September 8, 2016
Those Who Remain – France, 2007
Anne Le Ny’s Those Who Remain is a heart-wrenching film about people going through heart-wrenching experiences, and to its credit, it avoids the rah-rah, visiting hours don’t apply to me moments that so many other films on this topic include as if they were both a badge of honor and a part of the sales pitch that got the film green-lighted in the first place. This is not to say there isn’t a place for such scenes, but I suspect that most people who have dealt with potentially terminal illnesses will find more in common with Bertrand Lievain (Vincent Lindon) and Lorraine Gregeois (Emmanuelle Devos), the two characters at the heart of Those Who Remain, than with Sean Maguire from Good Will Hunting or John Tremont from 1989’s Dad. Bertrand is a flawed character on whom the repeated hospital visits, late night emergencies, and repeatedly dashed hopes have clearly taken a toll; Lorraine is a woman who expected her relationship, still in its relative infancy, to be full of carefree fun and honeymoon-like passion. Instead, she finds herself wondering aloud, “Why me?” and immediately feeling ashamed of herself for having had such thoughts.
The two of them meet in a hospital one day by accident. He is a frequent visitor to room 34 of the breast cancer ward, she of the floor designated for patients with colon cancer. The two of them eventually strike up a friendship that is at first convenient and more than a little awkward. At first glance, the two of them are almost polar opposites. Bertaind’s experience has turned him inward, and he seems to be going out of his way to avoid human contact, ashamed to admit the toll that his wife’s plight is having on him. Lorraine seems to be subconsciously looking for someone to latch on to, perhaps in the hopes that that person will be able to explain to her why she has not become the benevolent, selfless person she thought she would. Eventually, they find themselves beguilingly drawn to each other, and soon it is clear – these are two characters that urgently need each other.
The success of a film like this rests on the shoulders of its cast and its director, for the camera must be the eyes to Bertrand’s soul and a means of showing the true character of the woman that lies behind Lorraine’s fatalistic remarks and loud denouncements of fate. Fortunately, Lyndon is more than up to the task. His face, with its time-battered wrinkles and frequent looks of both exhausted determination and utter resignation, show more than many actors are able to convey with their whole body and their voice. As Bertrand, he seems to be willing himself from one moment to the next, doggedly sticking to the daily routine as if doing so will somehow change his situation. Devos is equally impressive, and in a way, she has the harder role, for the audience must be able to see through her negative words and see the love and emotional impairment that lies underneath them. Bertrand earns our respect, Lorraine our empathy.
There is of course more to the story. There’s Bertrand’s strained relationship with his step-daughter, and a visit from a sister that is both desperately needed and mistakenly unwanted. Ny, who also wrote the screenplay, keeps the focus on Bertrand for the most part, and when we finally get a glimpse of Lorraine’s world outside the hospital, the scene has a tinge of finality to it. Like them, we understand that this is the end of a journey.
Having said all this, I must admit that the film left me somewhat cold at times. Characters that hide their emotions are not always the easiest ones to relate to, and as much as I admired Bertrand, I often felt distant from him, as if on some level he would forever remain an enigma. I feel this kept me from appreciating the film as much as I could have. I was also annoyed by attempts at humor that I felt either fell flat or were too much of a distraction, one of which involves a mother missings her baby's first steps. Needless to say, the film is at its best when it focuses on the tragedies unfolding and their effects on those who will ultimately remain here among the living, and I admired these parts greatly. They more than make up for any slight misgivings I may have about certain parts of it. Those That Remain is a moving film, one that many people will find truthful, poignant, and painful. It's worth finding if you can. (on DVD in Region 3)
3 and a half stars
*Those Who Remain is in French with English subtitles.