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The French film exploring life, death and interconnectivity

Ahead of the release of her sweeping new drama, we spoke to Katell Quillévéré about being moved by ‘E.T’, dealing with A-list actors, and the one scene that took six months to get right

In Heal the Living, we witness how human bodies are connected, emotionally and physically, through music, memories and literal organs. Directed by Katell Quillévéré (Love Like Poison, Suzanne), the film’s beating heart is its visual poetry: the camera floats like a daydream, as if composed of various reminiscences. And yet, amidst this metaphysical landscape, the drama is very real, spending 24 hours in the aftermath of a young surfer meeting a gravelly grave.

In a strange, scientific way, it’s about life after death. Two teens discover the exuberance and racing passions of first love, only for the romance to end abruptly in a car crash. Though Simon is brain-dead, his heart still functions, which allows for an older woman to receive a transplant. Meanwhile, the camera drifts from person to person, emphasising the links between lovers, relatives and hospital staff, each with their own unravelling social lives.

To cap it all, the cast of Heal the Living is a long, impressive list hand-picked from French cinema: Anne Dorval, Emmanuelle Seigner, Tahar Rahim, Alice de Lencquesaing, and so on. Ahead of the film’s release, we spoke to Katell Quillévéré about the influence of Lords of Dogtown, the chaos of David Bowie’s lyrics, and how families communicate through watching movies.

Heal the Living starts off as a mostly wordless teen movie. Could you tell me about capturing the reckless energy and essence of youth from the get-go?

Katell Quillévéré: For me, the beginning of a movie is always special. I wanted to take the audience’s hand, and show them a world that’s physical and sensual. The surfing is a metaphor for death and life. The water never stops moving, and you confront this wave which is like a womb – you want to be enveloped inside it. But it’s so strong, it can break you. When you’re underwater, you stop breathing, but then you get air again and you’re reborn. That’s the story of the movie: you die and are reborn.

I love Lords of Dogtown. It’s the same beginning, in a way, but shot differently. I’m not into the skating aesthetic. It’s more about the movement. I was also thinking about Badlands, because it’s a love story about a young girl.

My favourite image is when the road turns to water. It’s a very poetic death scene. Did you have that idea very early on?

Katell Quillévéré: Yeah, it was so difficult. It’s a special effect. If it’s not done right, you start again. It’s two weeks of someone calculating it on a computer, all for nothing. It took six months just to do that wave. One guy on a computer for six months. It was crazy.

What did this guy keep getting wrong?

Katell Quillévéré: He was wrong about everything. It was like a tsunami, as if from an American movie. It was ridiculous. Eventually he understood it wasn’t a wave coming from the front. It’s water coming from the road. We had to find something dreamy, something sweet.

We interviewed you three years ago, and you said you’re particularly comfortable dealing with famous actors. How was it assembling this giant cast?

Katell Quillévéré: Wow, I said that about myself? Sure! (laughs) They really liked the script and my previous movies. I take my actors for coffee beforehand. This is the most important hour of the next eight months. Everything you say is extremely intense. You find out if the actor will say yes, or if you really want him or her. Something happens. I try to be myself – no games – and I convince the actor of my love for the movie. If the actor feels that, they’ll follow you wherever you go.

I guess it’s just a coincidence you have two of Xavier Dolan’s regular actors, Anne Dorval and Monia Chokri?

Katell Quillévéré: Yeah, I really don’t care about that. I discovered Anne because of his great movies with her. She touched me so much in Mommy, I wanted to meet her. But I offered her the chance to be really different. In my movie, you can’t recognise her. She plays the opposite of what she traditionally does in a Xavier Dolan movie.

I saw Monia in Xavier’s movies, but I really discovered her in Gare du Nord, a film by Claire Simon. People told me, “You have two Xavier Dolan actresses. Are you sure?” I told them, “Yeah – I don’t give a shit.”

Why did you choose David Bowie’s “Five Years” for the end credits?

Katell Quillévéré: I didn’t know what would be the last song of the movie. I tried many things. One day, me and my editor were in a bar, and we heard the song. We stopped talking. We tried it in the editing room and it was obvious. With music, it works or it doesn’t. The lyrics talk about chaos. Mothers are sighing and crying. We can feel it in the world we’re living in right now. It talks about only having five years, which feels like what (Anne Dorval’s character) Claire is living, and how we all have our own time limits.

Do you usually leave it late to pick the final song? Because with Suzanne, did you decide early on the character would be called that so it could end with the Leonard Cohen cover?

Katell Quillévéré: I had the title for Suzanne because of the Leonard Cohen song, but I didn’t plan on using it, because it’s too sad. Then, during editing, I discovered the Nina Simone cover. It was so powerful with a woman’s voice, it became the song of the movie.

“Watching movies together as a family is a way to communicate. If you’re crying over E.T. leaving, it’s telling your mother that you’re afraid to lose her. We use movies to express ourselves to each other. It’s a function of cinema within families. I love it” – Katell Quillévéré

The film seems to take place in a sort of metaphysical landscape, between life and death.

Katell Quillévéré: It was always on my mind. Water is important. Life comes from water. The movie begins with water. It’s metaphysical, and water comes back into the movie. When Claire sleeps with another woman, you see the water again, and the crowd comes out from the sea. The wave links people, and every gesture has a consequence. If you pay attention to the images, they reoccur. When Claire falls asleep, it’s like the two teenagers falling asleep, face to face.

In your director’s statement, you call surgery an act of transgression. Can you tell me about translating that idea to film?

Katell Quillévéré: Surgery feels like an act of God. For so many years, you couldn’t touch the human body, but some people were crazy enough to open it up, just to see what’s inside. That’s why today we can prolong lives. When you watch something like that, you feel the transgression. With surgery, you see the plumbing, but I wanted to show the mystery. I wanted to express this feeling of something that’s forbidden and sacred.

I personally can’t stand E.T. but was very moved to see how your characters bond over it in their living room.

Katell Quillévéré: Oh no! It’s a very important movie from my childhood. I needed a movie for the script, but The Sound of Music was too expensive. Then I saw E.T. again with my little boy, and I was extremely moved. It was symbolic. The alien connects with the child, and his heart beats less and less. It’s like a transplant. Watching movies together as a family is a way to communicate. If you’re crying over E.T. leaving, it’s telling your mother that you’re afraid to lose her. We use movies to express ourselves to each other. It’s a function of cinema within families. I love it.

Will Heal the Living have the same effect for other people?

Katell Quillévéré: Oh my God, I’m not that pretentious! Maybe one French family.

Heal the Living is in cinemas on 28 April