With her deeply invested observational documentaries, London-born French filmmaker Claire Simon has amassed a body of work somewhat comparable to that of American master Frederick Wiseman, in its focus on institutions and the transitory communities they foster. She has previously explored the teenage experience in a French high school (“Young Solitude”); the foot traffic in Gare du Nord train station (“Human Geography”); the comings and goings in Paris’ Bois de Vincennes park (“The Woods Dreams Are Made Of”); and one of the annual intake sessions at Le Fémis, the country’s leading film school (“The Competition”). Her latest outing, “Our Body” luxuriant in length but never less than compelling, immerses us in the day-to-day drama in a French hospital, specifically the departments dedicated to women’s health, with typically compassionate and insightful results. Typical, that is, until Simon herself unexpectedly becomes one of her own subjects.
Simon’s diagnosis happens more than halfway through the 169-minute film, and it is a hallmark of the general humility of her approach, and Luc Forveille’s lucid editing, that she neither coyly avoids the subject afterwards, nor lets her story overwhelm the wider project. Instead, her personal journey is sketched in roughly the same number of scenes she dedicates to anyone else’s, so she becomes one more strand in the film’s breathing, sometimes bleeding, tapestry: just one of ”Our Body’s” many vital organs.
As the movie loosely progresses through all stages of adult female life, a large portion is naturally dedicated to reproductive health. There are anxious young women seeking abortions and pregnancy advice, heartbreaking discussions of medically necessary terminations, ecstatic interludes with those who have undergone successful fertility treatments, and there is childbirth itself, both vaginal and by C-section — procedures that are shown in unflinching surgical detail. And lest anyone tries therefore to infer some biological-essentialist agenda, there are also trans men and trans women featured, including a consultation with an older patient being advised by her doctor on keeping her estrogen levels in line with those of menopausal cis women.
The patients are remarkably trusting of Simon in often extraordinarily vulnerable moments: from those intense birth sequences to the amazingly upbeat lady wisecracking her way through surgery prep, to a profoundly sad sequence during which a terminally ill woman is told that she’s being moved to palliative treatment. Her carer, who sits with her and holds her thin hand while she breaks the news, is emblematic of the film’s view of the hospital workers — doctors, nurses, midwives, therapists, counsellors and administrators — as little less than heroic. A cynic might wonder how much the presence of Simon’s camera alters the tenor of their interactions, but there is something so casual and routine about those human touches that it is impossible to believe that it’s a front.
One doctor always asks the patient to briefly lower their facemask so he’ll be able to recognize them in future. Another has the habit of doodling unartistic ballpoint diagrams to illustrate the discussion. Another is shown tirelessly using translation apps and broken Spanish to communicate with a non-French speaker. You don’t have to be ailing, or even particularly religious, to agree with the blissed-out new mother who finds time to tell the midwife who attended her, “May God bless you.”
It does make “Our Body” an unabashedly admiring document of the dedication and probity of those in the French healthcare sector, only tempered by one, initially incongruous passage which takes in a protest being held at the hospital gates. Demonstrators share their anger over instances of alleged malpractice, including one harrowing account of violation in the course of a routine examination. But in retrospect, even this sequence serves to clarify Simon’s aims: a lack of transparency and a lack of basic knowledge about our rights to certain levels of safety and comfort, are central to the demonstrators’ complaints. “Our Body” provides a swift corrective, educating all of us by showing, as standard, patients receiving irreproachable care and the hospital pursuing some degree of self-accountability. We even witness a counselling session with one patient whose issues with her doctor’s dismissive attitude to her painful delivery were later discovered to be well-founded.
The protest essentially becomes an inverse-echo of the cheerful surgical patient’s gratitude to Simon for making a film in which “everyone will be able to see what happens.” What does happen is sometimes tragic, often painful, but it is always instructive — demystifying and de-objectifying the female body, which is still the locus of so much secrecy and mystery. Simon’s nonjudgmental, empathetic curiosity is the film’s great strength. But it’s also shocking that still now, in 2023, it can be such a revelation, as women, to see “Our Body” portrayed without sexualization and without stigmatization — without, in a word, shame.