Wednesday 23 March 2022

The Divide (Catherine Corsini, 2021)

The Divide, which screens as part of this year's BFI Flare from March 25–27, is director Catherine Corsini's 14th feature film.  Incidentally, each of Corsini's two most recent efforts starred a prominent Belgian actress: Cécile de France headed the cast of 2015's Summertime, while Virginie Efira played the lead in 2018's An Impossible Love.  For her latest film, Corsini has opted for Franco-Italian actress Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi, a performer who might best be described as an acquired taste; over the course of her not inconsiderable career, Bruni-Tedeschi's performances have ranged from reasonably affecting (5x2) to downright insufferable (The Color of Lies), and you're never quite sure what she's going to deliver.  The same cannot be said for Bruni-Tedeschi's co-star in The Divide, the terrific Marina Foïs, who manages to light up pretty much anything she appears in.  Although these two actresses boast radically different styles, their pairing here proves to be a highly effective one.

Foïs' Julie and Bruni-Tedeschi's Raf are a couple at the terminus of their relationship, and the former has already made plans to move out when Raf falls, fracturing her elbow.  Julie arrives promptly at the hospital where Raf is being treated, whereupon it becomes clear that the clingy patient plans on using this injury as leverage—yet it's equally apparent that the accident has done little to change the state of the relationship, which itself could be said to be in need of emergency treatment.  Of course, and as anyone who's had to get in line for urgent care will tell you, the wait in ER can be both long and fraught, and it's going to be a while before Raf's wound is tended to; there's a glimpse of a display board indicating a current waiting time of eight to ten hours.  Among the other patients waiting to be seen is Yann (Pio Marmaï), a truck driver and apparent hothead who has sustained some nasty looking leg injuries; yet as his initial aggression subsides, Yann enjoys several conversations with the talkative Raf.  

As you'd expect, there are many members of staff circulating among the patients, and one of the most prominent is Kim (Aïssatou Diallo Sagna), a diligent nurse who attends to seemingly countless patients over the duration of her shift.  Although the situation in the hospital is suitably stressful in its own right, Corsini cranks up the tension by having the night in the ER unfold against the backdrop of France's "yellow vests" protests—which by this stage have turned very ugly, with violent clashes between police and demonstrators occurring in the streets close to the hospital.  While we're waiting for these two pressure cookers to collide, a link between them is already present in the form of Yann, who is in fact a gilet jaune whose leg was injured by shrapnel as he scuffled with police officers.  Those inside the hospital follow the running battles via smartphones and TVs, yet we're painfully aware that it won't be too long before the ER's staff and patients will be able to view the mayhem without the need of technology.  Many characters come and go, but the film always keeps its main focus on the quartet consisting of Julie, Raf, Kim and Yann.

With The Divide's portrayal of both the emergency room and the gilets jaunes, Catherine Corsini has in effect doubled down: either of these stories, as depicted here, could easily make for a breathlessly fascinating film without the other.  While both of the film's two distinct sides make for compelling viewing, it's the stretches in the ER that prove to be stronger; perhaps this is to be expected, given that the film was made during lockdown, a period in which the filming of already-taxing crowd scenes would have involved yet more logistical challenges.  But the sequences inside the hospital are little short of electrifying, with an endlessly busy camera capturing the frantic essence of both emergency medicine and those who administer it.  The performances are strong, with the non-professional actress Aïssatou Diallo Sagna—a  real-life nurse who deservedly won best supporting actress at last month's Césars—warranting a special mention for her portrayal of the seemingly omnipresent Kim, a character who is at the very centre of the film's most intense moment.  Expertly made, urgent and taut, The Divide is a draining tour-de-force.  

Darren Arnold