Lesbian couple Julie and Raphaëlle are on the brink of breaking up when the latter slips and smashes her elbow in “The Divide,” but if you zoom out, all of France seems to be at similar risk of shattering. The French title for “Replay” director Catherine Corsini’s 14th feature (her first to compete at Cannes since 2001), “La fracture,” does a better job of suggesting all the ways the country and her characters can’t be put back together again. But neither conveys the sheer exhaustion of spending a few hours in the emergency room of an overtaxed French public hospital.
If this were an episode of “Grey’s Anatomy” or “ER,” we’d know all the doctors, care about the patients and feel relatively certain that everything would reach some semblance of order by the end of the shift. Instead, operating in the more immersive mode of Martin Scorsese’s “Bringing Out the Dead,” Corsini sets out to capture the pure chaos of a specific moment in time, just before COVID-19 made the hospitals really crazy (the pandemic was already underway when she shot). In a way, it’s knowing what’s about to come that makes the unpleasantness of this storm before the superstorm seem bearable. Otherwise, as originally conceived, the movie might be too much — 90-odd minutes of screaming and wailing, pain and self-pity — to the extent that even art-house-goers will need a morphine drip to get through it.
The good news: At this particular hospital, treatments are free, covered by the very government the gilets jaunes have been protesting. The bad: Those “yellow vest” rallies — which simmered from November 2018 until the pandemic forced Paris into lockdown — reach a boil the same day Raf is rushed to the ER, and once the police start in on the demonstrators with their tear gas and clubs, the place fills up fast. The result is a whole lot of people shouting at each other, arguing about whose wounds are worse, whose grievances are greater and why the hell doesn’t anybody stay together anymore.
Listening to Julie (Marina Foïs) and Raf (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi) argue, it’s easy to see that the relationship has run its course. Julie has announced plans to move out, and Raf’s only recourse is to escalate the long-running argument between them: to howl and plead for another chance while hurling insults the whole way. Breakups are awful no matter how they happen, but this one is particularly agonizing, and Corsini sends it into overtime by saddling Raf with a crisis she can exploit for sympathy.
It takes a fairly long time to figure out the wavelength on which this combative dynamic registers as funny, but there’s a perverse kind of humor to the way these two know each other’s weak spots — and something genuinely touching about the way Julie tends to her partner, even though she’d just as soon never see her again. That’s a lot to manage while Paris melts down around them. Corsini does an impressive job re-creating the tension that existed in the streets as protesters challenged lines of police (police who, it should be said, were not the target of citizens’ frustration, the way they were in the States, but were sent in to absorb the insults being hurled at the French state).
Among the demonstrators, a truck driver named Yann (Pio Marmaï) taunts the authorities, then takes a load of shrapnel to the leg when a tear-gas canister explodes. Thrust into the same hospital waiting room as Raf and more than a dozen other patients, he’s still agitated and unwilling to settle down, turning his frustration against anyone who’ll listen. He and Raf belong to completely different social classes, but they’re not as different as they might think — nor is the staff, nearly all of whom are nonwhite (selected from a pool of real-life medical workers, a statement unto itself).
Hospitals serve as one of those rare spaces — like train stations or the post office — where one can encounter people of practically any background, and “The Divide” strategically treats the ER as a microcosm of French society where disparate citizens are forced to mix … or clash, as the case may be. Less stressful than the patient-to-patient interactions are the various crises demanding the staff’s attention at any given moment, and multitask as they might, it’s clear the hospital is overwhelmed — to say nothing of the system it represents.
With an eye for the absurd (a weirdo who brings his dog in to have its stomach pumped; a ceiling that spontaneously collapses, very nearly re-injuring a man in a wheelchair), Corsini and co-writers Agnès Feuvre and Laurette Polmanss write each scene with such authenticity, we scarcely realize how strategically some have been introduced to set up dramatic moments later on. As the police gather outside the doors and hospital management is forced to take sides, a nurse named Kim (Aïssatou Diallo Sagna, a nonprofessional actor but a professional health care worker) emerges as a favorite character — a source of endless patience and empathy, no matter how disrespectful the patients are toward her (one even takes her hostage in an especially tense scene).
The characters can be so grating, watching “The Divide” feels like sticking your head in the garbage disposal. But as unwieldy as the multi-tentacled narrative can be — just think of the logistics required to stage it! — the experience adds up to something unshakeable. You might not care whether Julie and Raf stay together, or whether Yann gets his truck back to Nîmes in time. Heck, you might even wonder why, if they shoot horses when they break a leg, no one puts these characters out of our misery. But after it’s over and you’ve had time to absorb everything, it’s like you actually spent a night in that ER yourself, with the scars to prove it.