Berlinale 2023 review: Our Body (Claire Simon)

“What Claire Simon does, being there, bonding, filming, “makes things more personal” in a place that is best known for the opposite.”

French self-taught director Claire Simon has split her lengthy film career between works of fiction (her latest I Want to Talk About Duras two years ago) and a corpus of documentaries focusing on human interactions and bonding, in situations that have to do with personal matters such as romance (Young Solitude), studies (The Competition), or health as in her current film Our Body, and in her very first feature-length documentary The Patients. The transition from one title to the other conveys the change of perspective between the two films: while The Patients were seen from the point of view of the doctor examining them, Our Body stands on the side of the people going to the hospital – as Claire Simon does herself in the opening sequence, shot in first person.

This subjective approach taken by the director is paramount, given the nature of what is at stake and the level of intimacy required to address these issues. Through her camera lens, Claire Simon brings us into the privacy of the consultations and treatments sought in the obstetrics and gynaecology wing of a Parisian hospital by a wide range of women, of all ages and origins. They come to undergo gender transitioning or to find some relief from the chronic pain of endometriosis; for an abortion or an attempt at IVF; for childbirth by vaginal delivery or C-section. As one of them tells her, what Claire Simon does, being there, bonding, filming, “makes things more personal” in a place that is best known for the opposite.

Even though every member of the medical staff shown during the three-hour film is kind and considerate (which makes the insertion of a single scene displaying the opposing viewpoint, through a demonstration outside the hospital gates against a renowned gynaecologist accused of numerous cases of sexual abuse, somewhat misplaced and inconclusive), what Our Body is really about is sisterhood. A woman films other women and through this act she strengthens that mighty collective link even more. They are in pain, afraid, hopeful, or fortunate and delighted, and Claire Simon forms a beautifully genuine and emotional connection with each one, whether she accompanies them through the reminiscence of a traumatic childbirth or the experience of the first cry of a newborn baby, a chemotherapy session while pregnant or the various steps of the IVF procedure, viewed as some kind of magic.

Like last year’s (also French) documentary De Humani Corporis Fabrica, Our Body contains medical surgeries filmed up close, where the human flesh is opened up and delved into; but what Claire Simon pursues with these sequences is entirely different. She reflects upon the mystery of the female body, cradle of the greatest wonders as well as the darkest aches, including the breast cancer she witnesses in others when observing the result of a mastectomy, before eventually being diagnosed with it herself in a harrowing scene. In this overwhelming moment, the director simultaneously becomes a patient and passes in front of the camera. As she puts it herself, “it all weirdly came together”; her doing this movie and her body turning against her. The use of the ‘us’ pronoun has rarely been more accurate than in this case.

(c) Image copyright: Madison Films