Almost every episode of 'Grey’s Anatomy' - or any other medical soap opera for that matter - essentially follows the same structure: introduce a patient with a possibly calamitous condition, perform some sort of surgery with nail-biting tension, and then pull a few heartstrings with a life saving (or ending) denouement. Rinse, repeat, et cetera.
At first glance, you could assume that Katell Quillévéré’s ‘Heal the Living’ is basically a French version of that same hoary TV trope, but you’d be doing so at your own peril – and severely underestimating what might just be one of the best films of the year. Quillévéré’s gloriously full-hearted film upends the melodramatic strictures of the modern medical drama with an astounding sense of emotional acuity and empathetic generosity, eschewing cheap conflict and chintzy sentiment for hard-earned compassion and eloquently simple storytelling. It is, to put it bluntly, an absolute masterpiece.
And it announces itself as such immediately, beginning with an almost wordless opening sequence in which we’re shown a brief but evocatively sketched portrait of 17-year-old Simon (Gabin Verdet). The camera follows him in constant motion, sneaking away from a secret tryst with his girlfriend, embarking on a pre-dawn bike ride through empty streets, before heading to a secluded beach to surf with friends. This entire opening stretch is exhilaratingly composed and choreographed, taking us on an elementally, kinetically textured day-in-the-life tour. The surfing footage in particular is magnificent, remaining unmistakably and unapologetically adolescent in its genuine sense of wonder as it captures truly breathtaking images – guileless and beguiling in equal measure.
'HEAL THE LIVING' TRAILER
These images let us experience firsthand Simon’s connection to the natural world around him, offering our first glimpse at Quillévéré’s remarkable ability to visualise her characters’ inner lives on screen. This prologue comes to its climax with the first of many bravura filmmaking moments packed into the film’s fleet-footed 103-minute runtime, as we see a fatal car crash through the eyes of the driver slipping into sleep at the wheel. The shimmering surface of the road gently, sickeningly glosses over into a rolling ocean, with a single added element to signify the crash making it all the more horrifyingly tense because of its sheer simplicity.
That this incident then leaves Simon comatose without hope of recovery is not at all a spoiler, as it is from here that the film truly begins to tell its story. Quillévéré crafts a tear-jerking triptych through three intertwined groups: Simon’s shellshocked, grieving parents, faced with an impossible decision; the terminally ill woman whose life could be saved as Simon’s comes to an end; and the overworked, exhausted medical professionals for whom this is just another day.
Adapted from Maylis de Kerangal’s internationally acclaimed novel by Quillévéré and co-writer Gilles Taurand, the film achieves that rare feat of making a thrilling, engrossing experience out of decent people being decent to each other. Focusing an intensely humane eye on its characters and the horrifyingly mundane tragedies they are faced with, the film is somehow able to elevate the ordinary to the extraordinary, as sublimely beautiful visual flourishes cascade throughout the film, building in fluidity and power as the film progresses while Alexandre Desplat’s gloriously simple score plays underneath them. These moments are so often in service of side characters whose lives the film briefly dips into, immediately turning possible stock figures into recognisable people with evocative visualisations of small human epics – the most striking of which finds a strained, overworked nurse drifting into a sensual memory mid-elevator ride, so perfectly captured by Tom Harari’s delicate camerawork.
Eschewing cheap conflict and chintzy sentiment for hard-earned compassion and eloquently simple storytelling.
Of course this emotional authenticity in no small part is also thanks to an incredibly game ensemble, featuring heavy-hitters like Anne Dorval, Tahar Rahim and Emmanuelle Seigner, each working in a much more low-key register than one is used to seeing them in. Dorval in particular is sublime as Claire, the former musician with a degenerative heart disease awaiting a life-saving transplant. Frequently a muse for the bombastic Xavier Dolan, here she rather remarkably and delicately etches multiple relationships through tiny shifts in body language, and all the while constantly embodies the private terror of her situation.
At one point late in the film, Dorval’s Claire jokingly scolds another character by warning them, “Careful, no powerful emotions.” Thankfully, the film itself didn’t take this to heart, and what results is some of the most heartbreakingly sincere filmmaking I’ve seen all year. Quillévéré so adeptly proves that she has the visual and aural acumen to elevate such a story to soaring empathetic heights, right up to its ridiculously perfect, David Bowie-infused final moments. It’s beautiful.