Carly Mattox

Notre Corps – first-look review

Set within a Parisian gynecological clinic, Claire Simon's powerful documentary focuses on the myriad stories of patients who seek advice and care.

Notre Corps begins in the trembling grasp of its director, as Claire Simon’s handheld camera shows her own route by foot to the front doors of a public gynecological clinic in Paris’s 20th arrondissement. It is a sunny day, and golden light is cast onto the sidewalk. As she explains in the opening narration, the project came to her at the behest of producer Kristina Larsen, who herself had spent time at the center as a patient. For much of the film’s near-three hour runtime, Simon keeps herself off-screen, a wordless observer capturing the emotionally fraught conversations which occur between patients and doctors behind quite literal closed doors.

A fifteen-year-old, with a hoodie pulled over her head to obscure her identity, reveals that she is pregnant, her voice betraying both anxiety and shame. A seventeen-year-old transitioning from female to male, accompanied by a supportive mother, is told that he cannot start his transition in earnest until he turns eighteen, as his father does not approve.

Multiple births happen on-screen; during one, a woman scrolls on her phone with nonchalance as she explains that her husband is at home watching their other children. She delivers her baby, a girl, in a room with only a doctor and the person behind the camera. Using Google translate, a woman who only speaks Spanish asks if, following treatment, she will be able to have children. Using the same translator app, the doctor explains that, no, she probably won’t.

An unseen woman is told that she has breast cancer. She immediately asks about whether she will need a mastectomy; how soon after she can schedule a reconstructive surgery; whether she will lose her hair; her head bows, betraying a wave of emotion. “You worry about the film,” the doctor tells her, “and we’ll worry about this.”

At once we understand that this is Simon herself — of course it is, her voice is the same as the film’s beginning narrator — and the entire film shifts. At once, the camera and the woman behind it are no longer silent, Wiseman-esque witnesses, but instead guardian angels keeping a watchful eye as patients experience, in turn, the worst and the best days of their lives.

The runtime might be daunting, but it is easy to imagine Simon and her editor, Luc Forveille, sitting together, unable to bring themselves to cut a single story from the film, which has been organized not chronologically but by the age of the patient, from the youngest to the oldest. This carefully constructed mosaic lays bare a portrait of empathy, and perhaps without originally intending to, feels profoundly political.

Each day, bodies are being policed with increasing frequency; access to abortion has been restricted in the United States, and gender-affirming care for teens and adults alike is still under attack in both the USA and the UK. Claire Simon has titled her film Notre Corps — Our Body – a remarkable act of solidarity, which offers a vision of optimism often only documentary film is capable of.

Published 24 Feb 2023

Tags: Claire Simon

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