of the waiting list is a 50-year-old woman, Claire (Anne Dorval), whom has a degenerative heart condition and is in desperate need of a transplant. ‘Heal the Living’ interconnects these stories between the young and the older. A youth who was once full of life and love is now left stretched out on a hospital mattress and his heart is up for donation to a woman who is past her prime. In other words, Simon’s healthy organs can “heal the living”.
‘Heal the Living’ doesn’t have a lead role and the film’s tendency to hop from character to character has led to comparisons to the work of Paul Haggis and Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu. However, Quillévéré’s film has fleshed out characters and isn’t delivering the message “everyone in the big, bad open world knows each other and everyone is the same” which ‘Crash’ and ‘Babel’ put too bluntly. For one, character’s ideologies are conflicting to a degree but they are still respectful towards each other. When Simon’s parents meet the overseeing medic, Thomas, played by a wonderful Tahar Rahim, he suggests the idea of organ donation to them. Vincent understandably retorts by questioning him in a disagreeing tone of voice, “do you have children of your own?” he asks directly. Thomas sets the line straight that it is Vincent and Marianne’s decision only; he isn’t forceful in any way, shape or form but he ends with “your son would have wanted it this way”.
Scenes such as these create an interesting thread of tension between a group of human beings, a tension that isn’t caused by constant threats or a crushing danger but an underlying tension of what the parents are going to do. Thomas can only try to convince them, he is not being a thorn in their side. With this is in mind, Quillévéré rejects honking over-sentimentality and melodrama and instead uses an empathetic lens to examine Kerangal’s characters. Peppered in-between is lyrical and lush visuals such as the opening surfing sequence where a crystal blue wave slowly engulfs Simon as if it is immortalising his adolescence.
I must admit, ‘Heal the Living’s’ painful subject was soul crushing for me and I seriously doubt that Quillévéré was outright aiming to depress viewers. It was just a matter of personal taste. She doesn’t treat Kerangal’s source material in a cold, calculating or cynical light. It is instead warm, nurturing and affectionate – very much like Simon’s heart itself. And even when it is inevitably passed to Claire, the closest character the film has to a lead and who doesn’t have much to live for, the film doesn’t end on a dispiriting note but a spiritual and softening one as David Bowie’s ‘Five Years’ plays over the credits. Needless to say, ‘Heal the Living’ is a deeply admirable piece of work.