'Not everybody wants to confront death. And pay for the ticket'
The French director’s ‘Heal the Living’ follows the journey of a heart from donor to transplant recipient
Heal the Living: The director worked with medical professionals and horror effects specialists to replicate the moment when the heart leaves the chest
Different for girls? Not so much in France. Back in the 19th century, Alice Guy became one of cinema’s earliest auteurs, blazing a trail for other female French film directors. Agnès Varda made her first feature in the 1950s, Coline Serreau in the 1970s, Claire Denis in the 1980s, Virginie Despentes in the 1990s, Lucile Hadzihalilovic in the noughties.
Since 2014, under the umbrella marked exception culturelle, between a quarter and a fifth of Gallic films are made by women, a statistic that looks more impressive when placed beside US figures – last year, women comprised just 7 per cent of all directors working on the top 250 grossing films, representing a drop since 2015.
This feminine nouvelle vague – comprising such talents Mia Hansen-Løve (Eden), Céline Sciamma (Girlhood), Julia Ducournau (Raw), Deniz Gamze Ergüven (Mustang) and Rebecca Zlotowski (Grand Central) – make films that are united only by their unexpectedness. Often eschewing conventional structure, these women variously produce carnal, bloody, philosophical and gritty work that simultaneously flirts with and flouts generic norms.
Where there is still work to do, in terms of gender parity, is in official selection in festivals. Those bodies are still predominantly male
“This may be just my point of view,” says Heal the Living director Katell Quillévéré. “But it has not been any more difficult for me to get a film made because you have so many good examples from my generation. There are more and more female technicians coming forward, too. Where there is still work to do, in terms of gender parity, is in official selection in festivals. Those bodies are still predominantly male.”
For many critics, Katell Quillévéré is the brightest of French cinema’s new stars. Her much-admired debut feature, Love Like Poison (2010), followed a 14-year-old girl as she struggled with pubescence, familial discord and Catholicism. It’s recognisably a coming-of-age story and yet it never looks or feels like other cinematic Bildungsroman. Her ambitious sophomore feature, Suzanne (2013), which takes cues from the Leonard Cohen song, charts a woman’s life choices over 20 years.
A heart’s progress
Her latest film is sprawling in terms of its Altmaneseque number of characters and overlapping subplots, yet it operates in a much tighter time frame than its predecessor. Heal the Living, which chronicles the journey of a heart from donor to transplant recipient, is an adaptation of the International Booker prize-nominated Mend the Living, by Maylis de Kerangal.
“For me the different time periods are not so much a contradiction,” says Quillévéré. “It was more a question of renewing myself and finding a way to tell a story in this specific format. This is the first time I have not had a main female character. Instead I have many characters, as we move from life to death, from the organ donor to the recipient. So that automatically gave a very different structure to the film. The challenge was to find a balance, so we are not meandering as the film moves from one story to another.”
The director looked to Lords of Dogtown to create the film’s opening sequence, in which a group of young boarders head out on a surfing trip. When an accident leaves one of the youngsters in a coma, it falls to medical professionals to both break the news and raise the issue of organ donation with the grieving parents.
“I spend a long time with professionals before I wrote the script,” says Quillévéré. “I was talking and listening to the equivalent of every single character in the film so that I had an insight into every stage of the process. There is a protocol in terms of how organ donation is orchestrated in real life. The dialogue that medical professionals have with surviving relatives is very precise. They repeat it almost like actors. Their choice of words changes from words like ‘passing’ and ‘deceased’ before they actually pronounce the word ‘dead’.”
Quillévéré and her long-time director of photograph, Tom Harari, also sat in on heart transplant operations and worked with medical professionals and horror effects specialists to replicate the moment when the heart leaves the chest: “But for me cinema is never a replica,” she says. “It’s a representation of specific things. A reflection. It should leave – like the word suggests – space for reflection. That’s the space where cinema comes alive. The choices you make for lighting and colour and shots. The transplant scenes in the movie look very different from the real thing after those choices.”
Restraint and reserve
As ever with Quillévéré’s films, Heal the Living doesn’t feel like other medical or transplant dramas. The film-maker did, she notes, look to Douglas Sirk’s similarly themed Magnificent Obsession as a template, but her film studiously avoids the (compelling) melodrama of that picture, in favour of a complex web of narrative arcs and small compassionate moments. In one affecting scene, a surgeon (Tahar Rahim), just before the incision is made, plugs headphones into the ears of a comatose boy, so that he can hear music while his heart leaves his body.
We wanted restraint and reserve. That’s how I worked with the actors. We reined everything in so the emotion was only just reaching the surface
“With melodrama there’s a risk of going too far or going over the top and losing the pathos. But we wanted restraint and reserve. That’s how I worked with the actors. We reined everything in so the emotion was only just reaching the surface. The audience – the viewer – can see it in his or her eyes. That’s the trick – to get there and no further.”
“Fundamentally, that’s what interested me: what links people, whether its society or family or professional life. Those links and how every link takes its place in a chain. It was only after I made the film that I realised how difficult the subject was. Not everybody wants to confront death. And pay for the ticket as well.”
- Heal the Living is on release