More than 20 years ago, Switzerland became the only nation to legalize assisted suicide. Fernand Melgar’s docu “Exit: The Right to Die” thus examines an accepted practice with clear parameters. Free of the controversy typically informing euthanasia elsewhere (as explored in recent Aussie docu “The Mademoiselle and the Doctor”), the filmmaker concentrates on the complex human interactions surrounding the administration of death. Pic’s quiet lucidity and matter-of-fact procedurals pack a cumulative emotional punch. Timely docu, opening today at Gotham’s Film Forum, makes a strong implicit case for a cause supported by a growing number of Americans.
Pic’s title refers to an association for the right to die with dignity, instituted in Francophone Switzerland in 1980 and now boasting some 10,000 members ranging in age from 21 to 103. Melgar eschews exposition and uses a series of highly charged phone calls to Exit to define the limits of what the organization can and cannot do, as sympathetic screeners explain to severely depressed callers that only the terminally ill qualify for assisted suicide.
How the association works is vividly illustrated in scenes with volunteers regularly visiting the chronically ill, welcomed as part of the family. One woman with advanced multiple sclerosis is seen painfully forming the letters of a request to die, a task she and her facilitator have wrestled with for months, through various relapses and remissions. Members who have chosen a time to die are welcome to change their mind at any stage in the sometimes years-long process.
While the opportunity to choose a time for one’s demise brings solace to most members, many of whom will never avail themselves of the option, the emotional cost to their assisters is high. Besides the psychological drain of playing angel of death, ever-increasing demands for facilitators lead to larger caseloads, compounding the stress.
Melgar neatly juxtaposes the matter-of-fact bureaucratic concerns of the association against intensely intimate exchanges between individuals. While in committee discussions, questions of life and death and the rules of final care-giving play out against the drabness of folding-chair officialdom and parliamentary rules.
These scenes contrast with sequences accenting the fragility of the caregivers. In one memorable shot, a volunteer stands pensively staring out her window as her relentless answering machine spews a litany of suffering and need.
Pic is bookended by two scenes: In the first an elderly woman with an incurable disease firmly tells her facilitator that she has decided to end her life in a week, remaining steadfast under a steady flow of questions. In the last scene, the facilitator delivers the fatal potion, the camera remaining on his emotion-ravaged face as he watches her slip away.
Tech credits are solid.