A sensitive young doctor, emotionally hobbled by the depth of his compassion, handles the illnesses and existential crises of a small French community in “Sachs’ Disease.” With some 50 speaking parts, vet helmer Michel Deville’s latest film builds a composite portrait of a small-town doctor and his patients by layering office visits, internal monologues, house calls and gossip, all related via fluid camerawork and effective sound design. Thoughtful in form and content but underwhelming, pic is unlikely to set the box office on fire. Still, it contains several vignettes that linger.
Businesslike Bruno Sachs (Albert Dupontel), the only physician for miles around, doesn’t know the meaning of small talk. He has a reputation for kindness and a satisfied clientele, but during appointments he often scribbles notes such as “I’m bored” and “This patient annoys me.” Sachs, who compulsively fills audiocassettes, notebooks and sheaves of paper with running accounts of his work , supplements his office hours with shifts at a regional hospital, where he performs abortions.
Pauline (Valerie Dreville) comes in for an abortion and suddenly, the ascetic , slightly dour Sachs lights up. On a follow-up visit, Pauline confesses her attraction, concluding, “We won’t phone each other or make any deliberate overtures, but if we ever run into each other in town, let’s consummate our feelings.” Scene in the local bookshop–cum–notions emporium, when they both happen to amble in, sparks a romance in which Pauline is bottomlessly cheerful and Bruno loosens up a bit.
That’s about it for plot. Pic brims with individuals of all ages and levels of selflessness or self-absorption seeking treatment: a gracious old man whose wife is dying, a heart patient who refuses surgery, a divorced mother who smothers her teen daughter with affection, the mistress of a married man who needs to tell someone about the intensity of her feelings, a husband seeking relief from sore privates brought on by three-times-a-day sex with his randy wife. Especially touching and vivid are Sachs’ interactions with an elderly woman (Martine Sarcey) who doesn’t want her alcoholic adult son confined to an institution.
The down-to-earth tale briefly enters the Twilight Zone when Sachs’ receptionist tries to get to the bottom of repeat phone calls from an elderly woman who apparently died long ago.
The narrative devices via which patients blend into one another make fine use of the widescreen frame and well-tempered sound editing. Deville always makes bold musical choices, and this outing is no exception. An incredibly disruptive and strident piece of music is used recurringly as aural punctuation but also serves to wake up viewers who may be lulled by workaday portrait’s smooth progress.
The title toys with the tradition whereby a disease is always named for the first person to discover or describe it, rather than the patient suffering from it.