There are two types of people in this world, apparently: Those who would find a staff-led singalong of “Let My People Go” in a hospital cancer ward comforting, even inspiring, and those for whom it would only exacerbate the agony. Emmanuelle Bercot’s heart-on-sleeve medical drama “Peaceful” is populated largely by the former group, and duly presumes a high tolerance for sentimentality in its audience — though there are pockets of perceptiveness amid its stickier emotional gestures. Following the last year in the life of terminal cancer patient Benjamin (Benoit Magimel) as he struggles to accept his imminent death and tie up the loose ends of his past, the film is too emotionally blunt not to wring tears (or at least a solid lump in the throat) where required, though they don’t always feel artfully earned. Either way, at over two hours, it’s a long trudge toward an inevitable end.
The performances of Magimel and the redoubtable Catherine Deneuve — as Benjamin’s stricken, protective mother Crystal — anchor the film compellingly enough, though they don’t entirely resist the film’s own impulses toward high-key melodrama. (Deneuve’s presence, in particular, will raise international distributor interest in this out-of-competition Cannes premiere, which might otherwise be too glum to register far beyond French borders.) Yet neither star is the film’s most compelling or distinguishing presence: Instead, it’s non-actor and real-life oncologist Dr. Gabriel Sara, playing a quietly heroic version of himself, who makes a last impression, lending proceedings not just benevolent warmth but a clear-eyed view of the medical professional’s role in the passage from life to death — one that feels informed by hardened experience, not screenwriter’s sentiment.
The pragmatism that Sara brings to proceedings — not just as an actor, but as a consultant on the entire project — doesn’t always sit comfortably with the more fanciful diversions of Bercot and co-writer Marcia Romano’s script, which rather over-burdens its ailing protagonist with subplots relating to fatherhood and last-gasp romance. (Bercot’s previous medically-themed drama, the fact-based “150 Milligrams,” was drier and more stoic in its lyricism, and that restraint is missed here.) Still, “Peaceful” is pleasingly progressive in its stance against the language of cancer as a battle to be won or lost. “We have to keep fighting,” Crystal says, somewhat emptily, in the face of her son’s terminal diagnosis. “Against what?” the good doctor replies.
Benjamin himself is initially reluctant to face facts, seeking a cycle of second opinions before falling back on the mercy of Dr. Eddé (Sara), who runs an unorthodox cancer clinic that uses music, in particular, as an integral element in palliative care. As an actor and acting teacher himself, Benjamin is perhaps more comfortable than most would be with this gimmick, though his responsiveness to Eddé’s care and counsel ebbs and flows, quite credibly, with his volatile moods.
Several overlong scenes of Benjamin coaching his students on stage hammer home an obvious “carpe diem” message, though it’s clear he has squandered several key opportunities in his lifetime — not least among them a relationship with a son (Oscar Morgan) he doesn’t know. The film rather strings out the suspense over a potential reunion between the two, though it’s a worthier narrative diversion than a frankly ludicrous wisp of a love story between the dying man and Dr. Eddé’s assistant nurse (Cécile de France, thanklessly cast), a character whose implausibilities only begin with the high-heeled espadrilles she wears on the ward.
It’s at such points that “Peaceful” seemingly struggles to identify the line between emotional abandon and outright kitsch, though you’d expect a director and actor as accomplished as Bercot to know that a deathbed serenade to “Nothing Compares 2 U” falls firmly over it. In spite of its most gauche instincts, however, the filmmaking occasionally hits home when it keeps things simple and unspoken (or unsung). A shot of Deneuve adjusting her hair and makeup in the bathroom — fussing merely for the sake of something mundane to do, as she mentally prepares for the worst — says a lot more than any heartfelt ballad or platitude.