“For me, truth is non-negotiable,” a preternaturally serene oncologist tells his latest patient at the start of Emmanuelle Bercot’s sincere but unmoving cancer melodrama, “Peaceful.” He will never lie about a prognosis, offer false hope, or frame someone’s experience with a terminal disease as a “fight” they can win (he will allow his staff to belt out “Go Down Moses” in a room full of dying people, but that’s a different story). Movingly played by real-life oncologist and first-time actor Gabriel A. Sara, who brings his personal experience to bear in every beat, Dr. Eddé embodies the same emotional truth that “failed actor” Benjamin Boltanski (Benoît Magimel) seeks to inspire from his wide-eyed theater students and avoid from his suffocating mother (Catherine Deneuve), even as he lies to them both.
That makes the two men natural scene partners in a film about someone finding the strength to know themselves as their body weakens towards death (a process rather clumsily paralleled by one of the exercises Benjamin asks his students to perform in class). It also makes them natural foils in a film whose naked approach to human frailty seldom reaches beyond the body and into the soul. Somehow both unflinchingly honest and mercilessly overwrought at the same time — as only such a tactful middlebrow French weepie could be — “Patience” may not sugarcoat Benjamin’s ultimate fate, but the truth of the drama that it invents for him on the way there is never as non-negotiable as that of the disease with which he’s diagnosed.
In fairness, I’ve never spent time in a French cancer ward; the American healthcare system is so fucked compared to every other industrialized country on Earth that I suppose it’s possible all of the oncology nurses in Paris really do look like Cécile de France and make out with patients on their deathbeds (the hawk-like Magimel smolders even in ashen repose). Even if that were so, “Peaceful” would struggle to achieve the precarious balance between life and death — beauty and surrender — that it strains to depict from its very first scene.
Bercot and Marcia Romano’s script begins with a study in contrasts, as Dr. Eddé leads his staff in a morale-boosting rendition of “Lean on Me” while Benjamin stands alone outside and smokes a cigarette. The good news is that the rest of “Peaceful” broadly avoids the “Patch Adams” vibes that radiate off its prologue like poisoned uranium; Dr. Eddé doesn’t believe that laughter is the best medicine, only that patients should be given “permission to die” so that they might actually squeeze some life out of their final months instead of waging an unwinnable fight against a concrete wall.
In some ways, Benjamin similarly manages to skirt cliché. He lashes out in response to his initial diagnosis — laying his feelings bare to distance himself from the truth of his death, like an actor who plays the emotions of a scene rather than creating them from scratch — but Dr. Eddé makes short work of his patient’s Brando-esque veneer.
The bad news is that “Peaceful” never finds anything particularly interesting to replace it with. With Benjamin’s death a foregone conclusion, the film’s primary conflict hinges on whether its protagonist will choose to die alone or dig deep enough to let other people into the trenches alongside him. His fraught and frazzled mother is far too scared of the truth to help her son with a shovel; it’s no surprise to discover that Crystal has been helping Benjamin keep reality at bay since he was a teenager, but the reveal is predicated upon a plot twist that Bercot wrings for minimum poignancy and maximum bathos.
If the ever-capable Deneuve is compellingly addled in the role — her third collaboration with Bercot after “On My Way” and “Standing Tall” — the gravity of her casting pulls focus from a movie that works best as a ticking clock two-hander, just as the melodramatic tetchiness of Crystal and Benjamin’s relationship invites all sorts of manufactured conflict into a movie that works best when its characters are left to sit with themselves. The scenes between them feel as forced as the oppressive layers of music that Bercot slathers over the film. The director’s palliative need for drama often snuffs out the very truths that “Peaceful” vows to restore to the process of dying. Where is the tedium of sickness? The discomfort of suffering? The banality of waiting for it to be over? Bercot may admire Dr. Eddé’s refusal to indulge in magical thinking, but she does all too much to justify casting a real oncologist in the real. Her strangely unaffecting melodrama can’t help but sacrifice itself at the altar of its most urgent truth: Living with death is a lot harder than it looks.
Distrib Films will release “Peaceful” at the Quad Cinema on Friday, October 28, and at Laemmle Glendale on Friday, November 4.