Hippocrates: Diary Of A French Doctor

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday July 10, 2015

A scene from 'Hippocrates: Diary of A French Doctor'
A scene from 'Hippocrates: Diary of A French Doctor'  

Director Thomas Lilti captures the kind of drive and atmosphere that made the TV series "ER" such an addictive kick. But "Hippocrates: Diary of a French Doctor" has a lot more going on as its camera probes the exam rooms and grungy, labyrinthine corridors where the residents and interns live and work. Equipment shortages, inter-departmental rivalries, coverups, pornographic frescoes, wild parties... "ER' was never this raucous and bawdy.

The title refers to the Greek "father of medicine," the ancient practitioner of the healing arts for whom the oath is named. It's a long oath (and no one today takes seriously its promise to ply the medical trade free of charge), but in the public imagination it's generally summarized by the words "Do no harm."

That sentiment haunts young Benjamin (Vincent Lacoste), an intern whose father (Jacques Gamblin) is a bigwig at the hospital where Benjamin will be working for the next six months. It's as frantic and pressurized an environment as any hospital, and the daily difficulties are only made worse by the new director's cost-cutting, which leaves floors understaffed and crucial equipment in disrepair. When a homeless man (Thierry Levaret) suffering chronic cirrhosis of the liver and inflammation of the pancreas is admitted, and complains of abdominal pain, Benjamin wants to take an EKG to be rule out a heart condition. The electrocardiogram machine is not working, and the test cannot be done; the fact that this lies outside Benjamin's control is of little consolation to the young man when the patient dies in the night. However, the hospital closes ranks around Benjamin to perpetrate a lie about the quality of care the dead man received -- a lie that solidifies when a grieving widow (Julie Brochen) appears, looking for an "explanation."

Meantime, Abdel (Reda Kateb), a doctor from Algeria being forced to go through a series of internships to qualify for licensure in France, has something of the opposite problem when an elderly patient under his care makes it known to him that she'd prefer not to have her life extended. Abdel dutifully adds a "Do Not Resuscitate" order to the woman's file, only for that order to be ignored when she goes into cardiac arrest.

The moral and ethical quandaries outlined here are stark and, if a little too cleanly drawn, are nonetheless reflective of the realities medical professionals face. Lacoste and Kateb bring extra dimension to their roles -- a good thing, since otherwise Abdel would be little more than an arrogant stereotype and Benjamin would be a cipher. Events take a sudden and dramatic swerve -- when I cited "ER" above, it was for both better and worse -- and the film shies away from realism as it draws to a close. That doesn't much dilute its many good points, though -- glimpses at how the close-knit staff of a modern hospital struggle to preserve life, restore health, and hold on to their own good humor and sanity in an environment that grinds them down instead of supporting their efforts.

This film would be the ideal companion to the documentary "Code Black," or a binge watch of your favorite medical drama. (Just be prepared not to take "House" seriously once you've seen how the interns in "Hippocrates" pick an episode to bits.)

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.