Festivals | Berlin: Claire Simon’s Notre corps

By Beatrice Loayza

There’s a violence inherent in modern medicine—not just in the physical intrusions that take place during a surgical procedure, but in the language of medicine itself. Foucault wrote of the “medical gaze,” a way of looking at the patient’s body through the lens of scientific knowledge, interpreting its visible symptoms and signs using pre-cut terminology and systems of classification. Under this gaze, the body is denuded of personhood, its individual mysteries razed for the greater good; when maladies arise, one can only hope that the doctor has seen it all before, can identify the problem, and relate it to an established index of ailments and remedies.  

Claire Simon’s Notre corps—which captures the visitations and procedures in the gynecological ward of Paris’s Tenon hospital, a public institution located a few blocks from Père Lachaise—understands this compromise, but offers a rebuttal as well: it honours the body’s possibilities and delicate particularities by expanding that gaze to encompass the lives beyond the bodies, the unique frictions engendered by supposedly objective methods. Simon’s work as a writer, director, and cinematographer of both narrative films and documentaries is rooted in the “direct cinema” teachings of the Ateliers Varan, a documentary training program founded by Jean Rouch, and her new film—which premiered in the Berlinale’s Forum section—unfolds with the same chat-heavy, observational approach of her previous documentaries, including Le concours (2016), a Wiseman-like study of the admissions process to France’s top film school, La Fémis; and Premières solitudes (2018), which is made up almost entirely of conversations between groups of teenagers. 

Notre corps begins in Père Lachaise, with Simon’s handheld camera pointed down at her feet as she strolls through the cemetery’s chunky cobblestone pathways, describing the nature of what will follow. Inspired by her producer, who had encouraged Simon to see for herself the “mostly female world” within this particular hospital unit, she soon encounters life, death, and everything in between—“maternity, cancer, endometriosis, gender transitioning, etc. All the gynecological pathologies that weigh down our lives, loves, hopes, and desires.” Simon and her camera proceed to sit in on consultations and bedside chats between patients and nurses, luxuriating in each person’s story, which accounts for the film’s lengthy, nearly three-hour runtime. The film progresses, roughly linearly, through the sundry stages of life: an adolescent girl, her back turned to the camera, explains the events that led up to her pregnancy and need for an abortion; couples of distinct age brackets and ethnicities detail the routines of their sex lives as they pursue in-vitro fertilization; trans men and women contend with the hormonal changes that occur naturally throughout life. 

Despite this personalization of every case, the “medical gaze” nevertheless looms large in the film, with many discussions between patient and doctor producing a flurry of estranging terminology (urethra, oocytes, vascular degeneration) that, through the lens of Simon’s attentive camera, underscores the disparities of power between the body experts, so to speak, and the bodies themselves. It’s no unfamiliar thing for a doctor to explain what’s happening inside you, or to otherwise interpret what you confess to feeling in more concrete terms. But presented thus, with this dynamic repeated across a spectrum of afflictions and treatments, the patient’s vulnerability feels more pronounced, or, at the very least, their vulnerability appears to be the unfortunate standard. A brief sequence toward the end of the film makes this explicit, when a group of women activists, survivors of medical abuse, are shown railing against the profession’s authoritarian tendencies. At the same time, these women as a collective—all tangled in a web of biological complexities, all dealing, essentially, in the care and maintenance of bodily parts that can be altered, that wither, and that change with time—challenge the lame precepts of biological essentialism. It’s not just trans bodies that are fluid: the very nature of bodily particularity, with its unique forms of growing and degenerating, suggests that this quality is intrinsic to all bodies. 

Simon also turns her camera on modern medicine’s advanced instruments of seeing, the robots and nano-cameras capable of rendering visible the tiniest corners of the human body. In one scene, we witness a surgery up close from the startlingly visceral perspective of a camera nestled inside someone’s womb. However, this sequence is unlike the bodily spectacle of Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor’s De Humani Corporis Fabrica (2022),whose use of tiny cameras to explore and defamiliarize the crevices of the human body aims toward little more than an impressive display of effects. Here, the objectifying impulses of medical practice and its technologies are countered by the intimacy of Simon’s camera, the way it lingers on the patients’ responses, their voices, and the expression in their eyes, heightened by their COVID-era masks. 

Simon’s work has previously hinged on the power of personal narrative, with her subjects revealing themselves by their own movements and in their own words. Premières solitudes relies on its teenage subjects to speak for themselves, while in Mimi (2003), Simon’s friend Mimi Chiola recounts the story of her life—including her confrontations with Nazi violence and her struggles with her sexual identity—at times speaking directly to the camera. This approach recalls the long tradition of feminist filmmaking stretching back to the radical collectives of the ’70s, in which women’s narration functions as the creative principle itself. In Notre corps,this same emphasis on speaking allows the patients to reclaim a subjectivity otherwise flattened by the mechanisms of clinical expertise. One woman, for instance, relates the pain she feels during intercourse, eventually confessing to the existential crisis it seems to pose to her marriage—mere months after her wedding, she is incapable of having sex with the love of her life. An older woman refuses to quit smoking, and is almost indignant when she admits to going through a pack and a half a day—it’s her only pleasure in life, she says.  

Midway through shooting Notre corps, Simon herself became a patient at Tenon, inadvertently fracturing the neutrality of her camera. Here, not only does she enter the frame as the filmmaker, but also captures herself in the vulnerability of patienthood, filming her own consultation with a doctor who informs her that she has breast cancer. In a later scene, she is naked before the camera as a nurse examines her breasts. She admits that, had she learned of her diagnosis before starting the film, the bad news would be more difficult to process. In The Body in Pain, Elaine Scarry writes of our inability to communicate physical pain with any kind of precision: it resists language, in part because each body reacts to injury in different, imperceptible manners. It makes sense, then, that Simon would feel comforted by what she has seen. She cannot know the pain of others, and yet there is strength to be found in the body’s—our bodies’—shared unknowability.