Film Review: Medical Drama ‘Heal the Living’ Is a Half-Hearted Tearjerker

Images of a heart provide a pivotal moment in the narrative of “Heal the Living,” a tragic drama from director Katell Quillévéré. And indeed, the film’s “heart is in the right place,” showcasing the perseverance of humanity in the aftermath of an accident. But despite its best intentions, there’s something lacking in this wandering multi-narrative story.

The film gets off to an optimistic start, opening on a sequence that showcases Quillévéré’s eye. We see a group of teenagers expressing their carefree youth, embarking on a road trip to go surfing. The wordless montage is positively ecstatic, capturing the sun-kissed open road in glorious wide shots and the undulating waves with almost therapeutic slow-motion elegance. But this visceral thrill is literally short-lived, as this seemingly normal day ends in disaster. The gang’s car eventually crashes, severely injuring 17-year-old Simon (Gabin Verdet). And upon his arrival at the hospital, his parents learn that he is irreparably brain dead.

Out of this devastating news comes an opportunity, however, as the doctors propose that Simon’s healthy organs be donated. Meanwhile, an ailing woman named Claire (Anne Dorval) is in need of a transplant to cure her ailing heart. Claire and Simon have never met, but their fates will soon converge. But first, Simon’s parents must make one of the toughest decisions of their lives.

From “Nashville” to the infamous “Crash,” filmmakers have long been fascinated by the interconnectivity of people. The concept that our actions can have direct consequences for unrelated strangers has been the source of many elaborate plots throughout film history. In “Heal the Living,” Quillévéré takes this screenwriting device and makes it into a matter of life and death. The loss of one life affects the preservation of another.

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As can be expected, the situation becomes a highly emotional ordeal for those involved. And this results in some of the best acting you’ll see in theaters right now. As Simon’s bereaved parents, Emmanuelle Seigner and Kool Shen give deeply felt, genuine performances. Their response to the bad news is pitched at just the right level of shock and despair.

Opposite them are a number of medical personnel who provide advice and comfort, the standout being Tahar Rahim‘s Thomas Rémige. In this crucial role, Rahim exudes a warmth and empathy that reassures the parents and to a certain extent, audiences, who may be contemplating how they would handle the situation themselves.

Indeed, “Heal the Living” poses some interesting questions, many of which are framed around Claire. As she holds on for dear life, her fear is compounded by the philosophical debate of whether she should accept her impending demise as something that nature intended. As she prepares for the transplant, the script goes on to further explore the physical, emotional and psychological toll of Claire’s heart condition. And Dorval is exquisite in the role, conveying tenderness and vulnerability with impressive nuance and subtlety. Thankfully, the script gives her a lot to do, as we witness her everyday life interacting with doctors, friends and the two sons whom she treasures deeply.

But while Claire’s story combines with the others to instill a sense of gravitas, the film otherwise wastes its multi-narrative style. Although Dorval gets a rich character arc, the others are relegated to archetypes, particularly Simon. His backstory is shown through a single inconsequential courtship scene between him and his girlfriend, which only serves to emphasize the half-hearted approach to his character. And with a premise whose conclusion is entirely predictable, this lack of character depth is painfully obvious.

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Throughout the narrative we are reminded of the anonymity required in relation to Simon as an organ donor. And the screenplay unfortunately treats him with the same impersonal feeling. His heart is merely a symbol and catalyst to provoke the feelings and actions of the lives around him. As a result of his character’s sacrifice, the ensemble gets to deliver emotionally resonant performances and Alexandre Desplat’s score is suitably heart-stirring. But while “Heal the Living” successfully touches the heart in every sense, it disappointingly neglects the body and soul at the center of its tragic human story.

“Heal the Living” opens in select theaters April 14.

GRADE: (★★½)

About Shane Slater

Shane is a passionate cinephile and Tomatometer-approved film critic residing in Kingston, Jamaica. When he's not watching or writing about film, he spends much of his time wishing he lived in a big city. Shane is an avid world traveler and loves attending film festivals. He is a member of the African-American Film Critics Association.