A still from Claire Simon's Our Body | Courtesy of Cinema Guild

The Care & Keeping of You

Our Body (2023)

In the penultimate scene of Claire Simon’s Our Body, an elderly woman speaks to her oncologist. “Frankly, I feel good,” she says. What she suffers from, what the prognosis is, goes unsaid. It’s not our business. Our business is the pause right after, in which she hedges: “But… I get the blues now and then, and I’m a bit scared.” Her oncologist blinks. What scares her patient? “The post-treatment care?” asks an off-screen voice. “Yes,” the woman says, “and that same old fear of dying.” 

Her oncologist nods, her gaze turning to her feet. With her brows knitted and a mask over her face, it’s hard to know her reaction to this admission of anxiety. It reads less as a glance of concern, and more as a glance of recognition. Yes, and that same old fear of dying. It courses through her veins as well.

This summer began with death and ended with death; I would like to tell you there was a birth somewhere in-between, but no one I know got to celebrate the miracle of life so much as they did the tedium of its continuity. I went to Film Forum to see Our Body—a film that sat near the top of my to-watch list ever since it had debuted at the Berlinale earlier this year—with a friend to whom I’ve said too much about the details of my own body, and vice versa. I’d never seen a Claire Simon documentary before, though The Competition (2016) sits further down on my to-watch list and has for a while. I’m not sure what got me out of my house to see the Simon doc beyond the fact that I am a woman with a body. In times of strife and sadness, there’s an innate and powerful sense of what will fix that which ails you, and I knew it was Our Body.

Simon’s film is non-narrative in the way we know conventional films to be narrative: rather, her OB-GYN-set documentary floats off to the side of patients and doctors, who negotiate and treat health across a spectrum of things a person would see a gynecologically-inclined professional for: birth and babies, sure, but also abortion, hormone-replacement theory, endometriosis, IVF, breast cancer, cervical cancer … until we watch, alongside Simon, a negotiation of end-of-life care. We see each patient once; we don’t see them again. It was enough to get a glimpse into their life: the rest is to be lived on their own terms, in private. The film is difficult to watch at times, depending on your squeamishness, but no more difficult to watch than it is to bear witness to life itself.

A still from Claire Simon’s Our Body | Courtesy of Cinema Guild

“This film was born of an encounter,” Simon says in Our Body’s opening minutes. “The producer, Kristina Larsen, told me how she fought against a rare disease for two years. While in the hospital, she discovered a mostly female world gathered in a female unit. She suggested that I film this huge department treating the gynecological pathologies that weigh down on our lives, on our loves, on our hopes, on our desires. All these stages on life’s journey, from youth to old age, from the beginning to the end.” Simon, behind the camera, pans up to reveal not the hospital, but a graveyard. A wry start to an otherwise humanist classic.

Simon’s film is not only a fascinating look into the modern health system and the ways in which professionals negotiate the terms of a body with the person whose body it is, but is also, as with any documentary worth its weight, a peek into the ordinariness of extraordinary things. The pause a doctor takes with a 15-year-old girl seeking an abortion, who believes the procedure may malform her permanently. (“You speak calmly and thoughtfully, even if it isn’t easy,” the doctor tells her.) A woman giving birth in the presence of just the labor and delivery nurse and Simon in the room—her husband back at home with their other two children. (“After nine months of complicity, we’ve met each other at last,” she says to her newborn.) A trans man showing off his beard to doctors’ oohs and aahs. The joking, easygoing nature of a woman about to go under for a cancer surgery—“I love cinema” she mugs to the camera—asking the names of her anesthesiologists and requesting piano music (Erik Satie) to be played over the speakers. Doctors scolding a woman who, following her cancer treatment, still won’t stop smoking a pack and a half of cigarettes a day––is there anything more French?

Simon is content to remain a passive observer up until about the one-hour mark of Our Body, when she quietly comforts a 40-year-old woman going through IVF, who has already experienced the loss of a baby. “It can happen though,” Simon reassures her. The woman’s face is shielded with a mask, but the corners of her eyes crinkle as she smiles. Simon doesn’t know any better than she does whether it can (or will) happen for her, but it’s worth trying. 

From then on, Simon is less shy with her questions and curiosity, perhaps, in part, because her documentary is about to involve her more directly. Just as life finds a way, so too does illness, and soon Simon is a patient in the gynecological wing, diagnosed with breast cancer. Her voice, often quiet and confident, shifts into a nervous rasp, concerned with the more human aspects of her disease: will she lose her hair? Will they have to remove her breast? (Yes and yes.) The disbelief and dismay in her voice, her rapidly blinking eyes—she has been betrayed by her own body, her closest ally.

Watching Our Body, I sometimes felt like the Geoguessr speedrunner who looks at a patch of grass and knows it’s in Romania: “Yep, that’s endometriosis, that’s IVF, yup, that’s C-section prep, that’s Misoprostol.” I know these things from my own body, from the bodies of my friends. These conversations do not end when we leave the doctor: they continue with our partners and our friends and our parents. In the midst of my own health crisis towards the end of last year, an essay about my struggles garnered emails from strangers near and far, eager to share their stories of a similar experience. These messages were hard to read, not because I was disinterested or burdened by them, but because I knew so deeply how it felt to be sick and not get better. My saving grace was a woman I’d known from several years prior who made some phone calls and got me in front of a doctor eager to listen. Sometimes it is that simple. It just felt like anything but.

One of the women in Our Body undergoes chemotherapy while pregnant. She’s due in early January, so she “has to last till then,” she jokes with the nurse. “You’re strong and supported,” the nurse advises, and the woman glances towards her husband, sitting at a table next to the window. He’s working, but not really—sketching the buildings across the way in a notepad. When the camera turns to him, he grows uneasy, drops his pencil. “This is just to relax,” he says with a nervous laugh. The woman later explains to Simon that she suffers from a genetic cancer, but that she also had pain in her breast for a decade. “I thought it was normal for a woman to suffer, as they say,” she laughs. “You know that one?” Simon laughs, too: she knows that one all too well.