“These divisive times” are a period of turbulent chaos, but no film quite captures the disorientation of this age like The Divide. Catherine Corsini’s potent drama thrusts audiences into the thick of the “gilets jaunes” (yellow jackets) protests that erupted in 2018. The Divide, which won the Queer Palme at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival, smartly doesn’t try to distill France’s complicated populist movement. Just as the yellow jacket protests ran the gamut of the political spectrum, The Divide collides through relationships, families, viewpoints, and cultures.
It sees the moment through the eyes of one woman, Raf (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, Summer of ’85), blindsided by the news that Julie (Marina Foïs, Polisse), her girlfriend of ten years, is leaving her. Much like the yellow jackets, Raf clings to a bygone ideal. Her demands, moreover, aren’t clear and her case runs on turbulent emotions. This is a searing drama about what happens when one’s world is rocked.
One of the film’s many fractures occurs in the opening minutes when Raf frantically pursues Julie. She slips when her ex determinedly soldiers on. Shortly thereafter, Raf’s in hospital: disoriented, scared, alone, and with a badly broken arm.
The hospital, moreover, becomes a flashpoint for the greater fractures erupting that day. Corsini presents a waiting room of pure chaos as the doctors and nurses respond to the consequences of rampant police brutality that descended upon the protesters. Raf, fortunately/unfortunately, receives a red-alert ticket. She’s top priority, which sends her into a tizzy since all she suspects is a broken arm. However, murmurings between staff debate turning the protesters in. Some hospital staff—who, by the way, are on strike—clearly prioritize treatment according to political affiliation.
A System in Chaos
Raf quickly clashes with one of the protesters. Jann (Pio Marmaï) is in the waiting room after being hit by a flash grenade by police. His leg is a gross bloody mess. However, he’s determined to receive treatment and be back driving his truck by morning. His livelihood depends on it and he rages to Raf that he’s protesting for fair wages. Raf, on the other hand, is your typical fifty-something white feminist. She knows the buzzlines, but her milquetoast politics further incense Jann. That her fractured arm gets priority over his shrapnel-studded leg simply underscores the privilege against which Jann and (some) jacketeers protest as if it’s the summer of ’69.
Bearing the biggest brunt of France’s collapsing social structure, though, is Kim (Aïssatou Diallo Sanga). Kim is a nurse toughing out a rough shift. She’s tired, she’s overworked, and she has a sick baby at home. Treating white people for easily preventable slips and falls shouldn’t be occupying her mind. However, it’s her job to treat them, so she indefatigably and unflappably administers care.
Sanga, who won a well-deserved César for her performance, is the rock that holds The Divide together. While the character risks being a saintly stock figure, Sanga wears Kim’s dutiful resignation smartly. These protests and Raf’s histrionic screeching might be especially extra in a chaotic day, but this day is just another among many. Kim’s patient reactions, her measured composure, and her stoic armour make for an especially compelling portrait of a frontline worker.
A Must for Fans of Les Misérables
Kim’s no-nonsense attitude, moreover, lets Sanga play the straight man off which to volley the tragicomedy in the hospital. Every case is both major and minor. Problems that are really insignificant can seem life-changing in another’s eyes and vice versa. Yet Corsini puts nearly everybody on an equal plane. And really, what do failed relationships and missed shifts matter when the health system is in such disarray?
The Divide masterfully navigates this gaggle of loud and troubled characters to create an atmosphere of constant chaos. The hospital is a warzone. It’s falling apart, understaffed, and plagued by bureaucracy. The quietest patients go untreated, while the loudest receive care. This hospital is a microcosm of everything wrong with the world today.
Using am immersive camera, Corsini makes this drama palpably immediate. One feels every heartbeat race throughout the 100 minutes we spend in this disorderly ward. The Divide invites comparison to Ladj Ly’s explosive Les Misérables for its urgent and often disorienting portrait of French disarray. Yet where Ladj’s film benefits greatly from the power of a chorus, Corsini’s film pulses with the captivating human factor. These characters, flawed as they are, are palpably real. The gripping performances, particularly Tedeschi’s committed, full-throttle turn, leave one fully invested in the characters.
Annoying as Raf may be, the accident brings Julie back into her life. As they fear for Julie’s son, protesting amid the demonstrations closing in around the hospital, the emotional walls between them dissolve. Corsini illustrates how empathy ultimately overcomes deep divides. The Divide refreshingly implores audiences to leave politics aside and see the people desperately in need of care.
The Divide screens at Toronto’s Inside Out LGBTQ Film Festival on May 30 at TIFF Bell Lightbox.