Screening exclusively this week at Chicago’s Gene Siskel Film Center, you’ll find the third film from one of France’s most promising young directors, Katell Quillévéré. Quillévéré had her first two films, Love Like Poison and Suzanne, screen as part of the Chicago International Film Festival. Those films proved to be true festival highlights, the sort of rare discoveries that had the freedom of zero expectations and the luxury of surprise. Neither Love Like Poison or Suzanne received any sort of American distribution (a case for the festival experience if there ever was one), so most are encountering Quillévéré for the first time with her new film.
Based on Maylis De Kerangal’s novel, Heal the Living (Recommended) is Quillévéré’s first literary adaptation. It’s her most structured film, divided into three distinct narrative parts that converge at its conclusion. Yet the ephemeral shagginess of her previous films remains intact even within such a rigid design. Heal the Living begins with Simon (Gabin Verdet), seen emerging out of his girlfriend’s bedroom window as he cycles through Le Havre. It’s an eloquent sequence as Simon careens through the dark and empty city, with Quillévéré impossibly tracking Simon through both the tiniest caverns and dimly-lit streets. Quillévéré’s emphasis on scale is especially urgent, as she’ll frequently frame Simon in long shot, showing the young man as a speck within a cityscape Or later as he’s surfing with friends, with water encircling his small frame. A tragic car accident will be the end of him, leaving the young man brain-dead, his last glimpses of life seeing the open road morphing into the sea that he had just conquered.
The film transitions to a narrative involving Simon’s parents, Marianne (Emmanuelle Seigner) and Vincent (Kool Shen), who are confronted with the harsh reality of the loss of their son compounded by a proposal from one of the hospital’s doctor’s (Tahar Rahim) to proceed with harvesting Simon’s healthy organs. The drama that centers on this decision isn’t given your typical dramatic flourishes, rather marked by an intense sense of clarity. The grief that imbues so much of Heal the Living is like this; where a rattling sense of loss opens people to the warmth and vitality of other human beings. Later in the film, we’re introduced to the woman who would receive Simon’s heart. Claire (Anne Dorval, one of Xavier Dolan’s cadre of reliable actresses who’s used with notable effect here) is remarkably not defined by her need for a transplant, but rather by her preoccupations with her son and a former friend. Her handicaps ornate and complicate what’s natural to her, which more or less weaves the thematic intent of Heal the Living: to demonstrate the importance in human connections to the point that it will quite literally give someone life again. There aren’t very many films that will provide comfort and contentment in the simple beating of your heart, but Heal the Living certainly does.