It seems only right that a film about surgery of the heart should be so capable of breaking and mending that of its audience, which is exactly what Katell Quillevere’s utterly fantastic Heal the Living does repeatedly in its deftly weaved ensemble story of families, life, and death. With a story spiralling outwards following a tragic car crash that leaves 17 year old Simon (Gabin Verdet) brain dead, but with viable organs for transplant, his mum Marianne (Emmanuelle Seigner) has to make the impossible decision to turn off his life support so that another mother, Claire (Anne Dorval) can live on with Simon’s heart.
We get to know the living Simon in Heal the Living’s staggeringly good opening 10 minutes, as he races out of his girlfriend’s house in the early hours of the morning to drive to the beach with his friends for a surfing session. As he cycles to the van that will take him to the sea, youthful energy leaps off the screen, and Quillvere’s camera follows him beneath the waves to witness the otherworldly beauty of the roiling ocean through his teenage eyes. It’s such a beautiful snapshot of life, and the crash that tears it down is given the dreamy horror it deserves.
From there, we shift between plenty of perspectives; Heal the Living is based on the book of the same name by Maylis de Kerangal and its literary origins are both obvious and skilfully translated to the screen. The immediate aftermath of Simon’s brain death and the decisions to donate his viable organs are all seen, devastatingly, through Marianne’s eyes, before we move into the shoes of junior surgeon Thomas (Tahar Rahim). Thomas is one of the most singularly likable characters in any film I’ve seen in recent memory, compassionate and just dorky enough, played with breath-catching empathy by Rahim.
Rahim’s is a truly standout performance, but it doesn’t overshadow anyone else – this is a supremely brilliant cast, and Dorval is its best. She has to be, given that the section from her point of view is the longest, and though the pace slackens in this middle section, Dorval is magnetic, and the mirror of her getting a new heart from a near-child in order to gain more years with her own sons is profoundly affecting. Mothers and sons are the driving force of Heal the Living, and this theme’s importance to the film is spelled out gradually, never rushing the world-building or cutting time with any given character short.
The operations themselves are initially wince-inducing, but never gratuitous, and presented so frankly that they take on a sort of transcendent ritualism. With what looks like the smallest series of cuts, lives are altered, humans playing at being benevolent gods with little more than a scalpel and an ice box. It’s a perfectly staged conclusion to a gloriously melancholic yet hopeful tapestry of the tragedies, coincidences, and kindnesses that make up the human experience that also stands as a high bar for how to faithfully translate novelistic storytelling to the screen.