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Heal the Living

Cohen Film Collection // Unrated // August 29, 2017
List Price: $22.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Tyler Foster | posted September 18, 2017 | E-mail the Author
There's no shortage of movies about the unexpected connections that bind strangers together. Most of these films -- Cloud Atlas, Magnolia -- come with an expansiveness and ambition that is looked at as part of the territory, possibly because filmmakers and audiences consider a large number of characters as a shorthand for scope. With those sorts of films in mind, Heal the Living, adapted from a book by Maylis de Kerangal by filmmaker Katell Quillevere, surprises the viewer twice. First, Quillevere's comparatively low-key approach is so effective that it underlines the artifice of the tried and true method (even as a fan of both movies mentioned), and secondly, it does so without any noticeable compulsion to draw the audience's attention to it. The film is a quiet paradox: both revelatory and unassuming at the same time.

The story begins when Simon (Gabin Verdet) takes a road trip with two friends to a far-off beach for some surfing. Their outing, simultaneously turbulent and serene, turns unexpectedly tragic on the way back, when the friend in charge of driving falls asleep, causing a wreck. Simon, the only one in the car not wearing a seatbelt, suffers bruising inside his skull, slipping into a coma, then going brain dead. After doctor Revol (Bouli Lanners) confesses that there is no hope for Simon's recovery, his sensitive protege Thomas (Tahar Rahim) presents Simon's distraught parents Marianne (Emmanuelle Seigner) and Vincent (Kool Shen) with the possibility of Simon becoming an organ donor. Their eventual agreement benefits Claire (Anne Dorval), who might otherwise be willing to accept her fate, if not for her two sons, Sam (Theo Cholbi) and Maxime (Finnegan Oldfield), and an old girlfriend, a famous concert pianist Anne (Alice Taglioni).

This is, more or less, the complete story of the film, which does not feature conventional revelations and reveals -- the movie cannot be "spoiled." The title itself, Heal the Living, is a pretty clear indication of the movie's trajectory, especially after Simon's accident in the movie's first ten or fifteen minutes. The drama and power of the film lies in the little moments that represent the connections between people that make up the film's story. For example, while Simon's parents are processing the bad news, a nurse, Jeanne (Monia Chokri), pops by Thomas' office to give him some test results relating to Simon's organs. She discovers him watching a video of a rare bird, which supposedly experiences human-like emotions. The bird's fluttering song is soothing to Thomas, and we can in turn see that Thomas' love for the bird soothes Jeanne. This moment doesn't serve any larger purpose, setting up some romance between Thomas and Jeanne. It is simply a crackle of emotional energy, which Quillevere captures with authenticity.

The irony of describing a moment like this is that explaining it almost undermines its effectiveness. To rattle off a list of the numerous glances, pauses, and moments that make Heal the Living so compelling is to approach them from the opposite angle as Quillevere. In these types of films, connections are usually pivot points that recontextualize the drama, either moving bits of serendipity or transformative irony. Even though we know that we are watching a film that will eventually bring all of its threads together into some sort of unification, the eventual intersections of characters and storylines are treated as surprises for the audience to arrive at. Conversely, Heal never attempts to inflate these moments as more than they are, bringing them back down to a scope and scale that a viewer might be able to relate to. A tense surgery sequence plays out with almost no music, with Quillevere holding back on Alexandre Desplat's piano score until after the operation is over.

The one subtle streak of subjectivity running through Living is the female gaze, or at least the relative lack of a male gaze. A well-timed flashback to a sweet first kiss between Simon and his girlfriend Juliette (Galatea Bellugi) could just as easily be Juliette's memory as Simon's, with Quillevere's camera watching Simon smiling at Juliette from across a crowded schoolyard, or the smile spreading across Juliette's face as she is charmed by a cute romantic gesture. Scenes between Claire and Anne are moving and affecting because of the way Anne looks at Claire with a painful mixture of love and heartbreak. Quillevere also includes some wonderful, subtle, stylistic touches, including the sea overtaking the horizon during a critical moment, a slightly re-imagined fantasy exit for Simon, and her unflinching, overwhelmingly vulnerable vision of open heart surgery.

The Blu-ray
Heal the Living keeps Cohen's traditional package design going with the blocky red C forming a frame on the front for the movie's theatrical poster, which itself is a series of frames making up images of the characters. The one-disc release comes in a Vortex eco-friendly Blu-ray case, and there is a booklet inside with cast and crew information.

The Video and Audio
Cohen Media's 2.39:1 1080p AVC / DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track are both extremely impressive. The video shines with a refined texture that effectively evokes 35mm film, with excellent shadow grading and natural-looking colors. The soundtrack is dominated by the film's relatively sparse, unintrusive piano score, with dialogue being a close second. In both cases, this is a naturalistic movie that sheds most of the artifice and stylization in order to root the viewer in reality, so neither is particularly flashy even as both are impressive. English subtitles are also provided.

The Extras
There is one bonus feature, an interview with writer/director Katell Quillevere (14:19). She talks about a number of things, including what drew her to the project and the challenge of adapting the book (especially after watching it become a bestseller as she was working on it), but her most important comments come early into the featurette, when she talks about the subtle qualities of the movie: "I thought about emotion and how I could leave room for the viewer's emotions...I didn't want the viewer to be hostage to an exaggerated pathos." Other drama directors should take note.

A promo for Cohen Media and trailers for Churchill, Maurice, and Julian Schnabel: A Private Portrait play before the main menu. An original theatrical trailer for Heal the Living is also included.

Heal the Living sounds like it will be one thing based on the synopsis on the Blu-ray packaging, but it's actually the exact opposite. Even if viewers have a passion (like this critic) for certain grand portraits of interconnected and intersecting lives, there's something impressively effective about this, a film that does the exact opposite and turns out just as impactful. Highly recommended.

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