Listen to Your Own Heartbeat: Katell Quillévéré's 'Heal the Living'
The film traces loss and what comes after, the process of acceding to pain and encountering fears and anguish, and the implacable order of hospitals.
"I hope [viewers will] listen to their heartbeat in a new way. I hope that the film will have suggested some new ways of considering this organ that is the heart, at once a fascinating muscle and the keeper of our emotions, our soul."
Heal the Living opens with the sound of breathing. Seventeen-year-old Simon (Gabin Verdet) wakes to see his girlfriend Juliette (Galatéa Bellugi) sleeping beside him, as their breathing together creates a soothing, essential rhythm. It's before dawn, and Simon is soon out of bed and on his way to the beach, to surf. As he rides his bicycle, the camera hovers and follows him, creating another rhythm, swift and lovely, when Simon's friend, riding a skateboard, glides up beside him on the street. Together, they make their way along the empty streets to a waiting van, driven by a third friend. With that, they're off -- to the deep blue, early morning waves.
As Simon and his friends surf, encircled by water and in sync with its thrilling cadences, you sense a coming change. Headed home, the boys' van crashes, but you don't see it, you only hear the catastrophe over a black screen. Katell Quillévéré's film then follows people reckoning with Simon's death, or more specifically, his brain death. Simon's terrible limbo state predictably raises questions, for his distraught parents, Marianne (Emmanuelle Seigner) and Vincent (Kool Shen), and the young organ donor consultant, Thomas (Tahar Rahim), who knows their loss might mean a new chance at life, a new chance at pulsing movement -- for someone else.
In posing such possibilities, Heal the Living takes up other stories, following doctors and nurses and organ transportation crews, and eventually finding Claire (Anne Dorval), the eventual recipient of Simon's heart. These stories intersect and veer apart by accident, but for you, following the order imposed by the film, they soon appear destined to come together. Another sense of destiny emerges in the characters who must make sense of tragedy and shock. They seek reasons for what's happened, how a car crash might have been avoided, how a heart condition has evolved over time.
The film traces loss and what comes after, the process of acceding to pain and encountering fears and anguish, and the implacable order of hospitals. Initially opposed to the very idea of cutting up his son's still breathing body to provide organs for others, Vincent heads to his workshop and dons his mask, sparks flying and sander grinding. If his face is hidden, Marianne's is insistently visible: a close-up shot shows her waiting for him, her ears covered by noise-cancelling headphones, her eyes red and face fallen, her transition from horror to grief to knowing what she wants to do is apparent in a scant few seconds of screen time.
Claire and her sons wrestle with decisions and lack of choices. When her surgeon Lucie (Dominique Blanc) urges her to take the chance, Claire wonders, "I’m not sure I want a dead person’s heart. Maybe my time has come. My heart will stop. That’s nature." Repeatedly, it's the doctors and technicians who must articulate opportunities and limits, their understandings premised on what they've seen of human bodies, the movements and rhythms that define them. The distance between doctors and patients and their family members remains wide, another way of imposing order on confusion and dread. Sounds in the hospital make the very space seem utterly alien to patients: cries in the hallway, elevator dings, gurneys tracking. And yet it's a daily workplace for those employed: the camera follows behind Thomas as he walks, observes a nurse (Monia Chokri) as she recalls with a colleague a sensual other life; that is, the night before with her boyfriend.
These figure and camera movements are as entrancing as those showing Simon in life, as he rides his bike, as he surfs, as he breathes. In the hospital, after his life is over, others go on, shaped by pain and surprise, hope and resilience, these sounds accompany careful visual compositions, the blues of Simon's life echoed in hospital partitions, packaging, and surgeons' gowns. Divisions melt into overlaps, as nurses speak to unconscious bodies, soothing their patients as well as themselves. As other medical workers track donor organs, wash pale dead limbs, or speak gently with desolate relatives, you're increasingly aware of the many fleeting junctures and overlaps that comprise just one night in their lives.
Other overlaps, in the form of flashbacks, tend to sentimentalize Simon's innocence, his youthful beauty, his first moments with Juliette (walking, the camera tracking, again), his inability to anticipate the black screen that lies ahead. Such fragmentation of time offers little insight into the character named Simon. It does set up for a moment that comes late, when he seems to be in the hospital, that difficult place, looking out a window and then back at the camera, a moment devised to underline the loss and the letting go for viewers, rather than anyone on screen. It's unnecessary: by now, you're aware of your own rhythms.