IN KATELL QUILLÉVÉRÉ’S FILMS, characters’ lives are shaped by chance meetings and random events. Quillévéré’s third feature, Heal the Living, is narratively her simplest and subtlest.
A young man is killed in a car accident. His heart is donated to a woman who would have died in early middle age without it. Their connection, without doubt, is profound, but it is also perplexing, despite the detailed depiction of the medical procedures involved in this scientific “miracle.” Our sense that something otherworldly has taken place before our eyes reflects on the conundrum that pulses within Quillévéré’s three films, beginning with Love Like Poison (2010), her fictionalized memoir of a Catholic girlhood. What is the relationship between spirit and flesh?
Heal the Living opens with Simon (Gabin Verdet) in bed with his girlfriend Juliette (Galatéa Bellugi). They are probably no more than seventeen years old, and they are lovely because they are teenagers with perfect skin who are in love. Simon wakes up, pulls on his clothes, snaps a photo of Juliette, sits on the windowsill, and disappears. For a moment your heart stops. So young, so beautiful, so suicidal. But no, Simon is wondrously alive, running across the lawn, jumping on his bike, and speeding in the predawn light along the roads of a seaside town in the north of France. He exchanges the bike for a skateboard, does flips on the roofs of buildings, and finally ends up with two other boys on the beach. After zipping up their wetsuits and hoisting their surfboards, they plunge into the sea. If the previous land-based movement sequence was rapturous, it is nothing compared to the long surfing scene, the boys fragile for all their athleticism, riding the waves, submerging and surfacing over and over. The radiant exterior cinematography is by Tom Harari, who shot Quillévéré’s two previous features, and his eye for composition and detail is just as strong in the antiseptic confines of hospital rooms and operating theaters.
The cinematic bliss (the camera loves bodies in motion) of this nearly wordless prelude ends abruptly with the sound of a car crash. On the way home from the beach, Simon falls asleep in the backseat, his head on his friend’s shoulder. The next time we see him is in the ICU on life support, the damage to his brain too devastating for surgery. “This is a special hospital,” a doctor says to his grieving parents (Emmanuelle Seigneur and Kool Shen), who are told about the organ-donation program. At first resistant to violating their son’s body, the parents eventually agree, at which point the story shifts to Paris, where Claire (Anne Dorval) is in the late stages of heart failure. Her adult sons encourage her to have a transplant, but she is reluctant. It is the discovery that a former lover (Alice Taglioni) still believes they can have a life together that makes her agree to accept the donor match that has just been found.
The film is based on a novel of the same title by Maylis de Kerangal, and while much of the plot and some of the details are similar, it is the way the quietly generous ensemble cast inhabits their characters that makes the film both immediate and memorable. No actor carries Heal the Living as the teenage Clara Augarde did in Love Like Poison or Sara Forestier and Adele Haenel did as the sisters in Suzanne (2013). But Tahar Rahim as Thomas—the dedicated chief of the organ-donation division who finds peace watching a video of a rare songbird, the African goldfinch—is remarkable. When Simon is about to be disconnected from life support, Thomas stops the procedure so that he can fulfill the wishes of the boy’s parents—that he play for Simon a tape of the sound of waves that his girlfriend made for him, and tell him that this parents love him and are with him. And then Thomas gets down to the work of opening Simon’s chest and extracting his heart. The scene could easily have been ridiculously sentimental, but in Rahim’s portrayal, respect for the mystery of life and for the rituals that celebrate it are inseparable from the procedures of modern medical science.
The two surgeries performed in Heal the Living take place in actual operating rooms. I could be wrong, but I don’t think CGI is involved. We see an actual heart extracted from an actual body and an actual heart placed inside another body. Thanks to the seamless editing of fact and fiction by Thomas Marchand, who also has a deft hand with flashbacks, we can suspend our disbelief. Heal the Living makes the melodramatics of shows like Grey’s Anatomy even more laughable than they already are. But it is not realism that makes the film compelling, moving, and just plain out of the ordinary. When the heart that belonged to Simon is flown by helicopter across France, carefully tended by two young interns, the metaphors that give the physical organ meaning fly with it. The sequence is as visually stunning as the opening—the dark sky above, the lights of cities below—but its effect is meditative rather than kinetic. It’s poetry—straight from the heart.
Katell Quillévéré’s Heal the Living is now playing at Quad Cinema in New York.