THE STORY – French documentary titan Claire Simon observes the everyday operations of the gynecological ward in a public hospital in Paris. In the process, she questions what it means to live in a woman’s body, filming the diversity, singularity, and beauty of patients in all stages of life. Through these many encounters, the specific fears, desires, and struggles of these individuals become the health challenges we all face, even the filmmaker herself.
THE CAST – N/A
THE TEAM – Claire Simon (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 168 Minutes
Hospitals are often associated with disease, pain, and even death, and most hope to stay as far away from one for as long as possible. But the Parisian gynecological ward in Claire Simon’s “Our Body” (“Norte Corps”) is brimming with life, whether one is experiencing the best day or hearing the most difficult news. So much happens behind concrete walls and between long corridors in this hospital wing, and Simon gives viewers an unflinching front row to it all.
It should be no surprise that Simon decides to take audience members on an intimate, often heartbreaking, journey in her latest documentary. She’s followed social workers who help pregnant women in “God’s Offices” to what it’s like at La Fémis, France’s prestigious film school, in “The Competition,” and has always found a way to really dig deep with her subjects. In “Our Body,” she delicately follows the numerous unique, messy, frustrating, and painful experiences that shape womanhood with each of her subjects while never losing sight of preserving the humanity behind each story. It’s an immense and delightful foray into the female experience and one that will open many people’s eyes.
As Simon explains at the beginning of her film, this documentary was born out of a chance encounter after her producer, Kristina Larsen, battled a rare illness for some time and spent time in the hospital. There, she found a large swath of people from various backgrounds and experiences, all seeking care in one place. And we see that from the get-go. A scared teenager is seeking an abortion after having unprotected sex with her boyfriend for the first time; a young trans woman is hoping to move ahead with the next steps of her transition; young couples are hopeful their IVF treatments will be successful; and an elderly woman learns that her cancer treatments might be nearing their unsuccessful end are just some of the stories in this three-hour film. We also see the daily behind-the-scenes work at this hospital, such as how fertilization happens in a lab and how childbirth, both vaginal and through a C-section, is handled.
The patients naturally open up in this film, mainly because their interactions with hospital staff are filmed. It’s a miracle and a wonder how Simon got so many people to let cameras into such intense moments in their lives, like one Spanish speaker who learns she has cancer and whose chances of having a child naturally vanish. But it’s a true testament to the care she promises to give each person’s story. She also shows that she’s not afraid to do the same herself: She films her own appointment when she is diagnosed with breast cancer and learns what the next steps in her journey will look like.
Through these stories, she lets us gain a deeper appreciation for what women go through and often the pain and fear that accompanies many of life’s moments. An expecting mother can’t entirely celebrate the upcoming birth of her child because she’s undergoing intense chemotherapy treatments. And even when one looks cheery on the outside – a middle-aged woman who announces she loves cinema while on the operating table – she’s processing a million and one different scenarios that might come once she emerges from her cervical cancer operation. These women didn’t ask for their plights but showed resilience in even the toughest moments.
As much as “Our Body” is an homage to women, it’s also a celebration of healthcare workers. We see many treat their patients with as much care, understanding, and patience as possible, like one staff member who draws out diagrams explaining treatment options or another who asks patients to pull their masks down so he can see their faces. They share laughs and feel at ease like old pals during one woman’s delivery and provide comfort through gentle hand caresses when an elderly woman learns she will likely be placed into palliative care. These unsung heroes in our world deserve all the spotlight in this documentary – far more than just banging pots and pans outside of windows as was done during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. One sequence in the film shows a rally outside the hospital where demonstrators share their anger over alleged malpractice. It feels a bit out of place given the format of the rest of the film, but other clips, such as a counseling session with a new mother who thought her doctor exhibited rude behavior, provide that needed link.
If the film has a single fault, a nearly three-hour runtime might deter someone from watching it. After some time, it might also get tedious to watch story after story, but each one is important to tell because it’ll serve as a learning moment for someone out there, or it’ll help someone going through a similar journey. “Our Body” is required viewing to understand better the ups and downs of being a woman in this world, and Simon delivers this lesson in the most gentle and beautiful way possible.