Director: Emmanuelle Bercot (France, Belgium). Year of Release: 2021
Benjamin is being driven by his mother to the hospital. Why his mother? Well, for one thing, it doesn’t look like Benjamin has anyone else who’d take him. He did have a partner, but she left half a lifetime ago when she was pregnant. Besides which, it doesn’t look like his formidable mother would willingly hand over control to anyone else.
Crystal has paid for the best oncologist available to help her son. Doctor Eddé has a neat moustache and a comic tie. He isn’t one to beat around the bush with any bullshit. Benjamin has pancreatic cancer, and people with his sort of symptoms can expect to live 6-12 months more. Yes, he may be able to keep on for longer than a year, but he may also die within 6 months – that’s how statistics work. And this is how long Eddé has to make Benjamin accept his coming death.
Eddé engages some unconventional techniques. In between meeting patients, the nurses get together and exchange their experiences. Are they allowed to cry in front of the patients? (yes, as this might encourage the patients to open up and cry themselves). Eddé asks each of them to come up with one word to describe the situation they’ve just heard and then they have a sing song, accompanying themselves on whichever instruments they can play.
This sort of metaphorical group hug sounds absolutely execrable to me – something that would have me rushing to find a new job as soon as I can. But it seems to have an effect and enables the nursing staff to develop a more intimate, less formal relationship with their patients. Later it will also result in one of the nurses developing a relationship with Benjamin which is frowned upon in most books on medical ethics.
But we’ve a way to go yet. For the moment, Benjamin is still well enough to work. When he registered at the hospital and was asked to give his profession, he said actor, well failed actor, well drama teacher. One way in which he deals with his impending death is to get his students to act out scenes in which they say goodbye to loved ones who they know they will never see again.
In Liebe lassen is structured into four parts – entitled Summer, Autumn, Winter and Spring (it is a sign of the film’s optimism, that although we know where all this is leading, it chooses to end not in the bleak season of death but in the one of rebirth). As we progress. Benjamin gets gradually sicker, first puking and collapsing at work, then being admitted as a full-time patient.
We are gradually introduced to different characters. There are Benjamin’s students, at least one of whom seems to have the hots for him. Approaching an important exam, and dissatisfied by Benjamin’s replacement, she visits him in hospital, and asks him to help with a performance. “It’s a matter of life and death”, she says, without any sense of discernable irony.
Crystal remains lurking helplessly in the background as she tries to reassert some sort of control. I spent most of the film thinking that she looked vaguely familiar, but then it dawned on me. She’s played by Catherine Deneuve, a little thicker set than she used to be, but as compelling as ever. Eventually, and far too late, she decides to ring Benjamin’s ex and son to let them know what’s going on. As she speaks to the ex, it’s clear that it’s difficult for each of them to even talk to the other.
Benjamin’s son Léandre is a young Australian musician who comes over to France out of a mixture of curiosity and duty. But he still prevaricates and is not sure whether he can visit the hospital ward of the father he’s never met. When Benjamin gets too weak to carry on, Léandre donates blood, but anonymously. He doesn’t know whether meeting up at this stage will have a positive or negative effect on either of them.
Eddé – played by real life oncologist Gabriel Sara – insists that he shouldn’t intrude on family decisions, but proposes telling the truth wherever possible. He takes the hippy-ish view that patients must clear out their emotional desk before they die, and that telling them white lies to make them feel better actually makes it harder for them to respectfully let go of life.
Im liebe lassen is on occasion overly sentimental, especially in the final scenes. I’m also not sure that if I were on my deathbed I’d appreciate a nurse in a man bun strumming an acoustic guitar and singing into my ear. But it is intelligent and is not afraid to take on difficult issues. It’s by no means a perfect film, but it’s worth watching while you’re waiting for a perfect film to come along.