Health care is becoming a common issue in new movies … and the prognosis is frightening
Afilm critic I know named Charles, who was covering the Cannes film festival for an American newspaper, woke up one night near the end of the festival with a terrible pain in his side: revenge of the rich French sauces, Charles figures. He called the desk of his hotel, and within an hour, a doctor arrived, diagnosed the onset of kidney stones, and prescribed medicine that would help dissolve them. The whole thing took about two hours and cost Charles about $100 for the drugs. He figures that had it happened in the U.S., he would have been out thousands, not to mention the mandatory trip to the hospital, hotel house calls having been abandoned sometime shortly after the Roosevelt administration.
It was quite a coincidence that Charles was able to test the French health-care system this way, because it came just a week or so after the premiere of Michael Moore’s
Sicko, a documentary about the collapse of the American system: people being denied benefits, people being dumped into the streets by hospitals when they can’t pay their bills. “Who are we?” Moore asks in a film that is more emotional than you might expect from the flamboyant filmmaker. “Is this what we’ve become?”
Moore’s film finds a comparative paradise in the health-care systems of England, Canada, and especially France where — at least in his version — the state sends workers to do everything for new mothers, including their laundry. He may be overstating the case, but you can’t deny his ability to tap into the zeitgeist. Three years ago, his award-winning documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 was one of the first movies to examine the terrorist attacks and what the war on Iraq was doing to American society, a theme that has since popped up in everything from zombie movies to superhero epics. Now, health care has emerged as a theme in several new movies, including Cannes award-winners, and once again, Moore seems to have been there first.
It arose most explicitly in the Romanian movie that won the Palme d’Or this year, Four Months, Three Weeks and Two Days, which is the length of the terminated pregnancy of the film’s heroine. This gritty, low-budget movie — brilliantly realized in its everyday tensions — is set during the dying days of the communist regime. It’s a portrait of a repressive society, and filmmaker Cristian Mongiu picked abortion as the way to illustrate it: it works both as a metaphor and a social issue, and the movie’s back-alley abortionist, a Mr. Bebe, stands as a frightening representative of both desperation and power. Like Michael Moore points out, you can measure a society by how it tends to those in medical need.
Canada comes across well in Sicko, but you got a different view in the cinema of Denys Arcand, another Cannes regular. In The Barbarian Invasions (2003) a movie about a middle-aged man facing death, our health-care system was depicted as a chaotic jumble of disinterest and overcrowding, to be overcome only through bribing hospital unions and paying large sums to have some tests done in the U.S.
Arcand was back at Cannes this year with L’Age des Tenebres ( The Days of Darkness), a comedy that has a dark dream sequence in which a doctor describes to the movie’s hero — played by Quebec actor Marc Labreche, whose own wife died last year of cancer — how his impending cancer will be treated: with painful chemotherapy that will do no good, useless operations, drugs that will soon lose their effectiveness in dulling pain, and inevitable death.
Arcand says his main inspiration for the scene was the death from cancer of his assistant. “When I shot Barbarian Invasions, he was always coughing,” Arcand recalled recently at a beachside lunch in Cannes, beside sunny waters that couldn’t banish thoughts of death. “We finished the film and he went to shoot a Robert Lepage film, The Other Side of the Moon, and he started really coughing, and Robert Lepage’s sister, who is a woman who takes charge, said ‘You’re going to the hospital tonight.’
“He had a huge tumor on his lung and they had to operate and it’s the worst kind of story: they operated on him, he had three months’ remission, and after that he had cancer cells in his brain. He had to be operated on, radiation, chemo, what have you. It was a horrible death.”
At the time, Arcand was writing L’Age Des Tenebres, and he says he was inspired to think about a doctor who would tell a patient the exact truth about his illness. It’s not something we usually hear. The diagnosis of the health-care systems themselves, on the other hand, are sliding in everywhere. If you take your cues from the movies, the prognosis is frightening.