The lighter side of euthanasia — if such a thing can be said to exist — is explored with more grace and good humor than might be expected in “La vanite,” an amiably off-kilter new feature from Swiss writer-helmer Lionel Baier. Less overtly queer in its sensibility than some of Baier’s previous work, this tale of an ailing architect’s interrupted plans for a peaceful demise nonetheless imbues its dark subject matter with an improbable degree of friskiness, not to mention an eleventh-hour dose of sentimentality: It’s not just the casting of Carmen Maura as a hired suicide aide that lends a whiff of Almodovar to Baier’s jumbled approach. That’s not to overstate the formal ambition of a 74-minute three-hander that could as easily have been fashioned for the stage. Already out in France, the pic is lent extra Euro bankability by Maura’s irresistible presence.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given Switzerland’s world-renowned permissiveness in the matter of assisted suicide, “La vanite” is mostly uninterested in rhetorically debating the ethical rights or wrongs of the practice — though disagreement on the subject does surface between characters in the course of its night-spanning narrative, while a certain humane hopefulness colors proceedings regardless of the outcome. Baier is more concerned with unpicking individual motivations than making larger social pronouncements: As its semi-screwball comedy of misdirection unfolds, no one’s reasons for taking part in what should be a simple death are quite as matter-of-fact as they seem.
An associative sense of subterfuge stems from Baier’s chosen setting alone: a roadside fleapit motel that may put viewers more in mind of corruption-laced Hollywood noir than the tidy city limits of Lausanne. If the movies have taught us anything, it’s that no night in such an establishment can proceed without complication. So it proves one snowy December evening, when mild-mannered septuagenarian David Miller (Patrick Lapp), seeking permanent relief from terminal illness, checks in to enjoy the final hours of his life in a den of cheap wood paneling and synthetic soft furnishings. He hasn’t picked this seemingly impersonal spot at random, though his rationale — in this and other matters — is initially withheld from the audience, as well as from Esperanza (Maura), the Spanish-born suicide-clinic administrator who agrees to oversee his death despite its unorthodox offsite location.
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As David and Esperanza exchange life stories — in his case, of course, with some finality — a note of dream-like illogic creeps into what is intended to be a wholly pragmatic ritual, as memories invisibly crowd the boxy double bedroom. Melancholic absurdity tips over into outright farce, however, when the need for a second witness to David’s passing (as required by Swiss law) brings fellow guest Treplev (Ivan Georgiev) into the affair. A strapping Russian rent-boy servicing clients in the room next door, Treplev appears to aggravates sublimated desire on David’s part, while also providing an outlet for his unresolved struggles with fatherhood. The Chekhovian implications of his name (a key character in “The Seagull”) are more ambiguous still, as the film’s lightly twist-laden latter half juggles jaunty disorder with poetic subtext.
A deft trio of performances keeps Baier’s sliding tonal impulses in check. Lapp brings soured dignity to his character’s death wish, avoiding lachrymose emoting as the truth behind his decision gradually emerges, while relative newcomer Georgiev is a find in a role that calls for hidden reserves of empathy behind a randy young-buck exterior. Maura is a delight as the scenario’s evidently unqualified angel of death, sparely applying her dizzy skills as a comedienne to a character with her own history of everyday sorrow — effectively related in one economical montage, beautifully edited by Jean-Christophe Hym, that paints an entire life in unpeopled domestic spaces.
Other tech credits contribute an appropriate ambience of theatrical artifice and intimacy. The deep notes of red and green in Patrick Lindenmeier’s lensing, meanwhile, play into the story’s Yuletide setting — though this particular spin on “It’s a Wonderful Life” shows life to be a compromised wonder at best.