Another French Competition entry, another hospital drama in which actual medical staff make their screen debut. But this is where the commonalities between The Divide and Peaceful end. The latter is a powerful melodrama about a mother-son relationship and their struggle to accept his mortality.

Benoît Magimel stars as Benjamin, a confident and self-professed failed-actor-turned-acting-teacher, who is diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer. His overbearing mother (Catherine Deneuve), sitting in on the consultation, is reprimanded by Dr Eddé (Dr Gabriel Sara): he doesn’t give his patients half-truths just because their loved ones may think they only hurt half as much.

His particular approach to cancerology is shared through meetings and workshops with his staff, in which he advises them on their bedside manner (for example, he encourages them not to hide their empathy for the patients) and plays songs on his guitar, to which they all sing along.

Meanwhile, in order to come to terms with his illness, Benjamin’s form of catharsis is making his acting students play out scenarios about death and saying goodbye. 

The powerful first half of the film is briefly thrown out of balance by the introduction of an American-Australian son (played by a British actor Oscar Morgan), who has not been acknowledged by Benjamin. It warps the image of the protagonist we have had so far, and the language switch to overly confident American English appears jarring at first. There is also the fact that doctor-patient confidentiality is suddenly tossed overboard: Dr Eddé is the one in contact with Léandre and informs him routinely about his father’s worsening condition. During one of these conversations, the young man asks why the doctor would disclose this bad news with the patient, and here the cultural difference proves itself of merit.

Director Emmanuelle Bercot manages to raise important questions both about death and life. The sequences in Benjamin’s theatre studio explore profound truths about presence and honesty in performance. Peaceful itself is a downright acting tour de force. Magimel masters his character’s conflicting emotions and decaying health with such precision that at this stage one can hardly imagine anyone else taking home the festival’s Best Actor award.

★★★★☆

Selina Sondermann

Peaceful does not have a UK release date set.

For further information about the event visit the Cannes Film Festival website here.

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