A 17-year-old car crash victim lies brain-dead in hospital, as doctors urgently pitch the virtues of organ donation to his distraught parents; over in another town, a middle-aged mother of two with a severely degenerative heart condition goes on the waiting list for a transplant. What sounds like fodder for a routinely gripping episode of “ER” is complicated with rare depths of personal and sensual detail in French director Katell Quillévéré’s sublimely compassionate, heart-crushing third feature “Heal the Living.” More polished but no less authentically humane than her previous works “Suzanne” and “Love Like Poison,” this spidering ensemble piece — adapted from Maylis de Kerangal’s internationally acclaimed 2014 novel — boasts beautifully pitched performances from a handpicked cast that includes Tahar Rahim and Emmanuelle Seigner. But it’s Quillévéré’s soaring visual and sonic acumen (with an assist from composer Alexandre Desplat, here in matchless form) that suffuses a potentially familiar hospital weeper with true grace.
That fusion of formal and emotional fluency should make “Heal the Living” the helmer’s most widely distributed work to date, and deserves to fix her name in producers’ minds for even more ambitious, potentially international, crossover projects. Dazzlingly composed and choreographed, the film’s opening stretches may surprise admirers of her earlier, earthier films, as Tom Harari’s lithe, gliding camera tracks tattooed teenager Simon (Gabin Verdet) from a secret tryst in his girlfriend’s bedroom to a late-night bicycle joyride through his hometown of Le Havre to an early-morning surf appointment with friends.
The surfing footage that ensues has a diving, deep-blue majesty that outstrips more hi-octane Hollywood depictions of the sport for sheer kinetic wonder; however high the narrative stakes, “Heal the Living” takes several such moments to consider the world its characters are merely passing through. The ocean, meanwhile, serves as a motif of life and death throughout the film, though not in the expected way. On the drive home, through a half-dreaming motorist’s eyes, the road turns to rippling water — a split-second before a crash that sends Simon fatally through the windshield.
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The events that follow are exactly what life (or at least a thousand medical dramas) have led us to expect: It’s the way Quillévéré sequences them that surprises, with elegantly fleeting structural detours into the past, or the inner lives of secondary participants in the crisis. Sleeping at midday for reasons the viewer is left to intuit, Simon’s mother Marianne (Seigner) is first to receive the news, though not before the phone has been answered and delivered by her wide-eyed, unknowing young daughter; the camera gazes upon their contrasting faces as a kind of before-and-after study in the wear and tear of tragedy. As Marianne and her estranged husband Vincent (rapper-actor Kool Shen) face in hospital the impossibility of their son’s survival, Quillévéré steps back — as if to give them room to grieve — to graze the lives of the ragged hospital staff: The rumpled, hip-hop-loving senior surgeon (Bouli Lanners); the gentle organ donation consultant (Tahar Rahim) who meditates on YouTube videos of goldfinches to stay sane; the put-upon new nurse (Monia Chokri) drifting into a seconds-long carnal daydream in the elevator.
Just as Quillévéré’s symphony of human suffering gathers pace, however, a new movement is introduced. In Paris, out-of-action musician Claire (the wonderful Anne Dorval, regular muse of Xavier Dolan) learns that her disabling heart condition is worsening; tenderly supported by her two college-age sons (Finnegan Oldfield and Theo Cholbi), she prepares for the worst, while fearing that she may die with vital things unsaid between them, not to mention between her and her estranged lover. This fragile, unconventional family dynamic is etched with consummate delicacy by filmmaker and actors alike, abetted by a shivery, initially diegetic piano theme by Desplat that carries all the film’s nervous emotions on its light, tumbling keys; it may be his most resonant individual screen composition since 2004’s “Birth.”
It doesn’t take a scholar of narrative structure to figure out how these two narratives will be joined, quite literally, at the heart, but Quillévéré observes medical process — and the worn bodies that undergo them — with a reverent, methodical exactitude that should have viewers knotted in tense concern regardless. The film has no need for trumped-up reminders of life-or-death gravity, nor for agitated cutting and scoring as doctors shout imperatives at each other: It’s the quiet human details of the situation, as parents’ final sentiments are relayed to unconscious ears, or tentative smiles of understanding are exchanged across waiting rooms in the early hours, that land like the benevolent of punches to the gut. “Careful, no powerful emotions,” Claire wryly cautions her loved ones at one point, repeating doctor’s orders but knowing it’s far too late for such restraint.
For her part, Quillévéré’s filmmaking never presses its emotional buttons too hard, just as it never sweetens the pill with manufactured poignancy. Take the way she ribbons flashes from Simon’s romance with girlfriend Juliette (Galatea Bellugi) through proceedings, using unspoken memory to articulate the terror of loss just as effectively as a blubbing bedside scene would do. Harari’s perfectly poised camera, Thomas Marchand’s fluid editing and Desplat’s aforementioned score are tuned into the film’s feelings at every turn, as are Quillévéré’s frequently inventive soundtrack choices: One wonders if the director chose David Bowie’s “Five Years” as a critical cue before or after the Thin White Duke’s much-mourned death earlier this year, but either way, it’s the right key to the waterworks.