What does it mean to die “peacefully”? Is it possible to find grace and joy in something so solemn? That death has the power to grant forgiveness and empathy is the core tenet of Emmannuelle Bercot’s weepy cancer drama “Peaceful,” which explores a year in the life of a young man facing a terminal diagnosis.
Benoît Magimel (“The Piano Teacher”) stars as Benjamin, a 39-year-old acting teacher and self-described failure who, after some months of back pain, learns that he has Stage 4 pancreatic cancer. It’s a brutal diagnosis not only for him, but also for his mother Crystal (Catherine Deneuve) who likes to believe she’s able to control the heartache and the happiness of her son’s life.
Regardless of how the two choose to “fight” the illness, it will be terminal for Benjamin no matter what. He will die of the disease. How he chooses to spend that final year, however — be it treatment or reclusiveness or seeking absolution — that’s all up to him. Magimel and Deneuve are well-suited towards each other, and they have a pleasant if not strained rapport as many parents and adult children have.
Lucky for Benjamin, he has the world’s greatest doctor, an emblem of compassion, in Dr. Eddé (Gabriel Sara), a real-life oncologist hired by Bercot as a consultant before swiftly adding him to the cast in his first-ever acting job. The doctor is calm, wise, and funny; he listens to Benjamin without giving in to his patient’s tendency towards bitter melodramatics. He is the greatest surprise and asset of the film, his dual wisdom and generosity towards not only those in his ward but his employees as well. That “Peaceful” occasionally takes us out of the patients’ world and into the emotional strain put onto the nurses and other doctors is a deft way of showing how cancer affects all.
As a two-hour lesson in how to act and behave around someone facing a terminal diagnosis, “Peaceful” is unrivaled. It is a public service announcement brought to life, explaining all the ways in which patience and gratitude ought to be expressed and granted to those seeking the unimaginable. Dr. Eddé’s lessons to Benjamin and also to Crystal — lessons about clearing your conscience, finding beauty — feel like messages aimed both to them and to the audience. Eventually, one way or another, everyone will go through something like this themselves or with someone dear to them. The better we can prepare ourselves for that for which we are never prepared, the more peaceful death is reached.
But as a film, “Peaceful” too often gives way to melodramatics and redundancies. Time and time again we join Benjamin in his acting class where he gives his group of 20-somethings lessons in how not to over-emote or over-sell any given moment, seemingly without the realization that the film is doing just that. Deneuve, a screen legend, is relegated to numerous scenes standing by a window and crying. Realistically? Probably. But repetitive and morose in context, never failing to hammer home the abject misery of what is happening.
It doesn’t help that “Peaceful” is somewhat overburdened with subplots that matter far less than the film’s central mother-son dynamic. Benjamin’s ongoing flirtation with married nurse Eugénie (Cécile de France, “Lost Illusions”) is rote and without chemistry; what she possibly sees in him, or any aspect of her internal life, is left by the wayside. This, too, distracts from the paternity melodrama that Benjamin himself faces with American ex-girlfriend Anna (Melissa George) and his son Léandre (Oscar Morgan). When Léandre appears at the film’s halfway point, it seems for a moment as though the narrative will switch direction, passing off from mother and son to father and son. But Léandre is sidelined to ongoing terrace conversations with Dr. Eddé about the state of his father’s illness, relegated to an expository device.
“Peaceful” is no doubt a harrowing and straightforward representation both of living with a person struggling with cancer and of suffering from the illness itself, never shying away from Benjamin’s pain. He spends the film’s entire runtime dying, growing weaker and sadder and less engaged with the world around him. It is a difficult watch, regardless of the viewer’s experience with the disease, and possibly more so for those who have lost someone to it. That Benjamin himself eventually reaches a catharsis in his death journey is a relief for the viewer who has suffered alongside him. That the film is haunted by an overly dramatic score (by Eric Neveux, “Cézanne et moi”) plays up the misery, robbing its central character of the peace he seeks.
Cancer dramas serve an odd place in the film landscape; it’s hard, at times, to imagine who exactly they are “for” as they explore both the pain and the rare happiness in putting one’s life in order before it comes to an end. That they often are more instructive than artful, and more didactic than moving, suggests they are for those who have yet to go through such a thing themselves. But the universality of death does not equate a universality of the death experience, and though films can show us what an ideal version of the end looks like, it is trying to catch a falling star. That Benjamin’s story reaches a point of beautiful catharsis feels as though the film worked backwards to get there, that he was bound to die well before he ever lived.
“Peaceful” opens in NYC Oct. 28 and LA Nov. 4 via Distrib Films.