Movie review: Le dernier souffle is a love letter to Hôtel-Dieu Hospital

Common Room of Hotel Dieu Hospital in 1911. (Wm. Notman photo)

The documentary film Le dernier souffle, au coeur de l’Hôtel-Dieu de Montréal (The Last Breath, at the Heart of the Hôtel-Dieu) is a powerful love letter to Hôtel-Dieu. You might just want to run over to the hospital to give the staff a collective hug. And if you watch it at Cinéma du Parc, you won’t have to run far, either!

Don’t wait too long, though. Director Annabel Loyola was prompted to begin the film after reading a distressing newspaper headline “Hôtel-Dieu to be sold” in March 2013. She wanted to “recreate. . .the distinctive universe of the Hôtel-Dieu,” and she has done so magnificently.

She introduces us to the hospital’s patients, doctors, nurses, volunteers, painters, carpenters, electricians, gardeners and cleaners. And the musical therapist, with her beautiful white harp! The staff members all seem like lovely, friendly people who enjoy their work and appreciate their co-workers. One woman has been a volunteer there for more 40 years. Two heart surgeons worked together so often, that they were listed on the operating room schedule as one person, with a hyphenated name. And then there are the “two Sylvains” in building services, who also worked together for decades. Patients share their joys, pain and fears.

Then and now: Cardiac surgeons Ignacio Prieto and Fadi Basile have worked together at Hotel Dieu for 30 years. They would be listed on the operating room schedule under one hyphenated name – Dr. Basile-Prieto.

We even meet some non-human “employees” – the bees who pollinate the hospital’s apple orchard and garden. (I used to walk by the hospital almost every day and had no idea that there were beehives in there.)

Loyola returns to those bees many times. Maybe she just likes them and the surrounding garden, but I assume that she is telling us, in a subtle way, that the hospital and the beehive are both complex social organisms where individuals work hard for the good of the whole. Sometimes beehives and hospitals fall victim to things beyond their control, like pesticides, parasites, etc., in the case of the bees, and government decisions in the case of hospitals.

Loyola spent two years shooting the film, so we see the hospital in all seasons, from the lush greenery of summer to the depths of winter, when the beehives are buried under mounds of snow. She takes us to hospital areas, utilitarian or beautiful, calm and peaceful, that we might not otherwise notice or have access to. Images are carefully framed and the editing is impressive, too. Archival maps, engravings, paintings and photos complete the picture. (Like Jeanne Mance herself, Loyola was born in Langres, France. In 2010 she made La folle entreprise, sur les pas de Jeanne Mance / A Mad Venture, in the Footsteps of Jeanne Mance. Canal Savoir will show it five times in May. The station’s web site has more details.)

Fort Ville Marie, as it was in 1645.

As an organization, Hotel Dieu Hospital is as old as Montreal itself. On May 17, 1642, Paul Chomedey de Maisonneuve, and Jeanne Mance, accompanied by about 50 settlers from France, founded Fort Ville-Marie, where the St. Laurent and St. Pierre rivers meet. At first Jeanne Mance treated the sick from her own home; a separate building was built in 1645. It would be replaced many times in the years to come. In 1659 Jeanne Mance recruited three sisters from the Hospitalières de Saint-Joseph. These sisters ran the hospital after she died and members of their order continued to do so until the early 1960s. The hospital left St Paul St. in Old Montreal for its present location, on St. Urbain, in 1861. That area was then regarded as “the countryside” and blessed with fresher air to benefit the patients.

(BTW: Jeanne Mance lived until the age of 66 – that seems like a long life, considering the difficult conditions in the colony.)

Hôtel-Dieu was the city’s only hospital until the Montreal General Hospital opened, in 1821.

Religieuses de l Hotel-Dieu de Montreal, James Duncan, 1853.

The history of the hospital reflects that of Quebec in so many ways. The hospital was run by nuns until the early 1960s when the Quebec government took over. (Nursing sisters continued to work there, though.) In the 1960s, when female participation in the workforce was not as widespread as it is now, the stay-at-home wives of male doctors were encouraged to become hospital volunteers.

Le dernier souffle is interesting enough purely as a moving portrait of the hospital, as it was and as it is now, but it has extra poignancy because of the uncertain future of the buildings and grounds.

Since 1996, Hôtel-Dieu has been part of the Centre hospitalier de l’Université de Montréal (CHUM). By the end of 2017, the hospital’s staff and functions are supposed to move into the “superhospital” on St. Denis. Years ago, when this move was announced, there were fears (and anger) that the hospital grounds might be sold for luxury condos. Neighbours and fans of the hospital held rallies and created petitions advocating for community clinics and social housing instead. To this day, no concrete plans have been announced.

As a final indignity, the Hôtel-Dieu has been left out of all the brouhaha surrounding Montreal’s 375th anniversary.

In Brief: Le dernier souffle, au coeur de l’Hôtel-Dieu de Montréal (The Last Breath, at the Heart of the Hôtel-Dieu) is warm, loving, respectful, a marvel of editing and filmmaking.
Who is it for?: Anyone interested in other human beings, documentary film fans, history buffs, Montrealers, Québécois, Canadians.
I see what you did there: Right after a scene where a priest lights an incense censer, we see a beekeeper with his smoker, a device used to calm the bees so they won’t sting.

Filmmaker Annabel Loyola in the garden of Hotel Dieu Hospital. (Photo: Julie D’Amour)

Le dernier souffle, au coeur de l’Hôtel-Dieu de Montréal (The Last Breath, at the Heart of the Hôtel-Dieu)
72 minutes long; researched, written and directed by Annabel Loyola;
Camera: Tomi Grgicevic, Annabel Loyola; Editing: Emma Bertin; Original Music: Fabienne Lucet

Montreal screenings will take place Friday, April 7 to Thursday, April 13.

Cinémathèque québécoise
Everyday 6:15pm | Sunday April 9, 4:00pm

Screening and Q&A hosted by film crew, April 7 at 6:15pm
Screenings and Q&As hosted by filmmaker Annabel Loyola, April 7, 8, 9, 11 at 6:15pm
Debate with Christine Gosselin, conseillère d’arrondissement Jeanne-Mance district, Dinu Bumbaru, Héritage Montréal and Amir Khadir, Québec Solidaire, Sunday April 9, 4:00pm.

Cinéma du Parc (original French version with English subtitles)
Everyday 2:45pm, 7:10pm | Saturday April 8, 10:00am, 7:10pm | Sunday April 9, 10:50am, 2:45pm, 7:10pm

Screening and Q&A hosted by film crew, April 7, 7:10pm
Screenings and Q&As hosted by filmmaker Annabel Loyola, April 7, 8, 9, 11, 7:10pm
Debate with Dominique Daigneault, Coalition Sauvons l’Hôtel-Dieu, and Ron Rayside, architect, Hôtel-Dieu social and community project, April 11, 7:10pm

Visit the film’s web site for information about screenings in Coteau du Lac, Quebec City, Sherbrooke and Rimouski.

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