Heal the Living (2016)

As a heart intended for transplant passes from teenage accident victim to middle-aged-mother recipient, humanity, compassion and medical professionalism triumph in Katell Quillévéré’s moving Heal the Living.

Heart to Heart

by Alexa Dalby

Heal the Living

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

A teenage boy, Simon (Gabin Verdet), steals out of his girlfriend’s room in the early hours and cycles joyously through the deserted streets of Le Havre to go surfing with his friends. Their exuberance, the massive crashing of the waves – it’s the picture of a vivid young life being lived, feeling invulnerable and careless of danger. That’s how this moving film begins, with a sudden shock. Simon’s working class parents are heartrendingly played by Emmanuelle Seigner and (rapper) Kool Shen as tragic news is broken to them and they have to make a terrible decision.

The film follows the progress of Simon’s heart as it passes on a journey from his body to the two medical teams involved and through them to its final recipient, a plane journey away in Paris. Each person along the way is portrayed as an individual with a life of their own – the hospital consultant (Bouli Lanners) who drops his daughter off with a neighbour on the way to work, the hardworking nurse (Monia Chokri) who fantasises in the lift about her boyfriend, and the compassionate surgeon Tomas (Tahar Rahim), who watches calming videos on his computer for his stress and who guides Simon’s parents sympathetically through the daunting process.

In the second half of the film, we switch to the life of the woman who will finally receive Simon’s heart. Claire (Anne Dorval) is the mother of two university-age sons (Théo Cholbi and Finnegan Oldfield) and a former musician, now unable to work, barely able to climb stairs, because of her failing heart. We see how she reacts to the news that a heart has been found.

There’s almost a fascination with the medical procedures as well as with the humanity of the medical professionals. It’s an ensemble piece that focuses on the interconnected lives of each group as the heart is passed along the chain. Tahar Rahim as the transplant surgeon is the linking thread: his concern for his patient is all-encompassing and his sensitive actions during his final surgery will bring a tear to your eye. It’s a quietly powerful performance. Flashbacks fill in the bare bones of the story so that we see some of Simon’s past and his touching courtship of his girlfriend (Galatéa Bellugi). Claire’s story is less strongly realised but the crucial thing is she is part of the human chain that transfers a living heart from one human being to another. It’s more intensely moving than any medical drama could ever be. And yet incidentally it fills you with wonder at workings of the French health service.

Director Katell Quillévéré (known for Suzanne and Love Like Poison) has sensitively adapted Maylis de Kerangal’s novel – both have the same title in French, Réparer les Vivants – by augmenting the second storyImagery of the sea throughout echoes the opening sequences. It’s a wonderful film that balances life and death and it will tug at your heartstrings and stay with you for a very long time.


Heal the Living is released on 28 April 2017 in the UK.

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