The son vivant (2021)
Directed by: Emmanuelle Bercot | 123 minutes | drama | Actors: Catherine Deneuve, Benoît Magimel, Cécile de France, Oscar Morgan, Lou Lampros, Melissa George, Julie Arnold, Olga Mouak, Gabriel A. Sara
The French Emmanuelle Bercot is a versatile lady. In addition to being an actress, she is also working as a screenwriter and director. And she does that without merit. She usually also wrote the films she directs herself. It is striking that in her work she shows her social commitment and has an eye for the small, honest hard worker who takes on the establishment. For example, in her best-known and to date most acclaimed film ‘La tête haute’, she focuses on a juvenile judge who wants the best for a young delinquent and does everything she can to get him on the right path. And in ‘La fille de Brest’ (2016), a pulmonologist played by the Danish actress Sidse Babette Knudsen discovers a connection between a number of suspicious deaths and a drug that has been on the market for years, after which she decides to put it on the big screen. but is then violently opposed by the powerful pharmaceutical industry.
In ‘De son vivant’ (2021) there is another special, honest loner who deserves her attention. Doctor Gabriel Sara, a Lebanon-born but New York-based oncologist who has a loving, humane and spiritual way of assisting his patients during their illness. In the film, he basically plays himself. Sara has quite a bit of work to do with Benjamin (Benoit Magimel, a regular in Bercot’s films), a 39-year-old failed actor and theater teacher who has just been diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer and has not long to live . The only thing that can be offered to him is chemotherapy to ease the pain. During that bad news conversation, his overbearing mother Crystal (Catherine Deneuve, who we also saw in ‘La tête haute’) sits next to him. The message hits both of them like a bomb. Both Benjamin and Crystal must go through a difficult and painful process to come to terms with the approaching goodbye. Bercot then divides her film into seasons. On the advice of Dr. Eddé (Gabriel Sara) Benjamin decides to finish some things from his past (not fight, but let go) and his mother is forced to face that she can’t control everything.
It is precisely this dive into Benjamin’s past that sends ‘De son vivant’ in a completely different direction. The social approach of the empathetic doctor Sara with his special working method is ruthlessly pushed aside by Benjamin’s unfinished business with his ex and long-lost teenage son and his frustrations about his acting failures. The balance is unfortunately lost. While that warm, patient doctor Sara arouses our interest with his spiritual view of illness, the dying process and the acceptance of the inevitable. Also special is the way in which he makes it clear to his employees how important empathy with the patient is, something he emphasizes even more by singing comforting guitar songs with them. Because music can make the approaching death land softer, Doctor Sara convinces us of that. In the scenes that show this, Bercot shows us a glimpse of all those men and women who do extraordinary but at the same time emotionally heavy work to guide another towards the inevitable. And that is exactly where ‘De son vivant’ is at its best.
Perhaps Bercot should have made a documentary about this Doctor Sara, instead of showing him off in a melodrama. Not because he doesn’t act well, because he comes across well, but mainly to show him full justice and not to distract from the main thing with unethical scenes between Benjamin who gets a bit too intimate with a Cécile de France played nurse. Sara’s natural appearance and presence also clashes with the professional actors around him, who clearly have their mannerisms to flesh out their character. Manners that otherwise probably would have been less noticeable to us, but in contrast to doctor Sara suddenly catch the eye. Unfortunately, Bercot too often loses sight of the balance between the doctor’s integrity and the dramatic events surrounding Benjamin and his mother, causing her film to lose its persuasiveness. And that’s a shame, because the inspiring doctor Sara deserved a better movie.