In Your Arms (2015)

A man in his mid-30s, ravaged by disease, decides to end his life while encouraging his nurse to start living her own.

in-your-armsDenmark
3*

Director:
Samanou A. Sahlstrøm

Screenwriter:
Samanou A. Sahlstrøm
Director of Photography:
Brian Curt Petersen

Running time: 90 minutes

Original title: I dine hænder

Euthanasia is not an easy topic to wrap one’s head around, particularly because it is so often conflated with murder. When so many people are not even ready to accept suicide as a legitimate action, it is to be expected that euthanasia (the patient sanctions someone to kill him/her), or assisted suicide (the patient kills himself/herself with medication or counselling provided by a second party for this purpose) will be equally challenging notions for an audience. 

The Danish film In Your Arms, co-produced by Lars von Trier, is more of an intimate character study of a man who has decided to end his life than a critical examination of the moral or ethical issues surrounding or arising from this decision. In this respect, the film is a mostly sober representation of one man’s determination to eliminate the suffering that plagues him, instead of a dramatic contrivance that would involve our emotions. But it doesn’t make the audience’s job of empathising with the character easy at all.

One way in which the slight distance between the viewer and the film is achieved is through the use of snow. Symbolising a great number  of things (from ephemeral beauty to peace to a state of being untainted by the heartache and the natural shocks that flesh is heir to), snow accompanies a number of scenes, some of them potentially mere mental images, but at least one, which involves a brutal killing by a blubbering killer, is very real.

The film is centred on Niels, a man in his mid-30s whose body has been degenerating of late and is mostly paralysed. At the nursing home where he is experiencing a great deal of self-pity and has asked his family to stop visiting him, he tries to kill himself. “I can no longer walk. I can no longer masturbate. And soon I will no longer be able to breathe”, he says, and it is easy to understand his desire to put an end to this rapid, inexorable regression.

However, to his horror, he is saved by a young nurse, Maria. Anxious and terrible at any social interaction, she cleans herself by washing her armpits at the wash basin, and most of the time her pale face is taut as a drum. Even when she makes spontaneous decisions, there is no visible joy or passion in her expressions. Niels is not impressed, but although he always has sharp words at the ready for those around him, he needs help to get to Switzerland and end his life through an assisted dying organisation titled ASSIST. Having nothing better to do, now or ever, Maria sets off on the trip to accompany him.

This middle stretch of the film, which is a kind of road movie, is the most interesting part of the story, although it is at times very difficult to watch. The reason is right there in the producer’s credit, as the awkwardness Von Trier has long relished and made most palpable in The Idiots is also on display here. Niels gets a thrill by digging into Maria’s personal life and asking her about it, even when he knows that she finds these conversations excruciating. He also is not beneath embarrassing her in public for no good reason other than oblique self-pity.

We gradually realise that, as he approaches the hour of death, Niels is also grabbing on to his last moments of control in the midst of despair and apparent disarray. He tries to pull Maria out of her shell while he kicks up a fuss when she doesn’t do everything exactly as he orders her to, even if such orders are sometimes contradictory. He has good intentions, and Maria, who is afraid to look in the mirror, both literally and figuratively, would certainly be better off if she were socially better connected. Unfortunately, any assumption that these two characters who don’t fit into society would easily communicate all but blows up in our face, even though they rather pathetically hurtle into each other’s arms in the final act.

The big problem with the depiction of Maria is that the character is sobbing in nearly every single scene. She cries when she feels uncomfortable, she cries when she doesn’t have an answer, and she cries when life happens. She shows no sign of maturing or of dealing with her social and personal hang-ups, has very little development to speak of and is wholly incapable of being around people.

In a film that deals with euthanasia, the scene dealing with this topic in particular will illuminate the director’s talent as a storyteller, and here Samanou A. Sahlstrøm chooses to end his end his story not with lyricism but with extended discomfort. The process of dying by one’s own hand is almost never pretty, and while Sahlstrøm presents the character’s good-byes to his friends and family with great empathy, the act of suicide is filled with unpleasant hesitation, gasping, sniffling and anxious anticipation for the end to arrive sooner rather than later. While tough to watch, this final scene admirably undercuts any notion of this being a straightforward sanctioning of ending one’s own life.

Death very well spells the end to life, but even amidst the beautiful scenery of Switzerland, the transition from animate to inanimate is far from cheerful, and despite the many scenes with the snow that also signals a heavenly bright light, perhaps this example of the end of life pulls us back into the gritty realism that real death commands.

Viewed at the Black Nights Film Festival 2015