Structured as a loose triptych, Katell Quillévéré’s Heal the Living approaches death in prismatic fashion, which allows for its all-encompassing compassion for and understanding of people on every side of a tragedy. Quillévéré deftly slides between three separate dramas surrounding a teenager who’s left brain-dead following a car wreck, giving equal attention and respect to the parents, the doctors preparing for the potential use of the young man’s still-beating heart, and a woman coming to terms with her impending need for a heart transplant. Heal the Living negotiates matters of the heart in both intangible and material terms, vacillating between the corporeal and spiritual as the emotional consequences of death clash with the cold, dispassionate machinations of a hospital whose concerns lie with healing and not consoling.
The film opens with an ethereal sequence that eloquently sets up Quillévéré’s interest in the transition between states of being, from the physical to the metaphysical. The camera exudes a spectral quality as it glides above 17-year-old Simon (Gabin Verdet), leisurely admiring young, healthy bodies in motion as Simon skates to the house of the friend who will drive them to the beach for an early-morning surf. This fluidity of movement continues unabated as three friends ride wave after wave and later make their way back home—and as the driver of the vehicle imagines the road as the ocean surface, it’s almost natural how he drifts off to sleep and crashes the car on the side of the road.
Heal the Living’s focus then shifts to Simon’s parents, Marianne (Emmanuelle Seigner) and Vincent (Kool Shen), who must grapple with the fact that he’s brain-dead and is only on temporary life support. Quillévéré keeps a respectful distance from the grieving parents, acknowledging their pain without conveying its depths and as such potentially succumbing to exploitation. In this very same moment of anguish, a young doctor, Thomas (Tahar Rahim), offers his condolences as he struggles to find a way to tactfully ask Marianne and Vincent for consent to use Simon’s healthy heart for an emergency transplant. Such dualities are carefully balanced throughout the film as impending death and incomprehensible grief repeatedly run up against the mundanities of medical bureaucracy and its potential for healing.
After receiving approval to use Simon’s heart, Thomas informs his supervising doctor and the two share a brief, celebratory high-five. In most films, such a display would seem crass, but Heal the Living allows the sorrows of losing a life and the joys of saving it to remain congruent. The high-five, Simon’s unfinished tattoo, and a call to Simon’s phone that comes through while his father holds it on the drive home from the hospital all serve to deepen our sense of pathos toward all the characters, grounding them in a reality that’s always both individually unique and universally shared. Even the emotional swell of a melodramatic flashback briefly showing Simon’s initial flirtatious encounter with his future girlfriend plays as an earned reprieve from the heartache and a tender, melancholy reminiscence of the loss of youth.
As Heal the Living moves into its final section, which depicts a woman, Claire (Anne Dorval), about to receive Simon’s heart, Quillévéré refuses to shy away from the material realities of death and the body. The surgical procedure is depicted in great detail, beginning with Simon’s heart extracted from his body and put on ice. This final section brings the film full circle, literalizing its themes with a striking resonance and restraint. Matters of life and death are unflinchingly presented not as awe-inspiring or terrifying, but merely natural components of existence. As Quillevere effortlessly weaves these various stories together, a delicate, understated tapestry is revealed, portraying the thin line between life and death and the dichotomy between mind and body as almost imperceptibly fluid rather than rigid and clearly defined.