The strangest paradox of Katell Quillevere’s third film is that although it’s involving, moving and deeply humane, it isn’t really an actor’s showcase. Somewhat diluted by a fragmentation that allows the director to tell multiple connected tales, Heal the Living (2016) ends up becoming the sum of its parts, none of which express any great depth of characterisation. And yet, handled with finesse and restraint, it still proves to be genuinely affecting. It begins with the tale of Simon, a 17 year old boy whose drive home from a surfing session with two friends turns to tragedy. Fatigued by their time in the relentless ocean, they all succumb to drowsiness in the car. Quillivere’s choice of representing the moments before the crash is ingenious in its simplicity: Simon’s friend, slowly losing consciousness at the wheel sees the road ahead dissolving into an ocean surface with the oncoming tidal wave representative of the fateful moment of impact to come. We don’t see any actual contact but feel the brunt of it just as forcefully in our overly-sparked mind’s eye.
Simon’s friends are badly injured but will survive, it seems. He isn’t so fortunate, left brain dead, with his two mortified parents, Marianne (Emmanuelle Seigner) and Vincent (a mediocre Kool Shen), naturally struggling to process the shock and awe. Two doctors, Pierre Revol (Bouli Lanners) and Thomas Remige (Tahar Rahim) inform the separated couple of the option of Simon becoming an organ donor. Though initially resistant, they eventually change their minds and the film then shifts focus to breathing life into the story of a middle-aged woman, Claire Mejean (Anne Dorval) with a degenerative heart disease, desperately in need of a transplant.
There are nicely judged moments throughout and great conviction in the performances. Seigner is particularly good but she’s forced to portray grief alone, giving her very little room to express range of any sort. The always wonderful Dorval – so astonishing in many of Xavier Dolan’s films – fares best. Lighter scenes with her two sons – one overly intense, the other a jokester – such as a night spent together on the couch watching and light-heartedly ridiculing Spielberg’s E.T (1982), are contrasted with her tender reconnection with her former younger lover, Anne (Alice Taglioni), a concert pianist who was unaware of her condition. A couple of their all-too brief scenes are sensitively handled but once more, don’t extend into anything remarkable as the narrative breaks off towards the journey of Simon’s heart. The countdown culminates with real footage of a heart being surgically extracted from a body and transplanted into another, giving it a remarkable point of difference if nothing else for those with a suitably strong stomach.
Composer Alexandre Desplat is given half a dozen moments to shine and he produces the goods with a sparesly utilised but classy score. Two wonderful piano-led themes are used at various times to heighten the emotional essence that informs fleeting glimpses of Simon’s too-brief life, including his first meeting with girlfriend. Though concerned with forging humanistic portraits, Heal the Living might be considered both underwhelming and gently persuasive. Again, there are strange paradoxes at work in the creation of a film with both a literal and figurative beating heart that makes us all feel a little more secure in our perception of the species.