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L'état d'urgence

Carole Bethuel

The Divide (2021)

The English title implies something that’s grown apart, while the original French title means something which has broken, which is more appropriate. This slice-of-life story, set in a Parisian emergency room on a day of the Yellow Vests protests, manages to excoriate French society at all levels while also being a kind, clear-eyed metaphor of how a nation handles its suffering.

The day is a troubled one from the start. Yann (Pio Marmaï) must leave before dawn to drive to Paris with a friend in time to join the Yellow Vest march – protests primarily by working-class people upset at rising fuel prices and how their concerns seemed to be of no importance to the politicians and city elite. Speaking of elites, also before dawn Raphaëlle (Valeria Bruno Tedeschi), an insomniac cartoonist in a lush Parisian apartment, manages to carry out an entire argument over text with her sleeping wife, Julie (Marina Foïs). Julie is so understandably upset by the barrage she dumps Raf (their deeply ordinary relationship is why this film was shown at the most recent BFI Flare: London LGBTIQ+ Film Festival, and won the Queer Palm at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival). After an unpleasant screaming match in the street, Raf falls and breaks her arm. Meanwhile Yann and his friend get separated in the march when things turn violent; and Yann is shot by the police. But this being France, they use rabbit shot, and hit him in the legs.

But the hospital to which both Yann and Raf are taken is not particularly elite. You could go so far as to say it’s in a state of collapse – the toilets have no soap, and at one point a piece of the ceiling does cave in. More importantly, the nurses are on strike. This means they are doing their exact jobs as normal while wearing signs taped to their sleeves and backs saying “on strike.” Handwritten signs in the waiting areas warn of 10-hour waits, but despite that, even the most agitated and hurting patients grit their teeth and mostly mind their manners. Despite her anger at Raf, Julie shows up when called, and ends up recognizing a boyfriend from high school, Laurent (Jean-Louis Coulloc’h), who was next to a young stranger named Elodie (Camille Sansterre) when a cop beat the stuffing out of her, so took it upon himself to get her help. Moving between everyone are several nurses, most importantly Kim (Aïssatou Diallo Sagna), who’s on her sixth shift of the week (three is the legal limit), has a sick baby at home, and has been on strike for months.

At the start of the shift, as part of the patient handover, the hospital admin says police want Yellow Vest protestors to be identified, which the nurses immediately refuse to do. They aren’t snitches, and too busy doing their own work to do the police’s for them. Yann joined the protest because he feels like he has nothing to lose – despite the hideous hours he works as a truck driver, he still lives at home, and can’t afford restaurants so doesn’t date. The nurses are sympathetic; they know all about thankless work at long hours for no money, but think he’s an idiot for refusing pain relief and wanting to hurry back out onto the road. Raf is sympathetic too; her and Julie’s teenage son is spending the day at a separate rally, on behalf of a young black man who died in police custody. But Raf also annoys the nurses so much they let Julie through to the patient side to shut her up. It’s Julie’s adventures wandering the hospital that offer more space to the story – like when she passes an elderly man alone in a hallway and finds him a bedpan to vomit in, or goes out for a cigarette with Laurent and witnesses the protests turn violent right outside the hospital doors. And despite all the chaos, there is still all the ordinary drama of an ordinary night at the hospital, with troubled mental patients, drug users wanting tokens for the supervised injection room, old women who fell, men wandering in hospital gowns and the pressing need to keep everyone alive just a bit longer.

What director Catherine Corsini, who cowrote the script with Agnès Feuvre and Laurette Polmanss, is exploring here is how people help other people cope with pain. Everyone means well – it’s made explicit that no one in this hospital voted for “la blonde” (i.e. Marine Le Pen) – but their best is barely good enough. Everything works only by the skin of its teeth and everyone is exhausted. The political squabbling between Yann and Raf to pass the wait and distract from their hurt gets a little heavy-handed, but never for very long; there’s always a lost pregnant woman whose waters break, or a frightened man waving a stolen pair of scissors. When a group of whimpering, teargassed people beg to be let inside, a doctor will unbarricade the doors, tell them he’s risking his entire career by letting them in against police orders, then let them in anyway and wave off their whispered thanks. Raf will fall off her trolley; and Yann will immediately scoot himself over in his wheelchair to hoist her back upright as they laugh at how awful it all is. But Jeanne Lapoirie’s camera avoids shaky-cam work for a sense of heightened realism. Sometimes the camera circles, as when the nurses are talking or patients are being moved; sometimes it’s based in the corners of the rooms to emphasize the medical treatments being given. Sometimes it follows; sometimes it stays still and lets the action approach. Frédéric Ballehaiche’s editing keeps the complicated story straight – even when the characters don’t, we always know where we are. We never lose the sense of time, and the minor characters are very clearly defined.

The casting was incredibly important to the film’s success. A less likable Yann would have made the movie too snooty, and a less irritating Raf would have made it too patronizing. Mr. Marmaï is the French Matt Damon – he radiates an underlying sense of decency, is willing to weaponize his star power in unlikeable roles or to lend authority to smaller ones (as in “Happening”) and is utterly believable as an ordinary joe being eaten alive by frustration. Ms. Bruno Tedeschi (whose sister was the first lady of France for a while) specializes in middle-class women who are a handful; and her howls of agony manage to be comic relief (almost) in the face of everything else going on. Ms. Foïs has a less showy though very active part; her reactions and choices feel very adult, in that over one night Julie faces multiple alarming, threatening and/or violent situations with calm efficiency and not a hint of anxiety (it’s hard to imagine an American passerby rising to so many minor crises with so little fuss). Ms. Sansterre has less to do, but is given one barnstorming scene where she tells a thoughtless magnetic resonance imaging technician exactly how she was injured – and to the technician’s credit, he immediately apologies, and reassures her she’s safe and cared for now. (This being a French movie, though, they made sure Ms. Sansterre was topless when she did it.)

But it’s Ms. Diallo Sagna who carries the film, just as Kim carries the hospital. She remembers everyone’s names, tolerates no nonsense, and is so immediately trustworthy everyone is calmed by her just walking into a room. It’s clear she loves her work, but it’s just as clear she has and knows her limits. The most horrible moment in the movie belongs to her, but Ms. Diallo Sagna meets it with understanding and kindness – a downright revolutionary acting choice. And the little moment when Kim’s personal and professional worlds collide; and she chooses her professional self, is a refreshing reminder of what having women behind the camera can bring to a story. A more stereotypical film would have had Kim melodramatically walking off her shift, or worse, attempt to provide answers for the problems everyone is facing.

But Ms. Corsini knows the answers are in the actions. Kim squeezing the hand of a disoriented lady and making small talk so she knows she’s not alone. Julie offering to give eyedrops to the teargassed crowd in the waiting room; and the overworked nurses instantly handing over a bottle. Raf lending Yann her phone so he can call his boss to say he’ll be late for work tomorrow. A security guard choosing not to witness the theft of a wheelchair. Someone bursting into tears in sympathy with someone else’s hurt. All these little acts of solidarity and kindness are almost – almost – enough to make up for the brutality meted out on the streets in the name of the state, but two little moments give a little taste of what a day like this is like for the police, too. Things might be breaking; and things might be broken; and not everything broken can be fixed. But the small acts of kindness are what people will remember, and together they add up to something very big indeed. This is an unusually good film about how far small acts of understanding can go; and how valuable they are when everything is falling apart. France might be in trouble (over 40 percent of voters choosing “la blonde” is an indication something serious is wrong) but if this film’s anything to go by, it will figure out how to keep almost everyone alive just a little bit longer.


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