Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
Katell Quillévéré has proven herself to be a savvy and formidable filmmaker. Her first feature film, LOVE LIKE POISON, was a soul-stirring debut that grabbed my attention. Her follow-up feature, SUZANNE, was nothing short of a masterpiece, shaking me to my core with her emotionally vivid portrait of a woman and her family in upheaval. Her successful streak continues with her latest feature, HEAL THE LIVING. It’s an elegantly rendered work of art that speaks to the sometimes brutal, sometimes beautiful cycle of life and death.
Based on the novel by Maylis De Kerangal, the film tells the story of Simon (Gabin Verdet), a surf-loving seventeen-year-old who’s rendered comatose following a tragic car accident. As his parents (played by Emmanuelle Seigner and Kool Shen) mourn and decide whether or not to donate his organs, another family (played by Anne Dorval, Finnegan Oldfield and Theo Cholbi) miles away anxiously await news if they can look forward to more years spent with their matriarch.
I recently spoke with the affable director via Facetime about everything from her personal connection to the book, to this film’s thematic ties to E.T., to how she came to use a David Bowie song to close the film.
How did this story first find its way to you and what about it connected with you?
I discovered the novel while I was not looking for a movie project. I was writing a new, original script, but this reading was so strong for me. It touched me so deeply that I decided to take a break with the other script and meet the writer and to try to have the chance to get the book rights.
First, I really followed my instincts. I didn’t really know why I was so thrilled, so attached to this story and then during the process of writing, I understood it’s linked to something I’ve been through – from my own life, from my own experience with the hospital. The fear of losing someone close, which is something that happened to me. It was the occasion to transform something – to repair something from my own life story. And also to repair something from everybody’s story. It’s pretty usual to have this experience with the hospital, death and fear. There was something really universal in that story.
I had the feeling it was a way to keep telling the same story in a way, but in a different environment. This movie is about the question of, ‘Oh. You survived the death or loss or breakup of someone you love and how life keeps going on after that.’ That was also the story of SUZANNE, you know. She lost her mother and missing something in her life and looking for it all the time. This is always about the people who stay. The people who keep living their lives and their resilience. The way you can transform the accidents of life in something full of life.
It’s really an opposite experience the whole time, compared to SUZANNE, which is a saga during 25 years. With this project, I had to tell the story within 24 hours in 90 minutes. This challenge was really exciting for me. The question of dealing with time is strongly the question of cinema, for me. Also, the idea of building a movie without a main character, but with ten characters was a new and exciting challenge.
One of these characters is in a coma for a large portion of the film, but he’s actually just as much of a main character as the living ones. Was there a challenge to bringing in his voice and making sure he’s a presence?
Yes. It was really important that Simon stay in our minds during the whole process of the movie. It’s really about his life, and his heart was donated. I really worked on those small moments where he’s alive, to keep him really luminous and alive.
I’d never seen anything as profound and genuinely romantic than the sequence you show where Simon bikes to the top of the mountain, beating his girlfriend’s funicular to the top. That really got me. Was that in the book?
That was in book. That was even in the place where it was in the book. That’s what I thought too. It was really romantic to shoot. What I like in that process is that you think about his heart in the concrete way, like a muscle, because he’s climbing. It’s hard what he’s doing physically. But you also think about the metaphor, of his heart beating, because he’s declaring himself to that girl. This scene was interesting because it was working on the different aspects of the heart.
You also have these breathtaking shots of the surf and surfing. Was there any difficulty in getting those shots? I would imagine working with water is… I can’t even fathom it.
Yeah. That was one of the most difficult parts of the movie. You depend on the weather. You never know when you’re going to shoot. It depends on the waves, on the wind, everything. It’s also really dangerous. You get scared of the time and the actors. I chose real surfers – that was important to me. The guy who’s filming is a real surfer. The most difficult was the editing. We shot on different days, in different waves, with different skies. So it was a big, big job to find harmony of the scene, the movement, the atmosphere. And also with the special effects to rebuild the sky – to have the same color sky and water and everything. It took four months for one minute of the movie. It was always a process – we were always coming back to that scene.
It was really important for me that the audience feels really in the water, like the character. It’s also a metaphor of the existence. You got into the wave and it’s like a mother’s womb, protecting you. You want to go inside. At the same time, you’re waiting for the sea to reject you. It’s like a rebirth. In surf practice, you go to make yourself die, in a way, to get birth again. It’s this movement of death and life is the whole movement of the movie. I had to put this climax for the audience to get into the movie.
Alexandre Desplat’s score is also gorgeous and I loved that you chose a David Bowie deep cut (“Five Years”) to end the movie on. How did you arrive at that particular song? Was that always in your head when you were reading the book?
No. I didn’t have an idea of the last song. I was looking for it, but I couldn’t find it. I tried many different songs. I didn’t want to have a composition for the end. I was really looking for an original soundtrack, like in SUZANNE with Nina Simone at the end. I can’t explain why, but I really need to end my movies on an original soundtrack – not composed. We were on a short editing break in a bar and the music came on and it was that song. We just stopped working and listened to it, and thought, ‘Maybe that could fit. We should try it.’ So we came back to the editing room and downloaded the song and it was perfect.
How do you conduct your sets to make them so amenable to the actors’ emotional performances?
When I’m writing the script, I’m really charging myself with many emotions, meeting people in real life. I took time in the hospital. I met nurses, surgeons, people who had lost family, people who donated, some people who received donations. I charged myself with many stories and emotions. When you are on stage, the script is charged too, but you’re trying to communicate that to the actors, but it’s something instinctive.
To direct the actors, I’m just trying to be in the same state of mind as them. I think they can feel it – really strongly feel I’m connected to them. And they can feel my trust also. I try to give them a lot of self-confidence to be able to abandon themselves to the scene. It’s important to the actor if you want them to feel free to try things, to feel loved – not judged. To let them feel they won’t be betrayed, because they give from themselves – especially in this kind of movies. They have to trust me to do it.
You show clips from E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL in this movie, which ties in thematically, where walking through, you’re feeling like an alien in this world. Maybe I’m reading too much into it?
No, no. You’re absolutely right.
Was there a greater, personal significance for you with that movie versus any other with similar sentiment?
It has a big significance for me. I’m okay with what you said, and also, for me, E.T. talks about donation. Because the alien is connected to this child and when E.T. is feeling something, the child is feeling it too. If you remember, his heart is sick and the child is helping him stay alive – he’s connected. I really like this idea which is really connected to the movie. It’s also something that deals with the childhood of anybody. I had to build this family, this trio, in a short time. When I was writing, I was asking myself, ‘What could they do together to help the audience to feel the kind of family they are?’ I had the idea that they could watch a movie. I’ve always been impressed with this idea that when you watch a movie together, it’s a way to communicate from the outside. It’s so much easier to cry together because E.T. is leaving, than telling your mother, you’re crying because you’re scared of losing her. It talked to me about the function of cinema in everyday life.
HEAL THE LIVING opens on April 14 in New York and Los Angeles.