Cannes Film Festival 2021: Peaceful (In his lifetime)

Cannes Film Festival 2021: Peaceful (In his lifetime) | Review

July 12, 2021


Another French Competition entry, another hospital drama in which real-life medical staff make their screen debut. But this is where the commonalities between The divide and Peaceful to finish. The latter is a powerful melodrama about a mother-son relationship and their struggle to come to terms with her mortality.

Benoît Magimel stars as Benjamin, a confident, self-proclaimed failed actor turned theater teacher, who is diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer. His authoritarian mother (Catherine Deneuve), present in consultation, is reprimanded by Dr. Eddé (Dr. Gabriel Sara): he does not tell his patients half-truths simply because their loved ones may think that they are only doing half as much wrong.

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

Meanwhile, to come to terms with his illness, Benjamin’s form of catharsis involves having his theater students act out scenarios about death and saying goodbye.

The film’s powerful first half is briefly thrown off balance by the introduction of an Australian-American son (played by British actor Oscar Morgan), who Benjamin goes unrecognized. It distorts the image of the protagonist we’ve had so far, and the change of language to overconfident American English feels shocking at first. There is also the fact that doctor-patient confidentiality is suddenly thrown overboard: it is Doctor Eddé who is in contact with Léandre and regularly informs him of the worsening of his father’s condition. During one of these conversations, the young man asks why the doctor would divulge this bad news to the patient, and here the cultural difference proves its worth.

Director Emmanuelle Bercot manages to raise important questions about both death and life. Sequences from Benjamin’s theater studio explore deep truths about presence and honesty in performance. Peaceful himself is a veritable tour de force as an actor. Magimel masters his character’s conflicted emotions and decaying health with such precision that at this point, it’s hard to imagine anyone else taking home the festival’s best actor award.

Selina Sonderman

Peaceful does not yet have a UK release date.

Read more reviews of our Cannes Film Festival 2021 coverage here.

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

Watch an excerpt from Peaceful here:

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