In structure, Heal the Living plays out like three separate stories: the first about a teenage boy who’s in a car accident that leaves him braindead, and his parents, who have to choose if they want to donate his organs; the second about a middle-aged woman with two sons, who has a heart condition and is awaiting a transplant; and the third, which connects the first two, as the two hearts are matched, and we’re brought through the whole process, in intricate detail, as the heart is removed from one body and placed in the other. The first section is the longest, and follows the most people, including hospital staff, the boy’s parents, and his girlfriend. It doesn’t show what happened to any of the other people in the crash, which might be a distracting omission for some. It’s obviously not a part of the filmmakers’ vision, but it would be nice to see what happened to the others.
The film has a cinematic and visually arresting opening, including a lengthy, immersive surfing sequence. This sequence goes on for a while, lulling the viewer into a relaxed—even sleepy—state, but that makes the crash more of a shock, and after that watching anyone get in a car becomes nerve-wracking. In fact, the film continues to make minor things seem perilous, like someone falling asleep or walking down a stairs.
However, some people may find the film a bit of a comedown after the strong opening. There isn’t that much in the way of a plot and it lets moments play out in their own time. This leisurely pace lets you get to know the characters and to care when the operations happen, a process that’s followed in intricate detail. We see, and feel, the emotions of each character, even the girlfriend who only appears in a couple of scenes or (or perhaps especially) the young doctor who promises the parents to do well by their son.
With the widespread concern about the shortage of known female directors, it may be of note that Heal the Living was directed by a woman, Katell Quillévéré, her third feature film. The script was co-written by Quillévéré and Gilles Taurand, based on a novel by Maylis De Kerangal, and features among others, Denis Levant and Emmanuelle Seigner. It includes an evocative score from the great Alexandre Desplat, and some vivid cinematography from Tom Harari.
Heal the Living is on limited release from April 28th