Is death really the end? Katell Quillévéré’s Heal the Living argues that death is merely the start of a much larger process. Adapted from Maylis de Kerangal’s International Booker Prize-nominated novel Mend the Living, Quillévéré’s latest is a medical procedural set over 24 hours.
We chart the transmigration of a heart after its donor Simon (Gabin Verdet), a 15-year-old surfer from the coastal city of Le Havre dies in a tragic road accident. While the news of Simon’s death means tragedy for his family, it brings fresh hope to Claire (Anne Dorval), a middle-aged woman from the outskirts of Paris desperately in need of a heart transplant. We sat down with the Ivory Coast-born director prior to the film’s UK release to discuss the difficulties of adapting Kerangal’s novel.
“The DNA of the film’s aesthetics is movement,” says Quillévéré when asked about the film’s mesmerising opening sequence where we follow Simon as he jumps from the window of his girlfriend’s bedroom and cycles through the streets of Le Havre to meet his friends. “I spent a lot of time taking side paths away from the main narrative and these travelling shots help to give these characters time to exist before meandering back to the story. I believe if we didn’t taken these little detours to establish their humanity the film wouldn’t be as emotionally charged.”
It’s an invigorating opening and a powerful evocation of youthfulness that’s cut short when Simon is left-brain dead after one of his friends falls asleep at the wheel. But Quillévéré is reluctant to wallow in the grief surrounding Simon’s passing. Unlike her previous films, Love Like Poison and Suzanne which were built around strong protagonists, there’s no central character in Heal the Living and the story unfolds first at the level of the individual, then his family and finally as a community, culminating in a sprawling film of raw emotions about human interconnectedness.
“I had to approach casting this movie like a music score,” notes Quillévéré whilst explaining how she balanced an ensemble cast that reads like a who’s who of French cinema, including such luminaries as Emmanuelle Seigner and Tahar Rahim alongside lesser known actors like French rapper Kool Shen. “I’m always trying to work a link between different people into my scripts, so the casting wasn’t based on physical appearances, or if they were known or unknown names. There’s a sentence in Renoir’s La Règle du Jeu: ‘The awful thing about life is this: everybody has their reasons,’ and this is something I always try and instill in my stories. I just wanted to present a global image of society and all its diversity.”
A self proclaimed Humanist, Quillévéré previous two films were contemplative dramas about provincial France and the lives of the working-class people who live there. The decision to show a wider portrait of French society meant transposing her distinct brand of Humanism to the cosmopolitan streets of Paris, bringing together a huge range characters from across the socioeconomic spectrum; delving into the lives of both Simon and Clare’s families, as well as the cardiologists, surgeons and nurses responsible for the safe harvesting of this heart.
“I’m always asking myself ‘Where do my characters come from?’ and I’m quite reticent to show the lives of the bourgeoisie. This middle class cinema style of cinema doesn’t interest me.” She explains when asked how daunting it was working on a larger canvas. “At first I was scared about Simon’s heart coming from the provinces to benefit this upper-middle class woman. I knew I had to take responsibility for how that would look,” before adding “but this is a Humanist movie. Humanism isn’t a belief it’s a will, it’s something you want. It’s about the vision of the world that you want to show. I think you make films first of all to mend yourself and then to hopefully do the same to people who come to see it.”
In the hands of a lesser director, this tale of teenage tragedy could have been a depressing trawling of grief’s deep currents, but the deeply felt emotions the audience experience whilst watching Heal the Living aren’t as a result of identification, but prompted through visual cues and music. Indeed, it’s actually Alexandre Desplat’s expressive piano score that does most of the emotional heavy lifting, but what was it like working with one of cinema’s most renowned composers? “It was an amazing opportunity and I was impressed by how quickly he works. He’s a genius! A hit machine!” She continues, “The music is the organic aspect of the movie. He feels the movie, digests it, rejects some things and then we started creating something we could use to irrigate the movie like how the heart irrigates the blood through the body.”
The heart is a hugely symbolic organ, often seen as the epicentre of the most crucial manifestations of life; how we feel, how we love and most crucially how we live. But it’s also an intricate muscle, an organic mechanism responsible for giving life. In the film’s final act, when Claire goes under the knife, the audience is forced to consider the intersection of the literal and figurative meanings of the heart, to look at it closely and consider its significance. During these scenes Quillévéré refuses to shy away from the grisly realities of the human body, and where other directors would look to heighten the tension by cutting away to the anxious faces of Clare’s family, Quillévéré films the operation with the calm, clinical hand of a master surgeon.
“At the start of this adventure I was scared of these types of images,” Quillévéré explains whilst describing the graphic YouTube videos of heart transplants and medical procedures she watched in preparation for the film. “They’re the types of images that I don’t want to see when I watch a movie. Whilst touring this film lots of people were shocked by those scenes, some even fainted! But you can close your eyes if you like – that’s what I do when I go to the movies.”
There’s no escaping how explicit these scene are, but they’re not intended to shock, rather to expand the viewer’s consciousness beyond the limitations of their individual circumstance and consider how advances in medical technology has enforced a reconsideration of the boundaries between life and death, something Quillévéré seems determined to convey: “This part of the movie is important because it changes your perspective of the heart. I wanted people to leave this movie and think differently about their hearts. This organ is a pump, but it’s also a metaphor for our soul. You have to see how a heart looks, to feel the raw aspects of it. If you don’t see how concrete it is you cannot have access to how sacred it is.”
Katell Quillévéré’s Heal the Living is in UK cinemas and Curzon Home Cinema on 28 April.
Patrick Gamble | @PatrickJGamble