The Country Doctor is a deceptively, disarming film.
Directed by Thomas Lilti, who spent 10 years working as a GP in the French health system, and sensibly writes and directs what he knows (he co-wrote the screenplay with Baya Kasmi), the film, at first glance, comes across a gentle rural drama where the much-loved, pillar of the community sole doctor Jean-Pierre Werner (François Cluzet) must grapple with his own mortality and the arrival of his possible replacement Nathalie Delezia (Marianne Denincourt).
So far, so Lifetime movie of the week, you might think.
And while the film does contain undeniable elements of its more pulpy brethren, with some well-telegraphed elements on open display – it is almost a given, for instance, that Jean-Pierre will resist Nathalie’s arrival at first and give her a determinedly hard time until a deeply respectful bond forms – it is also far more nuanced and thoughtful that you might first give it credit for.
It does, for instance, tackle the all too current issue of a dearth of healthcare options for people in rural and remote areas.
While the region in which it is set in northern France is not all that far from Paris in relative terms, it does suffer from many of the ills affecting country regions the world over from declining services as the population ages and the weariness of almost constantly having to fight for the resources you need simply to maintain a basic level of care.
Certainly Jean-Pierre, who openly admits his is a 24/7 calling, a demand on his time so consistent and unyielding that his son Vincent (Félix Moati) became an architect instead, is pulled in about a hundred different directions on any given day.
He is counsellor, social worker, doctor, home maintenance expert and staunch ally to all his patients, who range from farmers on properties, housebound in small surrounding villages and even the ostracised gypsy enclave on the edge of town through to the run of the mill cases of his fellow villagers who suffer from everything from sexual transmitted diseases to unwanted pregnancies.
Nothing too remarkable in one sense, but unlike in city regions where healthcare options are concentrated, the bucks stops with people like Jean-Pierre and nurse Fanny (Géraldine Schitter) who are, as the film’s alternate English title suggests, irreplaceable.
There is simply no one coming in to replace them, and insufficient concern given, even by the local regional council, to the need for a more thoughtful, concerted healthcare approach for the people of the area.
It’s against this backdrop that Jean-Pierre who, for all his gruffness is a deeply caring man who takes the Hippocratic Oath very seriously, going so far as to personally tend above and beyond the call of duty to an ailing 92 year old patient Mr Sorlin (Guy Faucher), is diagnosed with a brain tumour on his left temporal lobe.
Being a medical professional, he is all too aware of what the diagnosis from his friend Dr Norès (Christophe Odent) entails, but he is also human too, something he resists acceding to for much of the film.
While he complies with the chemotherapy, and then chemo/radiation mix that his treatment necessitates, he doesn’t disclose to Nathalie, who of all people has the most need to do since she assumes at first that she is going to be working alongside, not replacing Jean-Pierre, his mother nor any of fellow villagers how gravely ill he is.
Fittingly for a film that is more grounded and authentic than it first appears, this has much to do very real issues of mortality, loss of sense of place and identity, and a deep concern for the ongoing health of his patients who are more than family than anything else.
Thankfully Lilti avoids turns this into mawkish sentiment, opting instead for investing Jean-Pierre with a taciturn stoicness that, whole it does manifest as worry and anxiety if you’re paying attention (most people don’t pick up on it, Nathalie does, aided by some very telling X-rays), is never allowed to overtake the film.
Jean-Pierre is concerned and there are some quiet touching scenes where his vulnerability is on ill-disguised display, including one where he gives his nonplussed mother (Isabelle Sadoyan) a kiss and tells her “I love you”, but The Country Doctor keeps its focus solely on depicting the minutiae of small town life and Nathalie’s attempts to find her place in what is a very well-ordered ecosystem.
At its heart, and for all the avoidance of treacly sentiment, The Country Doctor most certainly has one, the film is the story of one doctor facing his mortality, another setting off her later-in-life journey into practising medicine away from the hospitals and large scale healthcare she dislikes, and how these two people come to find common ground.
In its slow, meandering way, which gets nowhere in a hurry, and yet which covers a huge amount of vitally important ground, social conscience quite prominently in display, the film is rich in detail and emotional authenticity, given us a picture of small town French life and the vital role that medical professionals play in it.
They are the glue that holds these communities together, and while some fun is made of that at one point, it is true to such a large degree that the Jean-Pierre’s potential death is of very real concern.
Well for the audience at least since by and large, with the exception of Nathalie, no one even knows Jean-Pierre is unwell.
The Country Doctor is a sage lesson in not judging a film by its genre trappings – sure it has many elements we might associate with a sweet country drama and truth be told it doesn’t shy away from them since properly observed, they have a real veracity to them; but it also dares to ask some fairly big, serious questions that are more than academic for people grappling with some fairly seismic changes to long-held ways of life.
By turns goofy and sweet, hard-edged and deeply thoughtful, The Country Doctor is insightful and truthful, a film elevated by fine, nuanced performances, an understanding and appreciation for its setting, and a staunch realisation that while we take them for granted, there are many things in our society changing and under threat and we must give serious thought to how we will respond to them, lest we find ourselves, personally and as a whole, all the poorer for their loss.