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Esther (Marina de Van, who also directed the film) is a young urban professional woman. At a party, she goes out into the dark garden and trips, falling and tearing her trousers. Only several hours later does she realize that she has seriously wounded her leg. This is either the beginning of, or the first evidence of, a radical shift in her relationship with her own body.
The doctor who stitches the wound is surprised that she had not felt injury, and tests her for neurological damage, finding none. She starts cutting at the wound, refusing to let the skin close. Her boyfriend, Vincent (Laurent Lucas) and her friend Sandrine are both concerned and repelled by her behavior. She experiences a kind of separation from her body, and it appears that her mutilation of it is an effort to re-anchor herself in her own flesh.
At an important business dinner with clients, she drinks too much and suddenly experiences her left arm as separate from her body, a severed object that threatens to act on its own. She has to stop her left hand from playing with her food and, holding her arm on her lap, she cuts it as if to make it feel, to use pain to reattach it. To explain away the damage she has done to herself, she has to fake a car accident.
Eventually the compulsion exceeds her ability to control it, and she enters a crescendo of mutilation. She hurts her body with calm, detached interest, cutting her face, attempting to tan a piece of skin she has removed from herself, even eating her own flesh. At the end of the film she is alone, in some kind of new state that is not explained.
What will the members of an isolated community do to attract a doctor? What won't they do? Ste-Marie-la-Mauderne is a microscopic fishing village on the rocky north shore of Quebec, just where it meets Labrador.
The fishery is declining, people are leaving, and the welfare payments, doled out by the pretty postmistress, Eve (Lucie Laurier), are humiliating. Ste Marie wants to diversify. All it needs to attract a plastic-bottle factory is a bribe of $50,000 and a doctor. They get a lucky break when a Montreal cop, who hails from Ste-Marie-la-Mauderne, stops the speeding plastic surgeon, Dr. Christopher Lewis (David Boutin), on his way home from a cricket match.
Now, the village has one month to convince the worldly young man that he wants to stay forever. The mayor, Germain (Raymond Bouchard), and several friends set out to make Dr. Lewis feel as welcome as possible. They embark on a collective effort to teach the francophone fishers how to play cricket. They flood the clinic with bogus ailments, they take Lewis fishing, they charm him with five dollar bills left nightly by a garden gnome, they force themselves to listen to incomprehensible jazz, and they bug the doctor's telephone to ascertain his tastes and commitments, broadcasting the intimate details of his faltering relationship with sultry Brigitte back in Montreal.
Eventually, Dr Lewis splits up with Brigitte, because she has been "dishonest" and he chooses to stay in Ste Marie because they are "genuine." The crisis arises near the end, when the townspeople realize that in order to keep Dr. Lewis for any time at all, they must own up to the charade of deception and offer to let him go.
21 Grams tells three stories that interlock in many ways, and it treats a wide variety of subjects, as the above keywords suggest.
Nevertheless, at the center of the film, and driving its action, is Paul (Sean Penn), a man in his middle years who gets a critically needed heart transplant and then sets out to discover, against the conventions of anonymous donorship, exactly whose heart he has inherited.
Paul’s quest brings him into close and complex contact with the other two main characters and their stories--Cristina (Naomi Watts), the grieving widow of the man whose heart Paul now has, and Jack (Benicio Del Toro), a reformed ex-con who now runs his life, and his family, by strict Christian dictates, and who is, through an accident, responsible for the death of the heart donor.
Rafael Belvedere (Ricardo Darin) is a 42 year-old, divorced, father who runs the restaurant that his parents established nearly fifty years ago. His father, Nino (Héctor Alterio), is mostly retired and makes daily visits to the hospital where his wife, Norma (Norma Aleandro), has been placed for her Alzheimer's disease. Avoiding the horror, Rafael has not seen her in a year.
Guilt for having dropped out of law school drives him to prove himself by making the business a success; he defiantly resists offers to sell. But his finances are a mess, his temper thin, and his relationships strained; he works too hard, sleeps too little, and drinks and smokes too much. Inevitably, Rafael has a massive heart attack and spends 15 days in ICU (Intensive Care Unit).
This intimation of mortality convinces him to change his life, sell his restaurant, and open his heart to the needs and worth of the people around him. He agrees to help his atheist father fulfill a romantic wish to finally marry the still beautiful but grievously departed Norma in a church, something she had long desired and he had always refused for his "principles." The priest declines the request because of Norma's disease, but an engaging solution is found.
The now famed American poetess, Sylvia Plath (Gwyneth Paltrow) is a Fulbright scholar at Cambridge, England in 1956. Angered over a stinging review of her work by the literary roué Ted Hughes (Dennis Craig), she is then charmed by his poetry and blatantly sets out to seduce him. They marry soon after.
Sylvia had tried to commit suicide several times in her youth. Recalling one terrifying near miss, her cold-seeming mother resents Hughes, sensing the power in passionate love to harm her fragile, brilliant daughter. The initially torrid life that Ted and Sylvia share in both America and in rural Britain, grows tired through the strain of two children, her lack of joy in teaching, and his greater poetic success, all of which seem to stifle her creativity.
It ends because of his chronic infidelities, reduced in this version to a committed affair with a mutual friend, the thrice-married, Assia Wevill (Amira Casar), who becomes pregnant. Rage, jealousy, and depression become Sylvia’s muse. The more she suffers with Hughes, the more productive and poignant is her work. Unable to lure him back, she leaves buttered bread and milk for her children, seals the kitchen, and gasses herself to death.
The new interns, Roy Basch (Tim Matheson), Chuck (Howard Rollins, Jr.) and Wayne Potts (Michael Sacks), begin their year of internal medicine training in a busy city hospital under construction. After initial introductions led by the vague staff man and vapid chief resident, they become the specific charges of the cynical resident doctor "Fats" (Charles Haid). Fats teaches them attitude and language: how to "buff" (improve) and "turf" (transfer) "gomers" (Get Out of My Emergency Room)--the words used to describe management of incurable, hateful patients who "never die," regardless of the abuse the clumsy housestaff might inflict. But Fats has heart.
Soon, they fall under the command of the militaristic and lonely woman resident, Jo Miller (Lisa Pelikan), who cannot bring herself to withhold treatment, even at a patient's request. She blames underlings for the failings of medicine and nature, as well as herself.
Wayne throws himself from the hospital roof because of a misplaced sense of guilt over a patient's demise. Roy falls in love with the nurse, Molly (Kathryn Dowling), but nearly loses her as he begins to emulate Jo's cold, calculating style. He is "rescued" in the nick of time by his friends, Fats, and the death of a physician patient (Ossie Davis) whom he admires. With recovered equanimity and renewed anger over the suicide of his fellow intern, Roy refuses to go on with his residency.
This film is based on the true life story of Lucille Teasdale, one of Canada's first female physicians. She received many refusals for positions in Canadian hospitals so she joined an Italian colleague to work in a Catholic mission hospital in Uganda. She and her colleague later married and continued their work at the hospital where they trained nurses and doctors, sheltered refugees, and gradually modernized their facilities. They spent their lives caring for the lost, sick, and dying in a world of poverty, tribal conflict, and civil war.
A daughter was born to them. The child resented her mother's commitment to the patients in the hospital. After being sent to Italy for school, she finally recognized her parents' dedication and became a physician herself, working in Italy and helping to support the hospital. Dr. Lucille contracted AIDS from surgical injuries but continued to work until her death in 1996.
Following a car accident that claims the life of her husband (a well-known European composer) and their only child, Julie de Courcy (Juliette Binoche) must find ways to survive emotionally and make a new life for herself. She determinedly simplifies her life, but several complications arise.
From the beginning, she is subject to occasional mysterious blackouts following bursts of music of the sort that her husband composed. There are also her feelings for an attractive collaborator of her husband’s (Olivier, played by Benoît Régent), who is hoping to complete an important composition her husband had left unfinished. Then, half way through the film she discovers that her husband had had a mistress for several years before his death and that the mistress is now pregnant with his child. And of course there is Julie’s grief, which she is trying hard not to show, and which we sense is expressed in her coolness and detachment.
Julie finally comes through these things and emerges from her self-imposed isolation after she makes some fundamental changes in her view of what belongs to her and what belongs to her husband, his mistress, and their child. We finally discover that a hint dropped early in the film is significant, that in fact Julie is the composer of the much-praised works that had been attributed to her husband. In the end, she decides to come out as the composer by finishing the big piece, which will bring her the credit she has long deserved. Having made that decision, she feels free to welcome Olivier’s fine attentions. The house she’d lived in with her husband she gives to her husband’s mistress and her unborn child.
Grace Rhodes (Lisa Eichhorn) is an unmarried New York advertising executive. Around forty years old, she decides that she wants a child and has no more time to find the right man. She becomes a client of Cryogenetics Sperm Bank and conceives by donor insemination.
As soon as she is pregnant, she becomes obsessed with learning more about the sperm donor, and her friend, Elaine, helps her by taking on a temp job at the sperm bank and breaking into their files, discovering the identity of Grace's donor, a photographer named Peter Kessler (Stanley Tucci). He is single, having an affair with a married woman, and his landscape photographs never include human figures because, he says, "people mess up the composition."
Grace visits Peter's upstate New York studio. They meet, become friends, and then begin dating. Grace tells him she is pregnant and that he is the child's donor father. He is outraged and throws her out. Months pass, and Peter arrives in New York to apologize to Grace, who is now heavily pregnant. He gives her a photograph he had taken, of her. The film ends ambiguously, but suggests that they will become a couple and parent the child together.
Benigno (Javier Cámara) and Marco (Darío Grandinetti) meet and become friends while caring for women they love in a coma clinic. Benigno is a male nurse taking care of Alicia (Leonor Watling), a dancer he barely knows but became infatuated with just before the accident that put her in a coma four years ago. Marco is a journalist who was trying to interview Lydia (Rosario Flores), a famous female bullfighter, when they fell for each other. Soon afterward, she is badly gored in the bullring and winds up in a coma in the same clinic as Alicia.
Benigno’s care of Alicia in her comatose state is extremely devoted. He talks to her constantly, and he goes to movies he thinks she would have liked and tells her about them. Alicia’s dance mentor (Geraldine Chaplin) also talks to her, and Benigno urges Marco to do the same with Lydia, but Marco is unable to talk to Lydia, whom he thinks of as already dead (there is reason to think that she is, in fact, more gravely injured than Alicia).
Benigno’s caring goes well beyond talking. He tells Marco that he wants to marry Alicia. He also gives Alicia intimate massages, and finally the hospital staff discover that he has impregnated her. He is fired and sent to jail, where he takes his own life. In the end, while Lydia dies, Alicia comes out of her coma to deliver the child, which is stillborn. Marco’s last words to Benigno, at Benigno’s grave: "Alicia is alive. You woke her up."