The sociopolitical tensions plaguing France over the past few years come clashing together during one long, extremely hostile night inside Paris’ toughest emergency room in The Divide (La Fracture), the latest feature from director Catherine Corsini.
Part gritty public service dystopia, part modern-day farce about the yellow vests movement that ripped through the country in late 2018, the film can be both entertaining and surprisingly funny, especially if you’re familiar with France’s politics and current economic woes. But it’s also too on-the-nose about what it wants to say, or rather, shout as loud as it can, regarding the country’s accumulated social wreckage — to the point that the movie winds up drowning out its own main ideas. Still, the strong cast and timely material could prove to be a draw, especially at home.
A chaotic French dramedy about our chaotic times.
Corsini’s recent features, including An Impossible Love and Three Worlds, were dramas that leaned toward the heavy-handed, so it’s nice to see her revisiting the comic vein of early efforts like The New Eve and Les Ambitieux. Not that The Divide isn’t very serious in spots, exploring in brutal fashion how France has grown into an increasingly fractured land under the reign of President Emmanuel Macron. But unlike much of the director’s work, this one provides a welcome mix of drawing-room (or waiting room) comedy and communal catastrophe, like a play by Marivaux set in a hospital that makes the one from M.A.S.H. look like a 5-star boutique hotel.
Much of the laughs come from actress-director Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, playing an anxious, completely untethered comic book artist named Raf who winds up in the emergency room after falling and cracking her elbow. The accident occurred after she spent most of the night hate-texting her longtime partner, Julie (Marina Foïs), while the two of them were sharing a bed together for what may have been the last time.
Raf is wheeled into an ER that’s already filled to capacity and understaffed, with some of the nurses on strike (anyone who lives in France knows this happens regularly) and more victims rolling in after a yellow vest protest on the Champs-Elysées turns violent. As Raf downs as many meds as she can, waiting for an X-ray that never comes, she bumps heads with Yann (Pio Marmaï), a trucker who was hit with shrapnel from a flash grenade during the demonstration, leaving his leg a blood-soaked mess.
The stage is thus set for a tense social dramedy where Raf, soon joined by Julie, and Yann try to navigate the chaotic Kafkaesque system of the hospital so they can get checked up and checked out, with Yann in fear of losing his job if he doesn’t complete several deliveries by the next day. Meanwhile, the protests begin to close in on them, with fights breaking out between riot police and yellow vests in the surrounding streets, the tear gas eventually seeping into the waiting room to add yet more pandemonium.
“We’re in a French public hospital!” a character yells at one point, as if to justify all the madness, including a ceiling that collapses and nearly kills a patient. But the line also highlights how The Divide is about the very eroding of the system keeping such hospitals afloat, with the protesters fighting to maintain public protections that have diminished over time. Like Ladj Ly’s Les Misérables, which played Cannes’ competition in 2019, Corsini offers a vision of France on the verge of civil war, the police trying to contain the burgeoning unrest among the working and immigrant classes.
To that extent, her film can feel a bit preachy as it pits blue-collar Yann against “bourgeoise” (as he calls her) Raf, even if both are ultimately after the same goal, which is to get the hell out of the ER. There’s no doubt that by the story’s end, the two will have managed to find common ground, and the script (by Corsini, Laurette Polmanss and Agnès Feuvre) is entirely predictable in that sense. Also, giving Yann a bunch of loaded lines (“We don’t live, we survive”) makes it all seem too stagey: Nobody really talks like that, except in movies that wear their politics on their sleeves.
The Divide’s saving grace is Bruni Tedeschi’s Raf, who can be so exasperating that you’re almost hoping she’ll conk out from the Tramadol she’s been popping in secret. But she also provides much of the comic relief, acting as a doped-up Shakespearean fool who speaks truths nobody wants to hear. If Bruni Tedeschi dialed down her performance a notch, it may have worked even better, and the problem with Corisini’s film in general is that everything is turned up to the highest pitch.
That includes a third act that veers toward caricature as chaos reigns and the hospital risks both a police assault and a possible hostage situation, with the ER’s head nurse (Aissatou Diallo Sagna) trying to hold it all together. (To add yet another element to the already hulking plot, the nurse’s baby daughter shows up with a high fever.)
It’s too much to believe, and The Divide winds up suffering from thematic overkill. This doesn’t mean, however, that Corsini’s attempt to use a broken-down hospital as a metaphor for a broken-down France should be dismissed entirely, and credit is due to production designer Toma Baqueni (Clouds of Sils Maria) for creating a set that looks nearly apocalyptic. The film may not entirely stand on its own as a dramatic comedy that works from start to finish, but perhaps in the future it will serve as an accurate snapshot of the topsy-turvy times we are living in right now, and that need to change.