The use of the singular ‘body’ in the title of French filmmaker Claire Simon’s latest may seem presumptuous at first—anyone who identifies as a woman or has birth-giving abilities likely feels that their struggles, both with their bodies and within the medical system at large, are worthy of individual consideration, and thus that it shouldn’t be ‘our body’ but ‘our bodies,’ the egalitarian plural. And understandably so, as medicine has largely ignored the nuances of female and gender-diverse bodies; it was only in the early 90s that it was required to include female participants in research studies, and care surrounding transgender and gender-diverse patients is just starting to be discussed on a larger scale.
But it’s precisely from these struggles that camaraderie emerges and the united front that is ‘our body’ assumes significance. Simon personally welcomes us into this collective mindset: at the beginning, she films herself walking to a hospital in Paris where the documentary is set, telling of how she came upon the idea when the film’s producer told her about her experience there while battling a rare disease, after which Simon began to see the hospital’s gynecological unit as a microcosm of the corporeal female experience from birth to death.
This documentary explores a wide range of experiences, from a teenager seeking an abortion to women dealing with fertility issues and pregnancy, from young trans boys and men seeking gender-affirming care to women at various stages in life contending with illnesses like endometriosis, breast cancer, and ovarian cancer. The film runs almost three hours, making it difficult to isolate any one sequence as particularly meaningful; each bears its own poignancy, with little aside from some establishing shots in the hospital’s hallways and garden to diverge from these emotional and often harrowing vignettes. Especially interesting, though, is the section on in vitro fertilization; especially affecting is an extended sequence of an African woman giving birth alone while her husband stays at home caring for their other children. Her joy is palpable, and the connection she has with the medical professional facilitating the birth is touching.
Up to this point stateside audiences may not relate to such a sanitized representation of women and gender-affirming health care. Toward the end, however, we see a protest happening outside the hospital, where women speak about their experiences of feeling violated while receiving medical care. Since negative experiences like these don’t appear onscreen, it’s natural to wonder what part the camera plays in how the doctors and nurses are interacting with patients. One may also feel uneasy questioning the staff, whom Simon presents as unflappably kind and accepting.
While filming Our Body, Simon learned that she had breast cancer. She unceremoniously inserts herself into the film to show her doctor delivering the diagnosis and detailing the treatment she’ll receive. In this moment her body becomes our body, as we experience this life-changing revelation with her. Until then, Simon had been mostly observational, as in her previous film The Competition, for example, which she herself has described as being near-“Wisemanesque,” the nonagenarian documentarian an inspiration in general and his films Hospital (1970) and Near Death (1989) having inspired this one in particular. The political is found firsthand to be personal, here through an assemblage of intimate vignettes, and thus it becomes all the more impactful when she joins the ranks, a stand-in for our collective body. 168 min.