Director: Catherine Corsini (France). Year of Release: 2021
A woman sits up in bed, playing on social media while her partner sleeps beside her. We see a stream of abuse on her phone, “You bitch”, “You whore”, all the favourites. It is only when we cut to the morning that we realise that Raphaëlle isn’t receiving these messages, but sending them to her wife, Julie. Julie storms out, saying – probably not for the first time – that it’s all over. Raf follows on behind, and in her haste to catch up with her lover, she falls over, fracturing her elbow.
Cut to a Yellow Vest protest just about to kick off. One of the protesters approaches the tooled up Robocops, asking if their grandmas aren’t also struggling to survive on €700 a month. The cops aggressively beat their batons against the riot shields, then shout out 3 warnings in quick succession before spraying tear gas directly into the face of one of the protestors. They continue to shoot and beat anyone who comes close to them.
Cut to the emergency ward which was already overloaded before they started wheeling in protestors. The – mainly white – doctors are hard to find, leaving the – almost exclusively black – nursing staff to look after things. Kim is on her sixth night shift in a row, even though legally she should only work three shifts in a week. She appears to be the only person around who (a) has a clear head, and (b) has any idea what is happening and what needs to be done.
Yann is wheeled in. He’s a lorry driver who was attending the demo during his break. But if he doesn’t take the lorry back to Nimes in the morning he’s going to be sacked. The trouble is, the police shot several times into his leg, and he can barely walk. The nurses tell him that they’re going to have to operate but he doesn’t have the time to wait for the queue to die down. Meanwhile the nursing staff are ordered to hand over the names of any Yellow Vest patients to the police.
Yann gets shunted into the same room as Raf, who starts by asking him if he was on the Nazi demo. He takes immediate offence at her assumption that because working class people were demonstrating, they must be Le Pen supporters. Furthermore, he says, it was her and her class who either voted for Macron or allowed him to get in, thus allowing Le Pen’s Nazis to position themselves as a credible alternative to Macron’s austerity.
Meanwhile, Julie’s son Eliott is somewhere on the demonstration, but she can’t reach him to be sure that he is safe. Later in the day, he contacts Raf from the Place de la République. He’s perfectly fine, but he doesn’t want to talk to his mother because she worries too much. Raf desperately tries to ring Julie, but she has not more time for small talk. Besides which, she needs her phone to be clear to wait for a message from Eliott.
As the evening goes on, things get more desperate. As the tvs in the hospital relay news reports of Yellow Vest violence, the police corner protestors right outside the hospital, and start firing tear gas. The hospital closes its doors, partly because the tear gas smoke will cause medical danger to the patients, but also because it has been declared illegal to allow demonstrators to enter the hospital. Nonetheless, a doctor with Arab background gives the order to open the doors.
Let me count the ways in which I just loved In den besten Händen. Firstly, it is not just one film, but several. The love story of course between one woman who’s struggling to keep everything together, and the one who is so high on painkillers that her irresponsibility has just reached a new level. The hospital drama, where you don’t think that the staff have anything more to offer, then another injured patient is wheeled in and they just have to find a way of coping.
Then there’s Julie’s reunion with an old school friend and his seriously ill daughter, Kim’s struggle to cope with her useless partner and seriously ill child, a mentally ill patient who shouldn’t be there but they’ve closed down the Psychiatry department and at least he can get his medication at the hospital. In den besten Händen tells at least a dozen stories and every one of them has enough substance to be worthy of a film of its own.
Then there is the remarkably successful genre hopping. At one moment, the film is a horrific portrayal of a dystopia which has already arrived. At another it is a farce with hilarious scenes of bodies dropping out of hospital beds. It is a serious depiction of difficult relationships which never descends into sentimentality, and it is a deeply political warning about the state of the nation.
Having read critics’ reviews of In den besten Händen, I can’t recall a film for which so many critics have got it so fundamentally wrong. It’s not that they have a different opinion to me – I’m used to that – they just don’t get it. Some have complained that it is not realistic – well not for people who lead your lifestyles, maybe. Others repeat old clichés about the Yellow Vests being an essentially right wing movement, although they dealt with their Nazis long ago.
Someone writing for the Roger Ebert franchise said that the film shows fractures between all sorts of people – rich and poor and black and white, whatever. While it is true that most of the poorly paid medical workers are indeed non-White, they – more then once – express solidarity with the Yellow Vests, and say that their strikes for better conditions are part of the same fight. This is a multiracial film which sees the only important division in society as the one of class.
Quite possibly the best film I’ve seen this year by a country mile. Unconditionally recommended,