A critique of the French healthcare system is bolstered by a thoughtful script and strong lead performances.
Hippocrates: Diary of a French Doctor
Five minutes into Hippocrates: Diary of a French Doctor, the hospital’s newest intern, Benjamin (Vincent Lacoste) recalls one of his first E.R. triumphs: treating a former classmate that he just couldn’t stand. Patting himself on the back for his own maturity, he states calmly, “I treated him like any other patient. That’s when I became a real doctor.”
Benjamin is young, a bit cocky, and definitely hoping to impress as he begins his first shift at the hospital. But what’s fascinating about this opening is the way director Thomas Lilti has Benjamin deliver the lines directly to the camera. It’s as if Benjamin is talking directly to us, the audience, trying to convince us that he has what it takes to make it in this high stakes, detail oriented profession.
Unfortunately for Benjamin, not even 12 hours go by before he makes the first of a handful of critical errors. Yet, major lapses of judgement aside, what’s lovely about Hippocrates is that it’s not merely a scathing critique of the French healthcare system, nor a critique of the negligent people within it. A careful script measures the tone with close precision, showing error and blame is not entirely black and white in a medical system hamstrung by budget cuts and an overworked staff. The characters are likable and fully formed, executed by a fairly consistent cast, which makes their decisions, albeit sometimes wrong, at least relatable. It’s hard to know for most of the movie whether to root for or against Benjamin, and for all that complexity, Hippocrates is a thoroughly engaging and emotional watch.
As a foil for the all-too-green Benjamin, we’re quickly introduced to Abdel (Reda Kateb), an Algerian doctor with a bit more experience than Benjamin, who has recently transferred to the country, taking on the “intern” title as a formality for foreigners. Benjamin and Abdel, working in the same department, encounter a lot of the same problems—allowing us to see two ways of handling the same issues, including a jaded and sometimes lazy nurse staff. When Benjamin is told the ECG machine doesn’t work half the time and is a hassle to set up by a nurse, he bypasses the procedure and heads home. But the more astute Abdel doesn’t take the lack of a pump for morphine as a valid excuse, asking the nurse to find one in a different department. The choices both have consequences; Benjamin’s decision causes one patient’s heart attack to go undetected, leaving a man dead and a wife wanting to know why.
While under a microscope their choices seem like night and day, to the script’s credit, Hippocrates makes it easy to understand how choices like this get made. The problems at the hospital—and there are plenty—all point to a larger systemic problem. These people feel human. After deciding not to run the ECG, one of the nurses looks up at the episode of House M.D. playing in the background and jokes, “Borrow their ECG.” It’s not about apathy, it’s about defeat. They’re normal people, not intentionally negligent or ill-meaning. Once things are accepted as commonplace, bad practices just aren’t questioned anymore. It takes a pair of new doctors, shocked and horrified by a particularly bleak first week, to challenge the status quo.
Where the film gets some of its heart is that it’s not as biting as it may seem at first glance—there’s a bit of humanity here. By switching the third-person POV from Benjamin to Abdel and back again, we want both doctors to succeed. Benjamin’s flaws are somewhat explained, while Abdel’s initial terseness is seen through his eyes as compassion and discipline. Indeed, the hot-headed Benjamin, who gets away with more than one verbal argument by being a senior doctor’s son, seems to genuinely get the point of internal medicine. “Internal medicine is about caring for real patients, real people, creating real relationships,” he passionately tells a cocky colleague from intensive care. Benjamin’s not a bad doctor—he just made a bad choice within a bad system.
Part of the reason these nuances work is the acting, especially in the two leads, who swing back and forth between thinly veiled frustration and a certain childlike eagerness with care and precision. Reda Kateb’s Abdel, especially, feels honest, straightforward when he needs to be, and layered, like a man who wants to do his best but understands his limitations would be. The supporting cast offers equal parts frustration and nonchalance, doing a lot to build the climactic water-boiling-over scenes, like a particularly tough hollering match near the end with the hospital’s director.
But the film isn’t just a feel good David vs. Goliath underdog story. No one here is purely evil, and no one here is purely good. Like many passionate people, Benjamin and Abdel are imperfect subjects, and sometimes their efforts are a bit misdirected, even rash and juvenile. Perhaps because director Thomas Lilti has written the script from his own personal experiences (he’s a trained doctor who still works as a physician), it’s easier to acknowledge this gray area, where other films would just portray its protagonists as faultless everyday heroes standing up against The Man. But Hippocrates is a character film above all else, and Benjamin and Abdel’s struggle to balance strict profit-focused policy with their own personal values and that age-old adage “do no harm” (where the film gets its namesake) makes for a compelling story—one that extends past a certain country or a certain field, to anyone that’s ever realized doing the right thing is sometimes much more complicated than it should be.