Francois Cluzet shines again

The Country Doctor
Directed by Thomas Lilti
Written by Thomas Lilti and Baya Kasmi
102 minutes, rated M
4 stars

There’s something to be said for film-makers who have come from another profession. If you really want to tell stories, you need something other than film school to tell stories about.

Thomas Lilti is a doctor with more than ten years in general practice in the French health system; his father was also a doctor. Lilti’s second film, Hippocrate, was about a young intern in a French hospital. This, his third, is about a country doctor (played by Francois Cluzet) who’s diagnosed with a brain tumour.

This is a risky place to start, since we know nothing about this man – and who really loves films about serious illness? It’s so often a lazy path to quick emotion, if not this time. The presence of Cluzet, one of the most reliable and likeable of French actors, offers reassurance. He could make a tax collector sympathetic.

Jean-Pierre Werner (Cluzet) is stoic when he learns about the tumour. You should stop work, says his specialist, Dr Nores (Christophe Odent). Werner won’t consider that: what would his patients do? He’s the only doctor in a rural county in north-west France. After a morning of house calls – farming accidents, bad feet, fat old men who takes ten minutes to disrobe – he arrives to a full surgery. These people have defined his purpose for more than 30 years; he feels irreplaceable (the film’s title on its UK release). He keeps his condition secret.

Lilti doesn’t bother with much domestic detail. We see that Werner’s widowed mother still runs the farm where he grew up; he had a wife, but now lives alone above the surgery; his kid lives elsewhere. We have to guess most of this, because Lilti focuses on the here-and-now. Like so many of his generation, he is influenced by Ken Loach’s approach to drama: no spoon-feeding, no fancy lighting, long takes, hand-held camera, intimacy before clarity. Watch and learn.

At the end of a long day, a dark-haired handsome woman shows up after everyone has left. Dr Nores sent me, I’m your new assistant, says Dr Nathalie Delezia (Marianne Denicourt). He can see she is in her 40’s, but she has only recently finished medical school. How many subjects did you repeat, he asks, dismissively. She was ten years a nurse. Nathalie doesn’t know he is sick.

Werner puts her through the ringer, but Lilti makes the scenes funny, rather than nasty. He sends her info a farmyard to be chased by a herd of stroppy geese, or to the door of a grumpy patient he knows will not talk to her. He makes her demonstrate how she diagnoses a patient, in a dummy run. Don’t interrupt the patient, he snaps, 99 per cent of the diagnosis comes from them. Still, she can see how caring he is with an old man who has multiple reasons to be hospitalised. Dr Werner won’t do it; he has promised the man he can die at home.

One reason the film succeeds: it’s not about the brain tumour. That just makes things more urgent. Another: it’s a romance but with almost no conventional signs of the affection blooming between them. Finally, it’s a polemic about the importance of maintaining a system where doctors are so deeply part of their community.

It’s hard to imagine anyone but a real doctor making a film like this. Every nuance of treatment, every quirk of patient behaviour plays as truthfully as a documentary. Indeed, most of the patients look like real people cast as themselves. That’s how Ken Loach gets some of his realism, but Lilti has said in interviews that his cast are all actors. That makes the film’s non-performance performance style even more remarkable.

The two leads, Cluzet and Denicourt, bring the film home with understatement. An emotional scene here might constitute a half-smile, or a hand touching an arm. Lilti offers us nothing trivial, nothing forced. Romance is usually the province of the young in movies, with fireworks and French kisses. Here it’s a result of adversity, experience, each noticing how much the other is capable of and doing, a growing mutual respect. The effect is to create a small but credible world, entire unto itself, where good people sometimes do good things. Lilti is a director to watch.