Af­fairs of the heart

Oneof the bright­est new stars of French cin­ema, Katell Quil­lévéré talks to Tara Brady about her lat­est film, which fol­lows the jour­ney of a heart from donor to trans­plant re­cip­i­ent

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - FILM -

Is it dif­fer­ent for girls? Not so much in France. Back in the 19th cen­tury, Alice Guy be­came one of cin­ema’s ear­li­est au­teurs, blaz­ing a trail for other fe­male French film di­rec­tors. Agnès Varda made her first fea­ture in the 1950s, Co­line Ser­reau in the 1970s, Claire De­nis in the 1980s, Vir­ginie De­spentes in the 1990s, Lu­cile Hadz­i­halilovic in the noughties.

Since 2014, un­der the um­brella marked ex­cep­tion cul­turelle, be­tween a quar­ter and a fifth of Gal­lic films have been made by women, a statis­tic that looks more im­pres­sive when placed be­side US fig­ures – last year, women com­prised just 7 per cent of all di­rec­tors work­ing on the top 250 gross­ing films, a drop from 2015.

This fem­i­nine nou­velle vague – com­pris­ing such tal­ents as Mia Hansen-Løve ( Eden), Cé­line Sci­amma ( Girl­hood), Ju­lia Du­cour­nau ( Raw), Deniz Gamze Ergüven ( Mus­tang) and Re­becca Zlo­towski ( Grand Cen­tral) – make films that are united only by their un­ex­pect­ed­ness. Of­ten es­chew­ing con­ven­tional struc­ture, th­ese women var­i­ously pro­duce car­nal, bloody, philo­soph­i­cal and gritty work that flirts with and flouts generic norms.

“This may be just my point of view,” says Heal the Liv­ing di­rec­tor Katell Quil­lévéré. “But it has not been any more dif­fi­cult for me to get a film made, be­cause you have so many good ex­am­ples from my gen­er­a­tion. There are more and more fe­male tech­ni­cians com­ing for­ward, too. Where there is still work to do, in terms of gen­der par­ity, is in of­fi­cial se­lec­tion in fes­ti­vals. Those bod­ies are still pre­dom­i­nantly male.”

For many crit­ics, Quil­lévéré is the bright­est of French cin­ema’s new stars. Her much-ad­mired debut fea­ture, Love Like Poi­son (2010), fol­lowed a 14-year-old girl as she strug­gled with pu­bes­cence, fa­mil­ial dis­cord and Catholi­cism. Her am­bi­tious sopho­more fea­ture Suzanne (2013), which takes cues from the Leonard Co­hen song, charts a woman’s life choices over 20 years.

A heart’s progress

Her lat­est film is sprawl­ing in terms of its Alt­mane­seque num­ber of char­ac­ters and over­lap­ping sub­plots, yet it op­er­ates in a much tighter time frame than its pre­de­ces­sor. Heal the Liv­ing, which chronicles the jour­ney of a heart­from donor to trans­plant re­cip­i­ent, is an adap­ta­tion of the In­ter­na­tional Booker prize-nom­i­nated Mend the Liv­ing, by Maylis de Keran­gal.

“Forme thed­if­fer­ent time pe­ri­ods are not so much a con­tra­dic­tion,” says Quil­lévéré. “It was more a ques­tion of re­new­ing my­self and find­ing a way to tell a story in this spe­cific for­mat. This is the first time I have not had a main fe­male char­ac­ter. In­stead I have many char­ac­ters, as we move from life to death, from the or­gan donor to the re­cip­i­ent. So that au­to­mat­i­cally gave a very dif­fer­ent struc­ture to the film.”

The di­rec­tor looked to Lords of Dog­town to cre­ate the film’s open­ing se­quence, in which a group of young board­ers head out on a surf­ing trip. When an ac­ci­dent leaves one of the young­sters in a coma, it falls to med­i­cal pro­fes­sion­als to both break the news and raise the is­sue of or­gan do­na­tion with the griev­ing par­ents.

“I spend a long time with pro­fes­sion­als be­fore I wrote the script,” says Quil­lévéré. “I was talk­ing and lis­ten­ing to the equiv­a­lent of ev­ery sin­gle char­ac­ter in the film so that I had an in­sight into ev­ery stage of the process. There is a pro­to­col in terms of howor­gan do­na­tion is or­ches­trated in real life. The di­a­logue that med­i­cal pro­fes­sion­als have with sur­viv­ing rel­a­tives is very pre­cise. They re­peat it al­most like ac­tors. Their choice of words changes from words like ‘pass­ing’ and ‘de­ceased’ be­fore they ac­tu­ally pro­nounce the word ‘dead’.”

Quil­lévéré and her long-time di­rec­tor of pho­tog­ra­phy Tom Harari also sat in on heart trans­plant op­er­a­tions and worked with med­i­cal pro­fes­sion­als and ef­fects spe­cial­ists to repli­cate the mo­ment when the heart leaves the chest. “But for me cin­ema is never a replica,” she says. “It’s a rep­re­sen­ta­tion of spe­cific things. A re­flec­tion. It should leave – like the word sug­gests – space for re­flec­tion. That’s the space where cin­ema comes alive.”

Re­straint and re­serve

As ever with Quil­lévéré’s films, Heal the Liv­ing doesn’t feel like other med­i­cal or trans­plant dra- mas. The film-maker did, she notes, look to Dou­glas Sirk’s sim­i­larly themed Mag­nif­i­cent Ob­ses­sion as a tem­plate, but her film stu­diously avoids the (com­pelling) melo­drama of that pic­ture, in favour of a com­plex web of nar­ra­tive arcs and small com­pas­sion­ate mo­ments. In one af­fect­ing scene, a sur­geon (Ta­har Rahim), just be­fore the in­ci­sion is made, plugs head­phones into the ears of a co­matose boy, so that he can hear mu­sic while his heart leaves his body.

“With melo­drama there’s a risk of go­ing too far or go­ing over the top and los­ing the pathos. But we wanted re­straint and re­serve. That’s how I worked with the ac­tors. We reined ev­ery­thing in so the emo­tion was only just reach­ing the sur­face. The au­di­ence – the viewer – can see it in his or her eyes. That’s the trick – to get there and no fur­ther.”

A top-class en­sem­ble – in­clud­ing Rahim, Em­manuelle Seigner, and Anne Dor­val – pull to­gether to lit­er­alise the idea of hu­man con­nec­tion.

“Fun­da­men­tally, that’s what in­ter­ested me: what links peo­ple, whether its so­ci­ety or fam­ily or pro­fes­sional life. Those links and how ev­ery link takes its place in a chain. It was only af­ter I made the film that I re­alised how dif­fi­cult the sub­ject was. Not every­body wants to con­front death. And pay for the ticket as well.” Heal the Liv­ing is out now and is re­viewed on page 11

With melo­drama there’s a risk of go­ing too far or go­ing over the top and los­ing the pathos. But we wanted re­straint and re­serve

Katell Quil­lévéré “Not every­body wants to con­front death.” Be­low: Gabin Verdet and Ta­har Rahim in Heal the Liv­ing

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