A weight-loss drug, a health scandal, Big Pharma and a leading lady crusading against it all arrived on the silver screen on September 14 at the Toronto film festival in 150 Milligrams.
The movie, based on the true story of “a very courageous woman” in the words of French director Emmanuelle Bercot, casts its protagonist opposite the deadly diet drug Mediator and the powerful company that made it.
Mediator, marketed to overweight diabetics but also prescribed to healthy women as an appetite suppressant, caused the deaths of at least 500 people from heart valve damage, according to French health authorities.
It also caused thousands more to suffer cardiovascular complications.
The French-language film, also called La Fille de Brest, chronicles real-life pulmonologist Irene Frachon’s investigation into patient deaths related to Mediator and her subsequent crusade against the drug’s maker.
In the movie, which is adapted from her best-selling memoir, Frachon is played by Danish actress Sidse Babett Knudsen.
The story is “foremost a portrait of an exceptional woman, while being a very ordinary person, a pulmonologist in a provincial hospital who faced down incredible circumstances by the sheer force of her determination and purity,” Bercot, speaking in French, said.
Just off the plane for the film’s Toronto premiere, Bercot said that “the Mediator case is a backdrop for the film, but it is emblematic of a lot of cases that happen.”
The director said she hopes the film will inspire everyone who sees it to “not sit on the couch and wait for others to solve the world’s problems.”
“There will always be people who want to make money in spite of the damage it causes citizens,” Bercot said.
“Conflicts of interest, corruption have always existed and they will always exist, unfortunately, but that does not mean that we should not fight against them.”
Keeping spotlight on
Bercot’s producers had proposed making a film on the topic, but it was “Frachon’s telling me [in her own words] this story that really hooked me,” she said.
Frachon “is a very lively person, very funny, energetic, and has a very unique way of telling things.”
She introduced Bercot to all of the protagonists, including the researcher (played by Benoit Magimel) who helped Frachon shed light on the scandal. He now lives in Ottawa.
Throughout the making of the film, Bercot said she fact-checked every detail with Frachon “to ensure there were no mistakes and that it was true to life.”
The director emphasised the importance of whistle-blowers like Frachon in keeping scandals in the spotlight so that they are not forgotten quickly.
The Mediator scandal “was obviously not the first case of its kind and there will be others such as [anti-convulsant drug] Depakine” prescribed to thousands of pregnant women in France despite a high risk to foetuses, resulting in birth defects and neurodevelopmental disorders.
“Unfortunately one story pushes aside another. We are flooded with news media and people forget,” Bercot said.
After its world premiere at the Toronto film festival, 150 Milligrams will open the San Sebastian film festival in Spain on September 16, before its release in theatres at the end of November.