Claire Simon cites Frederick Wiseman’s Hospital (1970) and Near Death (1989) as key inspirations for her latest film, and for much of its 168-minute runtime Our Body does function, à la Wiseman, as a study of an institution––in this case the various units of a public Parisian hospital where women receive all manner of care, including treatment for pregnancy, fertility, gender transition, cancer, and end-of-life needs. Simon and her all-female crew observe their subjects in close-up; except for occasional establishing shots in hallways and the garden courtyard, the camera’s seldom more than a few feet from the women and one trans man, their companions, and the doctors, nurses, and technicians who perform their jobs with uncommon professionalism and grace. That the camera is likely capturing an idealized version of the daily grind of modern healthcare––every person we see has signed a waiver and is presumably putting on their best face––is mostly beside the point: Simon is primarily interested in the strange, beautiful, holy machinery of bodies.
And that’s where the comparisons to Wiseman end. Simon doesn’t seem to care much about bureaucracies, paperwork, or profit margins, and she doesn’t feign objectivity. Our Body is very much a first-person film. Indeed, the first voice we hear and the first body we see are Simon’s, recorded and shot by herself, as she walks toward the hospital and explains that the project originated with producer Kristina Larsen, who’d spent two years there as a patient and became fascinated by the caregivers she’d met and the array of experiences she’d witnessed, from birth to death and all major milestones in between. For Simon, the subject would also demand reckoning with lingering memories, most of them traumatic, of the 28 years her father was hospitalized with multiple sclerosis. “I did hold a grudge against the medical profession,” she explains in a recent interview with Arnaud Hée. “Things are thoroughly different now. I was often dazzled, admiring the very fact of seeing and naming, the process of forming thoughts. Obviously, it is just as essential for the patients to see and understand what is being named, that we’re not in a realm of belief but of reason.”
Given the emotional range of experiences on display here, from a joyous, complication-free delivery to a doctor informing a beloved patient that it’s time to halt treatment (“Even if you never complain, I know you’re getting tired”), the experience of watching Our Body is hardly confined to the realm of reason. It’s deeply felt. For nearly three hours Simon directs our attention to the essential, corporeal thingness of her subject, which has the poetic effect of defamiliarizing everyday visual grammar. She films a hand palpating a patient’s breast during a routine exam. Another woman, framed in a run-of-the-mill handheld medium shot, stands topless as her medical team explains where there will be scarring, post-surgery and post-reconstruction, and as they talk through the possible outcomes of their attempt to save her areola. A third woman struggles to lift her arm and remove her shirt so that her doctor can examine how well a mastectomy is healing. Like simple lines of verse that reveal wisdom in the particular––subject, verb, adjective, noun––Simon’s style and montage make these images somehow new and disrupt our lazier habits of media consumption. By the final hour it’s near impossible to process it all.
It’s there in the title of the film: Our Body, first-person plural possessive of a singular object. One of the patients Simon meets is pregnant and undergoing cancer treatment. “When’s the birth?” a nurse asks, making small talk. “Early January. I have to last till then,” she answers in an even tone, her partner sitting beside her, sketching in a notepad to pass the time. The woman has all the genetic markers for cancer––her sisters are at risk too––but she ignored pain in her breasts for a decade. “I thought it was normal for women to suffer, as they say.” From off-camera, Simon acknowledges she’s familiar with the phrase, and the woman laughs, landing the point that women’s bodies are a body politic, defined and managed by patriarchal systems––a fact no less infuriating today for being accepted wisdom in certain circles, particularly in a moment of conservative backlash.
With one notable exception that shouldn’t be spoiled, Simon’s formal strategy is to film only one sequence with each patient, denying viewers a certain narrative pleasure. One woman is diagnosed with endometriosis; another undergoes a laparoscopic procedure to remove endometrial tissue; in neither case are we told whether treatments alleviated their chronic suffering. There’s no before and after, cause and effect, no tidy resolutions. When a teenager comes to the hospital seeking an abortion, the woman who takes her history compliments her for how calmly and thoughtfully she’s able to articulate her situation: “It’s your story, it’s your experience.” At the risk of minimizing the medley of complicated ideas running through the film (viewers are in no way denied the realm of reason), the genius of Simon’s strategy is affective. Rather than taking stories from women and retelling them in her own voice, she allows the stories to remain fully embodied––dignified and particular in the details––in a way I’ve never quite experienced outside a hospital examination room.
Our Body opens on August 4.