In her continuing crusade against social injustice, director Emmanuelle Bercot takes on the pharmaceutical industry in La Fille de Brest, the true story of one female doctor’s fight to withdraw a harmful drug from the French market. The Mediator scandal grabbed headlines in France almost ten years ago and La Fille de Brest bravely attempts to relive the David v Goliath drama of the original story. In an effort to remain truthful to events, Bercot lovingly recreates the bureaucratic clashes between Dr Irene Frachon and the manufacturers of Mediator, Servier Laboratories, as well as the organisation charged with authorising French pharamaceuticals. Through a painstaking look at the inner workings of the drug approval system in France, the audience witnesses first hand the uncomfortable relationship between bureaucrats, big business and the doctors at the sharp end of the process who see the real side effects of some medications. It’s all very laudable, but does it make for a captivating drama? Dubbed a Gallic Erin Brokovich, Bercot’s film doesn’t quite live up to the drama and tension of Steven Soderbergh’s award-winning classic.
Mediator was originally marketed to overweight diabetics but often prescribed to healthy women as an appetite suppressant. As many as five million people were given the drug between 1976 and November 2009, when it was withdrawn in France, years after being pulled in Spain and Italy. Frachon first alerted the authorities to the drug’s side effects when she saw the damage being done to her own patients. And she fought a years long battle with the French health authorities who refused to take her research and statistical proof of Mediator’s harmful effects seriously.
Danish actor Sidse Babett Knudsen (L’Hermine) is excellent as punchy doctor Frachon who goes head to head with the medical establishment – and many of her male colleagues – as she fights for justice for her patients. She is one of those actresses whose smille illulminates her whole face and she effortlessly combines compassion and steely determination in a gripping performance. And Benoit Magimel is equally convincing as her accomplice. Yet the action is weighed down by an almost unnecessary attention to detail. Acronyms abound (Affsaps, CHU, CMAM) and most of the meetings are chaired by interchangeable grey men in suits who spout the usual bureaucratic double-speak. The few attempts to show Frachon as a loving mother and wife are lost in scene after scene of the beleaguered doctor running headlong from one battle to another. Bercot’s last directorial feature was the critically acclaimed La Tete Haute (Standing Tall). While La Fille de Brest is not as powerful, it does put Bercot fimly on the map as one of France’s most talented female directors.