By Eileen G’Sell
Claire Simon, France, Cinema Guild
A sunny day. A shadow. A woman moving through space. Appropriate for a film that often grapples with mortality, the first shot of Claire Simon’s Our Body is aimed at the ground, the camera tilted toward the pavement. The shadow belongs to the filmmaker, who, as invisible as she is for most of the documentary, is also its first protagonist.
Our Body was, as Simon explains in voiceover, “born of an encounter” she had with the film’s producer who, when battling a rare disease at the hospital, had encountered “a world of mostly women gathered in a single unit”: from maternity to gender transitioning, cancer to assisted reproduction. Aiming to chronicle the “gynecological pathologies that weigh down on our lives, on our loves, on our hopes, on our desires,” Simon’s 168-minute opus does even more: expose the mystery—and marvels—of what it physiologically and emotionally means to be human in a body that inevitably blooms and wilts.
Filmed almost entirely within the walls of a public hospital in Paris, which adjoins a cemetery holding the director’s father’s cremated remains, Our Body is split into series of vignettes of around three to ten minutes apiece, reflecting disparate personal accounts of similar medical situations. Individually, each provides a portrait of one individual or couple grappling with some complication or malady; together, they paint an epic mural of suffering, grit, humility, and survival.
Starting with one of the film’s youngest patients—a 15-year-old girl seeking an abortion—Simon takes care to avoid ready assumptions about who requires care at the “family planning clinic.” Before we join the pink-hoodied young woman at the desk of a thoughtful nurse, the camera lingers in the waiting room, where a thirty-something woman clutches an artfully tattooed forearm and an Indian mother sits with her husband and two toddlers. When listening to a different nurse in a later scene list possible side effects from a route medical abortion, many might squirm. American viewers may also feel latently envious—that the woman in question was not worried about her legal rights or the costs incurred by a standard procedure. The subsidized nature of the French health system means that no patient received a different type of care based on the ability to pay or the presence of private insurance.
Within this comparatively utopian space, Our Body insists on a fluid definition of womanhood and includes the trials of trans men born with female anatomy. We witness a 17-year-old smile when he learns that he can suspend menstruations sans both parents’ approval; we watch him cry when realizes that he’ll never father a child with his own sperm. The fact that both staff and patients still register so much emotion when most of their faces are covered by COVID-era masks is a testament to Simon’s subtle cinematographic style; during most interactions, the camera is predominantly still, but the distance between lens and subject often gradually narrows, creating an intimacy that feels earned as we learn more of a patient’s story. At the beginning of a scene in which a 28-year-old trans man discusses his testosterone dosage, the shot is a medium close-up, only to slowly move to a close-up of his face, his cheeks blushing after he receives a compliment on his beard.
Given the nature of their concerns and diagnoses, the patients are surprisingly candid with their doctors and admirable in agreeing to be recorded in the first place. Simon clearly found a way to blend into the background. In one scene, a diabetic woman in a headscarf discusses her pregnancy in English, explaining that she needs better housing to accommodate her restrictive diet, as a hotel lacks a kitchen. In another scene, a woman breastfeeding her infant recounts a traumatic birth to her doctor, in which she cursed out her husband as her baby stopped breathing. In only one scene does a patient directly engage the camera: a striking fifty-something woman on an operating table about to receive anesthesia. “It’s great that you’re filming this, Claire Simon,” she says, smiling. “It’s good because it allows people to see what happens. I think it’s wonderful.” Laughing at the camera as Debussy plays in the background, the woman seems entirely at peace with being the center of attention, learning the first names of the nurses tending to her. When she is at last asleep, her veil is removed and we learn she is being operated on for cervical cancer.
Punctuating these scenes of relatable characters are moments in which we see inside their bodies. After two moving portraits of women detailing their painful experience of endometriosis, we cut to an operating room in which a computerized surgical system cleverly labeled “Da Vinci” assists a team slicing lesions from a woman’s uterus. “Don’t dissect. Just cut,” gently implores the head surgeon, an older man familiar with the machinery. “Voila, voila. Quelle beaux!” he remarks when the masses are removed and bagged. Later in the film, we learn from a protest outside the hospital that this same physician has been accused of “abuse of power” by former patients, as he neglected to procure consent prior to certain gynecological procedures. Simon doesn’t overtly comment on this alarming connection but invites us to ponder the meaning of “medical care” from competing angles.
In the film section that tackles assisted reproduction, we learn just how hard it can be to get and stay pregnant—from the effects of endometriosis to chemo to the natural process of aging. We also receive a behind-the-scenes look at in-vitro fertilization, as a lab technician expertly lures a sperm to a needle and then injects it into a retrieved ovum. The cis male patients who appear in the film—all for fertility assistance—are burdened with no more than the task of masturbating into a plastic vestibule under harsh fluorescent light. “I have it easy then,” says a handsome husband with low sperm count, who seems surprised that his fertile partner will have to bear the brunt of medical intervention. While the film never blames cis men for what female-identified patients have to go through, what Simon elects to include exposes the obliviousness of many men towards women’s bodies, bodies many of them frequently enter and exit, bodies all of them quite literally came from.
The film’s centerpiece is devoted to what is arguably the emotional climax of the film: a full eleven minutes focused on the birth of an infant daughter by a mother of African descent, on her own at the hospital as her husband minds their two small children at home. “Insh’Allah,” she responds when asked if she thinks the baby is coming soon. “I’m impatient to meet her.” An older midwife in dangly earrings coaches her in encourage tones. “Très bien, très bien,” she repeats, adding more epidural. “C’est parfait! Magnifique!” (One might wish this woman could follow them around during any difficult trial.) When the baby finally lands, gummy and gray, in the midwife’s gloved hands, it’s a glory for both women. “Mummy’s little princess,” the mother coos, removing her mask so that her daughter, pressed against her chest, can see her. “After nine months of complicity, we meet each other at last.”
About two hours into the film, Simon becomes a character again (and for those less familiar with her visage, it’s easy to mistake her for another anonymous patient). “Are you sure?” she responds when told that when her lymph nodes have tested positive for carcinoma and a mastectomy is necessary. When her doctor explains that chemotherapy is likely necessary after the surgery, she lowers her head to his desk in despair. “Okay,” she says, resigned, her nose peeking out over a too-big mask, “it’s not as if I’m the first.” Her exposure to the realities of others has prepared her for her own.
With a few exceptions, the film’s first half explores reproduction and fertility—the problems of the relatively young—while the second probes the troubles of older women whose ovaries, uteruses, and breasts are more vulnerable to cancer (Simon is 68). In a scene featuring a forty-something woman who’s tested positive for the BRCA gene, the camera cuts from her concerned eyes at a physician’s desk to a close-up of her doctor examining her naked breasts—breasts she has, as a precautionary measure, chosen to give up. It’s a heartbreaking edit, shifting from identifying with the woman—her fears, her courage, her self-effacing sense of humor—to the potentially lethal parts of her body over which she has no control.
To Simon, this lack of control is what binds all of us together—those who identify as women or whose bodies bear life-creating capacities even more so, as there is simply more that can go wrong. This movie should be mandatory viewing for anyone, and especially those blithely ignorant or woefully indifferent to the complexities of bodies that are not cis-male. If we are to value “our body,” we have to know its fragility. “You’re very brave, but unfortunately the disease can defeat bravery and medicine,” a female oncologist tells a woman whose cancer treatments have stopped working. Clutching the woman’s wrinkled hand, she commends the woman’s bravery (“Despite everything, you always accepted without complaint”), but also acknowledges that the woman seems to be getting very tired.
By the end of this film, it is impossible to not appreciate your own life a little more—your own body a little more—as you realize how much can go wrong, and how wondrous the going-right is on a day-to-day basis. “Each person comes to the hospital with their own story,” Simon recounts at the end of the film, her cancer removed, her hair growing back, her face reflected in the hospital window, looking out.
In the closing shot of Our Body, Simon is no longer walking toward the hospital, but cycling away from it. Coming full circle with the film’s opening shot, we whir along with her shadow against the road, liberated by her forward motion. Life means more if you come close to losing it, and Simon has, while we watched. The ending is also a subtle evocation of the advent of cinema, in which the motion of bicycles—many pedaled by women—were spectacularized onscreen. Just as audiences in 1895 gasped in awe at the miracle of the moving image, so do we at the simple spectacle of Simon’s moving tire—catching our breath at the thought that life can continue and that, somehow, it must.