It’s not unusual to find non-professional actors breaking out at the Cannes Film Festival. But those who do, don’t often come with a medical degree.
In De Son Vivant (Peaceful), the new film from French director Emmanuelle Bercot, a man refuses to accept his terminal illness. The cancer specialist who handholds him through this torturous process is played by real-life oncologist Dr Gabriel Sara, a Lebanese-born medic who has lived in New York for the past 40 years.
Acting opposite established French stars Benoit Magimel, who plays Benjamin, “a failed actor” with incurable stage four pancreatic cancer, and Catherine Deneuve as his controlling mother Crystal, the good doctor more than holds his own, playing his role with humanity and honesty.
At the premiere on Saturday at the festival’s plush Lumiere theatre, the film's cast and crew received a standing ovation. “First of all, I didn’t feel it was for me,” Sara explains, modestly. “I felt all along that we were a family on this movie. We feel so close to each other.”
He says he was delighted that “the real Eugenie”, the nurse he works closely with in his practice, got to meet actress Cecile de France, who plays his on-screen co-worker, with such empathy.
“Cecile has the same attitude and the same vibes,” he says. “When I was sitting next to her talking with my patients, I felt I had my real Eugenie next to me.”
Sara first met Bercot at a New York screening of her 2015 film Standing Tall, which also stars Deneuve. A film that deals with the judicial system in France, and the attempt to save a young delinquent, it immediately touched Sara.
“He came up to me,” remembers Bercot, “and said, ‘I saw such tremendous humanity in your film, I thought you might be interested because I work in the trenches.’”
Bercot was delighted, not least because she already had the seed of another movie idea: about a mother who loses her son to cancer. A year later, she began consulting with Sara on the film. But it wasn’t until the movie was deep into the casting process that she decided to ask Sara to play the part of Dr Edde.
Sara had to take a crash-course in acting. “It was tough at the beginning for me,” he admits. “I had to memorise my lines perfectly well, so I didn't have to think about them. And I learnt that being an actor is really living the emotion. It’s work on an emotional level, not on an intellectual level.”
Similarly, his co-stars were profoundly affected by working with Sara. Magimel calls it “an exceptional encounter for me in my career”.
Sitting in the Marriott Hotel in Cannes, Sara immediately radiates the same warmth as his character. He’s also a perfectionist, it seems, and realised that once those lines of dialogue had melted into him, he could become Dr Edde, a character close to his own personality.
“Once I understood that, it became easier for me. But still I was never perfect. I made mistakes. So many times I screwed up everything. They had done 10 times the same thing, and it was almost perfect and then I made a mistake. So that was not easy for me, realising I was the one delaying the whole movie.”
Some may question why a successful doctor with huge responsibilities would subject himself to this experience, but Sara felt a deep-seated need. “I know that Emmanuelle wrote the script, but I feel that I am part of it. In a way I’m responsible for giving this message.”
If anything, he feels the film is about truth and acceptance. Just as Dr Edde does with Benjamin at the outset of the film, a doctor should not pretend that a terminal illness is curable.
“I feel that when we don’t tell the truth, we are insulting and abandoning the patient. We are thinking: ‘He is not good enough to hear the truth.’ We infantilise him. When we don’t say the truth, we remove the chance for the patient to be treated with dignity and humanity.”
Sara received his early medical training in Beirut, before completing his doctorate of medicine in Paris. He moved to New York in 1981, and is now the senior attending physician in the Department of Medicine at Mount Sinai West.
“As an oncologist, I feel that we have to heal the souls of people,” he says. “We treat their cancer with chemo, with surgery, with radiation and all of this stuff. They may work. But who is trying to heal the soul of that person? Are we thinking about it? It’s a patient, not a machine or number. We have to really look at the whole person. I can’t treat a breast. I treat the patient and then the family as well.”
In the film, Dr Edde is seen playing music with his patients. It’s yet another nod to Sara's own innovative work. In 2005, he launched The Helen Sawaya Fund, named after the late wife of a close friend who died of cancer aged 36. The purpose of the fund is to help cancer patients through art, music, reflexology and even a travel programme. Using music to ease pain is a particular interest to Sara.
“Music can heal, music can repair things,” he says. “I have patients whose nausea disappeared with music. You have patients who have a stroke and it gets better with music. It doesn’t cure it but it improves it. So the power of music is huge.”
Sara has won awards and written books on the subject. He also loves to personally play music with his patients.
“I thought, ‘Why not be part of it myself?’ And it kills this idea of the doctor being this unreachable superman. I’m not superman. I’m like everybody else. And I want people to feel this way; I don’t want them to think that I’m different." He says he achieves this by allowing himself to be vulnerable, "removing that white coat aura, which I really think puts a distance between us and patients", he says. "And music makes us close to each other.”
Perhaps the same can be said for his work in De Son Vivant.