Saturday 29 April 2017

A good heart: "Heal the Living"

Amid all the division in this world, some connection, a few vital signs. It's possible that Heal the Living, the French writer-director Katell Quillévéré's remarkable new contemplation of the mysteries of life, will suffer critically from being lumped into that mosaic movie subgenre that has given this century such bland pablum as Crash and Babel. What elevates it some distance above either of those titles is the way (itself mysterious, and perhaps only fully fathomable to Quillévéré herself) in which it seems to develop not as if charted on a blackboard or adhering to the rules of some instructional handbook, but instead organically, as though from the inside out - an interiority that may have something to do with the fact its source is the philosophically inclined novel by the author Maylis de Kerangal, recipient this very week of the Wellcome Book Prize for literature with a scientific or medical bent.

de Kerangal's thesis, brought to the screen with exceptional visual imagination, concerns medical emergencies, and how they serve to bring people together. The first of these, the abrupt pay-off to a gorgeously alert and fluid opening sequence uniting a trio of teenage surfers, is a road traffic accident that immediately wipes out two of these three, and leaves the third braindead in intensive care, with no hope of resuscitation. The boy's separated parents Marianne and Vincent (Emmanuelle Seigner and Kool Shen) are reunited first at his bedside, then in doctors' offices where the possibility arises of harvesting the previously healthy young lad's organs for transplant. We pay these things forward; we pass them on, and thus are we renewed in turn. What de Kerangal was writing was a form of existential procedural, witnessing the bringing of bodies back to life via the movement of part A into slot B - an everyday operation, reconstructed with the kind of detail the likes of e.r. and Grey's Anatomy have traditionally excised in favour of distilling the whole process into soap.

It is, still, emotionally raw material: putting us in the room with the loss and the grief, the acceptance and moving on, themselves linked as if on a chain. Yet it's Quillévéré's own suturing - delicate yet sound - that moves us most. Every sequence serves to set up some potential connection, however tentative: a sturdy professional bond between the hospital's chief of staff (Bouli Lanners) and his head surgeon (Tahar Rahim), something more emotive and uncomfortable when the surfer's gal pal, unaware of any accident, calls the mobile that's been turned over to his mother. A flashback to the youngsters' courtship preserves a memory of the kid racing a funicular uphill to reunite with his beloved, establishing his was/is indeed a good heart; a nurse (Monia Chokri) enjoys a going-down fantasy in a lift that serves less as titillation than another reminder of how hard it is to leave some people behind - and what we retain of them to console or better ourselves. As any transplant surgeon will tell you, some bonds are too fragile to last long; others take and fortify.

What's striking is how confident Quillévéré - in this her third feature, after the hugely promising Love Like Poison and Suzanne - is about letting these images, and the ideas coursing round inside them, play out with no more sustained commentary than Alexandre Desplat's mournful piano score. This is a film that matches its profound inquiry into the nature and essence of being with some very bold structural risks, not least rewinding the story around the halfway mark to introduce us to the transplant's eventual recipient - Claire (Anne Dorval), a middle-aged mother of two with a potentially fatal heart condition - leaving everybody we've met in the first half on ice back at the ICU, and initiating a relay that will involve both a GP (Dominique Blanc) and two rookie members of the transplant team (Alice de Lencquesaing and Karim Leklou) forming their own alliance in the back of a helicopter: superheroes, yes, but they're also simply doing their job.

Throughout, this filmmaker exhibits a touching faith that her audience will simply recognise the emotions in play, and go with the flow of her camera's curiosity. That faith is partially repaid by the film's recurring image, that of two lovers facing one another while lying side-by-side in bed, the crowns of their heads rhyming with the atriums of the heart: the most basic and low-energy of osmoses, if truth be told, yet one you wouldn't necessarily need a medical degree to know can be intensely rewarding. Right through to Heal the Living's literally life-and-death finale - no good or bad guys, no false conflict, just a feel for the way people can support and sustain one another, which may at the last be everything - this quietly miraculous work explains a part of the universe, and a part of ourselves, which we might not previously have been made privy to. And if it doesn't set you to thinking of donor cards, and how you, too, might save a life by the simplest act, then maybe you haven't got a heart to give.

Heal the Living is now playing in selected cinemas.     

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