The austere and homesick Breton doctor, René T.H. Laennec (1781-1826) (Pierre Blanchar) and his religious friend, G.L. Bayle (1774-1816) are caring for the hundreds of patients dying of epidemic tuberculosis in the Necker Hospital of Paris. They conduct autopsies on the dead, but cannot predict the findings before the patients' demise, nor can they offer any treatment.

Laennec's sister, Marie-Anne, arrives from Brittany with news of their brother's death from tuberculosis. He confesses his despair over this devastating scourge to his friend, but quickly realizes that Bayle too is doomed. A distant cousin, the widow Jacquemine Guichard Argou, becomes Laennec's housekeeper and companion in philanthropic work for the sick after he is able to reassure her about her health; she engages the widow of Bayle in the same enterprise.

One day in 1816, Laennec is invited by urchins to hear to the scratching of a pin transmitted through the length of a wooden beam. He is thereby inspired to fashion a paper tube to listen to the chests of his patients. With Jacquemine at his side, he joyously announces that he can hear sounds from inside the chest. Feverish research ensues as he links the chests sounds of the dying to the findings at autopsy.

He turns his wooden, cylindrical stethoscopes on a lathe in his apartment, publishes his findings, and marries Argou. Fame and notoriety follow, as Laennec is able to distinguish fatal disease from minor illness and to predict the need for operations; however, he is ridiculed by jealous colleagues. Suffering now himself, Laennec consults his friend Pierre Louis, who tells him that he has tuberculosis. In the final scene, he returns to his native Brittany only to collapse on the stairs of his beloved home and die.


Despite the romanticizing liberties taken with historical accuracy, this film celebrates with verve and sensitivity to period and style the life and achievement of one of the most famous doctors in history. The flagrant transformation of events should not pass unnoticed. For example, Laennec's sister, in reality, inept and plain unlike the beauty chosen to play the role, did not come to Paris to announce their brother's death; the reconstructed family of Bayle and the collaboration of the women are utter fabrications; Louis barely knew the inventor, much less attended him as a physician; and Laennec denied his own tuberculosis until his death, which actually came a lingering six weeks after his return to Brittany.

The liberties invite consideration of the interesting, mid-century motivations for them. Nevertheless, costumes and physical spaces are carefully reconstructed, cameos of Laennec's maid and father are plausible interpretations, and the featured ability to detect pus in the chest was indeed the accomplishment which Laennec valued most. The encounter with urchins is faithful to the original anecdote of a former student.

His proclamation "J'entends!" (I hear!), and again seconds later during bedside experiment, are moments of high drama: the words can also mean "I understand!"; hence, an inwardly literal 'double entendre.' Filmed on location in Brittany and Paris, this film attracted special notice at its release and in the 1990s, because it was work of a celebrated French director, whose retrospective at the Paris Musée du Cinema coincided with the release of the video.


In French, no subtitles; patronage of the United Nations.

Primary Source

Rene Chateau Video, Memoire du cinema francais (1993)