Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Feb 21, 2017 4:00 am 
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A successful battle against French Big Pharma

Right after 2015's Standing Tall/La tête haute about an at-risk teenager who struggles to become a good citizen, actor-writer-director Emmanuelle Bercot has made an Erin Brockovitch/Karen Silkwood film about real-life big Pharma whistleblower Irène Frachon. In the role as the feisty "Brest Girl" is Danish-born actress Sidse Babett Knudsen, who's in every scene. Dr.Frachon is a pulmonologist at the university hospital in Brest, in Brittany. Assisting at an open heart surgery operation, she observes degenerated heart valves in a middle-aged woman, Corinne Zacharria (Isabelle de Hertogh), who's been taking the Sevier company's drug Mediator, prescribed for decades for diabetes and for weight loss. Frachon notices there are other similar cases. The film takes us through Frachon and her collaborators' struggle to get this killer drug taken off the market.

Bercot and her co-authors, adapting Frachon's own book Mediator 150 mg, Combien de morts? ("Mediator 150 mg., How Many Deaths?"), take us through grueling, sometimes numbing details of this struggle. This may seem a humorless film - except that Knudsen's slightly over-the-top performance is engaging and full of fun - and frankly I had doubts somewhere in the middle if all this mundane detail was really worth it. But at the end Irène Frachon's (and all her collaborators') victory feels so good, it all turns out to be worth it.

Essential to the process, and to the film, is the great Benoît Magimel - who won an award for his performance in Bercot's last film, who plays Dr. Antoine Le Bihan, a specialist in medical research, who authors a paper that is the basis for negotiations with authorities. Big Pharma is ruthless, of course, and indifferent. They don't care if hundreds are dying from Mediator; they just want to go on selling it for the hundreds of thousands of patients in the country taking it. Magimel's performance makes clear the human toll of this battle as Dr. Bihan is ruined by the drug company, losing all his grants, and eventually winds up applying for jobs in Canada. But this isn't just a movie of a few stars, great though the two leads are: it's an ensemble piece, and when the ministry makes its statement condemning Sevier and withdrawing Mediator from the market, the camera pans around to all the people who have played a role. Not least, Dr. Frachon's family, and her good-humored husband who, when she notices his new glasses, which he's been wearing for three months, just laughs, and is the one who persuades her not to give up at her lowest point.

The beauty of 150 Milligrams is in its meticulous details of every stage of the struggle, and that makes it hard to talk about. Early on, notably, Dr. Franchon loses her cool at her first hearing before the government review board and does what Bihan said she should absolutely not do. She reveals that there is a study under way, and that he heads it. This puts the under an almost impossible deadline. They must finish the study immediately. At the board, the Sevier officials are condescending and game the system skillfully to put off any enquiry. When she and her collaborators ever appear, they are mocked as being rubes because they're from Brittany and the small city of Brest. Later, not for the first time, Dr. Franchon is contacted by an insider, this time a man inside the national insurance system, which is penetrated by Big Pharma. He takes the code name Santa Claus ("Père Noël"), and is the one who can gather national statistics of the number of deaths attributable to the drug. Dr. Franchon also has a female PhD candidate who attaches herself to her, who even more skillfully and rapidly crunches numbers.

When they have suffered several defeats, rather in desperation Dr. Franchon writes the book, Mediator 150 mg with the subtitle Combien de morts?, How Many Deaths? The drug company brings suit against her tiny publisher (another ally gathered along the way) and bars him from using the subtitle. He figts back, and prints the book with "Sous-titre censuré," subtitle censured, on the jacket. The story is growing national news, and still another ally is a blowzy, every more eccentric woman reporter for the national magazine, L'Express. When the magazine gets behind the story, the effect is decisive.

The film been criticized for being too utilitarian and observational. But that is the point. With all its little steps and details, it conveys the long tough slog that is a medical study that resists the forces of Big Pharma. And the admittedly sometimes flat and grinding scenes are counteracted by humanness. Bercot has directed a lively, impressively human ensemble production, headed off touchingly and entertainingly by the unique Knudsen and soulful Benoît Magimel, both of whom give selfless and memorable performances.

La fille de Brest/150 Milligrams, 128 mins., debuted at Toronto 12 Sept. 2016 and also appeared at San Sebastián. French theatrical release was 23 Nov. to excellent reviews (AlloCineé press rating 3.7) It got two César nominations, Best Actdress and Best Adapted Screenplay. Screened for this review as part of the Film Society of Lincoln Center-UniFrance series Rendez-Vous with French Cinema (1-12 Mar. 2017).
Saturday, March 4, 3:15pm (Q&A with Emmanuelle Bercot)
Monday, March 6, 4:15pm


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