Heal the Living opens and closes upon a sunrise. It is a balancing act between life and death; darkness and dawn. The film ebbs and flows back and forth like this throughout, just like the tide that washes over 17-year-old Simon during one early morning surf before he is in a severe car accident that leaves him brain dead. Learning of Simon’s fate, his parents are left with a choice: do they donate his organs or not? This, however, is only half the story. The other half deals with a middle-aged mother whose heart is failing and is in need of a transplant.
French director and screenwriter Katell Quillévéré’s Heal the Living is an elegy to life and told equally as poetically. The visuals are, at times, hypnotic. One potent example is during Simon’s last surf before the accident when he is thrown under the waves and above him the crashing tides look like an endless blue maelstrom. It is a fluid and effortless work of direction that is capped off by a score from Academy-award winning composer Alexandre Desplat.
Often, the camera will merely linger with characters, telling us everything they are feeling without a single line of dialogue. A technique that may not have worked to such great effect had this ensemble cast not been so pitch-perfect in their respective roles which vary from teenagers, their parents and, a perspective not often seen, the doctors who work tirelessly behind the scenes. That is Heal the Living’s strength, it is a film about people. No single character is given importance over another; they are all equally diverse, afraid and as tired as each other.
Heal the Living isn’t an easy film to watch and has no stirring, fast-paced sequences. Even surgical scenes lack their usual intensity here and the catalyst for the story, the car accident, happens off-screen. The film is much more melancholy. And the questions at its core are ones that will linger with you as the smallest of characters make the hardest of choices. When the characters feel, we feel right with them. These aren’t extraordinary people, they are simply stuck in the worst of circumstances and we empathise with them all the more for it.
Heal the Living doesn’t offer any surprises and by the time you meet the mother and learn of her failing heart, you will likely have the ending figured out. But what does take you by surprise during this superbly crafted, multiple-narrative, intersecting drama is the tenderness of the journey to get there and how satisfying it ultimately is.