Whatever one’s feelings about the right to die with dignity, it’s not easy to watch even a fictional character commit assisted suicide in excruciating detail, and this difference will likely color viewer response to the Danish euthanasia drama “In Your Arms.” Debutant Samanou Acheche Sahlstrom nabbed the generously funded Nordic Film Award in Gothenburg with his naturalistic, lyrically lensed tale of a bitter, late-thirtysomething man suffering from a fast-moving motor neuron disease and the enigmatic nurse persuaded to deliver him into the hands of a Dignitas-like organization in Switzerland. Fests will embrace this provocative query into what makes life worth living.
Coming on the heels of Danish helmer Bille August’s mercy-killing tearjerker “Silent Heart,” “In Your Arms” is a slender mash-up of road movie, chamber play, tragedy and love story, which depends on our accepting that slim, attractive loner Maria (Lisa Carlehed) — depicted as so alienated from life that she lives in a cold apartment, doesn’t always wash, eats corn flakes out of a box, and can’t be bothered to name her cat — has the time and willingness to be a Charon of sorts. Here, Maria is dedicated to her job as a nurse at a Copenhagen care home, which houses those who can no longer perform the essential functions of daily life such feeding or bathing themselves.
One of her patients is the acid-tongued, mostly paralyzed Niels (Peter Plaugborg), who can only find pleasure by wounding others with his comments. Anger over his fate has led him to ask his family not to visit any longer, although he doesn’t hesitate to ask his beleaguered mother (Kirsten Olesen) if she would help him take his own life – something she can’t bring herself to do.
After Maria saves Niels from a bloody suicide attempt, her excessive empathy (not to mention guilt sparked by his barbed remarks) convinces her to grant his ultimate wish and take him to Switzerland, even though she doesn’t approve of the purpose of his trip. As the odd couple’s odyssey takes them from Denmark through Germany to Switzerland, their bond deepens and, natch, frees Maria find more pleasure in her life.
What does make life worth living? Well, according to Sahlstrom, sex and intimacy. A visit to a Hamburg red-light district that exploits every possible cliche furnishes the former, while Maria’s loving attentions supply the latter. If one can get past the screenplay’s improbable male-fantasy element of the selfless, available Maria, then there is much to admire in the strong, sometimes naked, never sentimental thesping of Carlehed and Plaugborg, sensitively captured in closeup by lenser Brian Curt Petersen, as well as the expressive editing by expert cutter Theis Schmidt. Nevertheless, pic’s final 15 minutes are tough sledding as the sober Swiss describe how the final medication will work on Niels’ system, and then we observe it in what feels like real time.
Now clearly a helmer to watch, the French-born Sahlstrom moved to Denmark in 2001 and started working at creative producer Lars von Trier’s Zentropa production house the following year. He graduated from the National Film School of Denmark in 2011 with the short “Les Amours perdues,” which, interestingly, also involves a suicide attempt and a woman’s obsessive feelings of responsibility for the would-be suicide.