Dir: Emmanuelle Bercot. France. 2016. 128 mins
For her follow up to her Cannes-opening social drama Standing Tall, Emmanuelle Bercot tackles what initially seems an unpromising subject. The film follows the real life-campaign by one woman, specialist in pulmonary medicine Irène Frachon (played by Sidse Babett Knudsen), to prove that a drug prescribed for diabetes was implicated in numerous deaths from heart disease. But what could have been a series of rather dry scenes featuring analysts fretting over statistics and hearings in sterile conference rooms is given a jolt of dynamic energy by Bercot’s forceful directing style and Knudsen’s remarkable performance.
Bercot cites Steven Soderbergh’s Erin Brockovichas a key influence on the film, and there are clear parallels
This very watchable take on what was a high profile case in France will benefit domestically from the familiarity with the story, and the fact that Frachon’s memoir, Médiator 150mg, La Fille de Brest, was a bestseller. Other territories could connect with the newsworthy topicality of the subject matter and the magnetic presence of Borgen star Knudsen in the crucial central role. Further festival berths seem likely: following its world premiere in Toronto, the film opens the San Sebastian film festival.
Bercot cites Steven Soderbergh’s Erin Brockovich as a key influence on the film, and there are clear parallels, not least in the focus on a tirelessly principled and feisty female protagonist. Irène is an immensely enjoyable character with whom to spend several hours. She is impassioned to the point of recklessness and given to puncturing the egos of the male establishment figures around her. She disarms a highly charged meeting with Antoine Le Bihan (Benoît Magimel), the man who will lead the research to back up her theory, by pointing out that his flies are undone; she chucks around insults like ‘limp dick’; she launches into torrents of abusive invective which trail behind her, a slipstream of extravagantly creative swearing, as she stomps around the hospital.
Bercot tests the mettle of the audience with a graphic sequence of open heart surgery at the film’s opening. This, and a grisly autopsy later on, is intentionally tough viewing which delivers an adrenalin boost to power the audience through some of the slower scenes which follow. In fairness, however, even the expository sequences which explain Frachon’s suspicions about the drug Mediator, and the process by which she must make them known, are attacked by Bercot with real gusto. Not all of her directing decisions work – the bizarre use of bagpipes on the score at one climactic moment is one which misfires – but all of them are interesting.
Most impressive are the sequences which, handled differently, could have had the potential to drain the life from the film. A hearing, held in a grey box of a room, turns into an exercise in nerve-shredding tension, as the camera darts tensely between fidgeting experts, slamming doors and scraping seats. Antoine loses his cool. Skin the colour of congealed porridge, he dashes from the room. The suits from the drug company smirk triumphantly.
The film is not without problems – even with the level of energy that Knudsen brings to the film, the running time feels a little overstretched. And the music choices are frequently jarring – apart from the aforementioned bagpipes, there is a strident electro-rock track that sounds as though it was lifted from a 1980s cop movie. Still, the anger and outrage that powers the film is bracingly authentic.
Production company: Haut et Court
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Producers: Caroline Benjo, Carole Scotta, Barbara Letellier, Simon Arnal
Screenplay: Séverine Bosschem, Emmanuelle Bercot
Cinematography: Guillaume Schiffman
Editor: Julien Leloup
Original score: Martin Wheeler
Main cast: Sidse Babett Knudsen, Benoît Magimel, Charlotte Laemmel, Isabelle De Hertogh, Lara Neumann, Philippe Uchan, Patrick Ligardes, Olivier Pasquier