Simon, 17, is in a brain-dead state following an accident. His initially reluctant parents finally decide to donate his organs, and the gift of his heart will save another’s life. The film is based on the successful novel, Mend the Living, by French writer Maylis de Kerangal, and was released in U.S. theaters on April 14, 2017.
France-Amérique : Maylis de Kerangal has a narrative and descriptive writing style with little dialogue. How did you translate the novel onto the screen without taking away from the story?
Katell Quillévéré: My co-screenwriter, Gilles Taurand, and I read the book together, asking ourselves page-by-page which parts were transposable and which weren’t. In a similar way to a heart operation, we first had to take samples in order to select the scenes we saw as cornerstones of the novel which could be immediately transferred to the screen. For the other scenes we found more fragile or more difficult to adapt, we studied their necessary elements and how we could transpose them into a film narrative, which is completely different to a literary narrative. Temporality is one of the strengths in Maylis de Kerangal’s novel. The story is portrayed through its characters’ inner-thoughts and mental digressions, ranging from their past (memories), the present (a moment hanging between life and death) and the future (after the transplant). We had to cut a lot of material, otherwise the film would have lasted six or seven hours!
The ocean is a major theme in Maylis de Kerangal’s literary world. The image and the sound of the waves are present throughout the film, and offer a number of beautiful visual moments…
Waves are even more present than the ocean itself. They wash over Maylis de Kerangal’s novel. Waves are also a running theme in my film, which is a product of a reflection on the writing. The wave is both a metaphorical and defining element – bringing the film to life through water was an obvious choice. The film opens on a surfing scene, which is proportionally more present on the screen than in the novel. This scene creates the sensory relation for the viewer, who immediately finds themselves in a maternal state reminiscent of the womb. The urges of both life and death play major roles. There is a certain madness inherent to surfing, in that surfers risk their lives, nestling in the center of a wave, being crushed and then rejected by it. Emerging from the wave is something of a rebirth: your lungs reopen, light comes flooding in. The wave either gives life or tears it away. It reminds us of the fragility of our existence.
You once said that “a transplant is something incredibly material, similar to plumbing and sewing, but also a moment of pure magic.” How did you decide to illustrate this duality between the trivial and the sacred?
I first encountered the real aspect by attending an actual transplant operation. I started with the scientific process before creating the scenes in the film. The scenes portraying operations or work on the heart were made using on-set special effects, but they were developed and produced alongside actual surgeons, which is why they seem so real. Working with reality does not rule out extreme sophistication in lighting and filming. For example, the scrubs and the color of the walls are inspired by Caravaggio’s paintings. Cinematic tricks offer a sacred dimension to a realistic story and magnify reality. There is also a religious influence running through the movie, as seen in the scene where the surgeons are filmed around the operating table in a nod to the apostles at the Last Supper. It’s subtle, as I quickly changed shots. When Tahar Rahim washes the child’s body, it can be seen as a reference to Mary Magdalene washing the body of Christ. There is a direct link between surgery and religion; opening a body was long forbidden, as it was the work of God and humans had no right to meddle in life and death. While filming the operation, we realized that the same subversion still exists. Audiences struggle to watch the scene, they find it disturbing. The transgressive relationship with the divine is still palpable.
The coordinating nurse is portrayed as a metaphorical “ferryman.” Can you tell us more about this character?
He is the most symbolic character in the film, standing between life and death while authorizing the passage from one state to another. He acts as a ferryman in the mythological sense of the term. I sought out a form of purity in Tahar Rahim. I shaved his beard and filmed his face in a way that created an angelic effect. His character studies rare birds, he is very professional, poetic and delicate. In the final scene he seems to glide along the road on his motorbike alongside the ocean. He is a sort of angel, a guide.
Did the novel and the film have an impact on your opinion of organ donation? Are you a donor?
Yes, I will donate my organs. I made this important decision after I finished filming. I don’t claim that cinema can change the world, but it can push audiences to think and question. Accepting or refusing to donate your organs is a very personal choice to be made individually. I did not want to create a partisan film, but I do hope it will incite viewers to consider the question and take a stance.