The doctor is in

‘Irreplaceable’ has just the right dose of simplicity and sincerity

‘Irreplaceable’ (photo credit: PR)
(photo credit: PR)
 IRREPLACEABLE Hebrew title: Rofeh Hakfar Directed by Thomas Lilti With Francois Cluzet, Marianne Denicourt Running time: 102 minutes In French. Check with theaters for subtitle information.
The French film Irreplaceable (Medecin de campagne, which translates as “country doctor”) tells the story of a vanishing breed, an old-school physician in an isolated French village. It’s a story that is both realistic and sentimental; and while it isn’t ground-breaking or original, it more than makes up for that with simplicity and sincerity.
The hero – and he is a genuine hero – is Jean-Pierre (Francois Cluzet), who has been the only doctor in a French village for more than 20 years. He knows his patients backwards and forwards, acting, when necessary, as a psychologist as well as a physician.
When he is diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor, his doctor tells him he must get a colleague to take over his workload. But he keeps working as usual, so his doctor sends Nathalie (Marianne Denicourt), an elegant former nurse turned physician, to work with him. She is friendly and hardworking, but she comes from an urban work environment and has to learn the way of the country doctor from Jean-Pierre.
This may sound like a rom-com set-up, but it is not. Instead, it’s a sober, nuanced look at the real work of a doctor, and that has all the drama you could ask for in a movie, and even a bit of comedy, with a great deal of social commentary thrown in. Thomas Lilti, the co-writer/director, is himself a general practitioner, and his previous film, Hippocrates: Diary of a French Doctor (2014), was also set in the world of medicine. Irreplaceable celebrates a kind of doctor and an approach to medicine that have nearly vanished in the contemporary world and can exist today only in rural communities. I imagine that many younger viewers seeing this film will have had no first-hand experience with this sort of doctor, and that’s sad but not surprising.
I am inclined to be sympathetic and open to this story because my grandfather, although he worked in Brooklyn rather than the countryside, practiced this kind of medicine. What characterizes the approach that my grandfather shared with Jean-Pierre is a great respect for and deep knowledge of medicine, combined with a clear understanding of its limitations. Like Jean-Pierre, my grandfather knew his patients well and cared for them over many years. He understood when someone was seriously ill and needed a referral to a specialist or when someone was lonely or depressed and needed attention.
My grandfather never read an article about the holistic approach to medicine but, like Jean-Pierre, he often acted as an employment counselor, a matchmaker and a life coach.
Another characteristic my grandfather shared with the hero of Irreplaceable is that he was a terrible patient, ignoring his symptoms once he became ill until they worsened, and refusing to heed his own doctor’s orders to rest. The daily drama of the doctors’ work in the film is heightened by Jean-Pierre’s treatment and his struggle to become healthy. However, the soapier aspects of Jean-Pierre’s predicament are downplayed; he is just one patient among many.
Francois Cluzet, who is best known for his role as the rich, wheelchair-bound patient in The Intouchables, gives an effective, understated performance in the lead role. He saves the character from being one-note or unbelievably noble by conveying with the subtlest gestures that he is doing this work not to serve humanity but because it interests him and because he finds it rewarding.
The role of Nathalie is not nearly as developed, and Marianne Denicourt does her best with it, but her main dramatic function is to do the wrong thing and to have Jean-Pierre set her straight. That said, the scene in which Jean-Pierre explains to her why a 92-year-old man should not be hospitalized is not only brilliantly written and acted, but it should be mandatory viewing in every medical school around the world. When you see something this real, it is extremely compelling, and you root for these doctors as they work against often impossible odds, and savor their small triumphs.