For a movie concerned with death, French director Katell Quillévéré’s Heal the Living begins with a shot that manages to capture just what it means to be alive. The film opens on 17-year-old Simon (Gabin Verdet), lying in bed with his girlfriend Juliette (Galatéa Bellugi).
It’s the early hours of the morning and Juliette is still sleeping as Simon quietly pulls on his clothes, opens the bedroom window and, after taking a quick photo of her with his phone, jumps. The camera rushes towards the window but we find him in one piece, pulling his bike out from a hedge and speeding off into the night. What follows is a hypnotic tracking shot that follows Simon as he cycles down the empty streets of Le Havre’s mountainous cityscape. You can almost smell the sea air as he glides from one narrow boulevard to the next, plummeting gracefully like a skier traversing a deserted peak. Along the way Quillévéré cuts to two other boys, each making their way to the same destination; an old beat-up campervan full of surf boards. When the three of them arrive, they embrace, then set off to catch the early morning waves with the same high-octane style of a surf doc.
However, the raw energy of these scenes is extinguished on the journey home when one of Simon’s friends falls asleep at the wheel. Suddenly the film is snatching from Simon with the accident leaving him brain-dead. The death of a film’s central character normally signals the logical conclusion to a story, but in Heal the Living it’s merely the beginning of a process. Set on the threshold of living and dying, Quillévéré questions the human body and its uses and although Simon’s untimely death results in heartache for his family, it brings fresh hope to Claire (Anne Dorval), a middle-aged woman from the outskirts of Paris who needs a heart transplant.
A medical drama of unusual depth and sensitivity, Heal the Living traces in compelling fashion the chain of events involved in the safe transmigration of Simon’s heart into Claire’s body; challenging various perspectives of grief and loss while untangling the myriad of mysteries surrounding death by taking time to explore a range of perspective. With the possible exception of Simon’s heart, there is no central character in Heal the Living and Quillévéré alternates between divergent the stories of Simon and Clare’s families as well as the cardiologists, nurses and admin staff.
The result is a sprawling tale of human interconnectedness; a kaleidoscope of contradictory emotions revealing a portrait of society’s accumulated relationship with death. In the hands of a lesser director, this ensemble cast (including Emmanuelle Seigner, Anne Dorval, Tahar Rahim and rapper Kool Shen, to name a few) could have been a mess. Thankfully Quillévéré balances all of these stories tremendously, thanks primarily to a compassionate script that turns even the most clinical statement into a moment of empathy and the intelligent use movement.
Emotion through motion. Quillévéré’s use of tracking shots not only express how life continues after death, but also allows each character to forge their own path, with each detour an insight into the lives of a cast member whilst also giving the film’s surroundings a depth and a richness that goes beyond the present moment. It doesn’t leave a lot of time for the audience to develop an attachment to these characters, therefore the articulation of the film’s broad palette of emotions rests entirely on Alexandre Desplat’s score. Desplat is well known for his scene stealing compositions but here it’s his restraint that makes the film come alive. Alternating seamlessly from deeply felt grief, to shades of hopeful anxiety, Desplat’s piano-driven score accentuating each character’s interior lives without ever allowing the film to succumb to tawdry melodrama.
Quillévéré has created a poignant exploration not just of death, but of life, love and fragility. As Heal the Living moves into its final act, where Claire receive Simon’s heart, she refuses to shy away from the realities of death, showing the surgical procedure in graphic detail. Where other filmmakers would look to cut away to the worried faces of Clare and Simon’s family so the audience could recall their own personal relationships with death, Quillévéré refuses to look away, forcing the viewer to expand their consciousness beyond the limitations of their own circumstances and reconsider the boundaries between life and death.
Patrick Gamble | @PatrickJGamble