In Your Arms: A lyrical tragedy
by Vladan Petkovic
- The big winner of the 38th Göteborg International Film Festival is a tragic and humane story
The first feature film by French-born, Danish-based director Samanou Acheche Sahlstrøm, In Your Arms [+see also:
interview: Samanou Acheche Sahlstrøm
film profile], won the Dragon Award for Best Nordic Film and the FIPRESCI Prize at the 38th Göteborg International Film Festival. The way the director handles the heavy subject matter – assisted suicide – is both audacious and gentle, and the film teeters on the fine line between genuine tragedy and tongue-in-cheek sentimentality.
Maria (Lisa Carlehed, in her first main role) is a 35-year-old nurse, working in a nursing home. One of the patients she is taking care of is Niels (Peter Plaugborg, most widely known for his role in Submarino [+see also:
interview: Thomas Vinterberg
film profile]), a young man paralysed from the waist down, with his neural disorder only getting worse, stripping him of hope and the will to live.
Actually, Niels has a strong wish to die, through assisted suicide at a facility in Switzerland. But he needs someone to accompany him, both for practical and legal reasons, and his mother and brother (who calls him a selfish bastard) cannot bring themselves to help him kill himself.
Although she is also against his plan, Maria decides to go along with him. She feels stuck in her life, living alone with a cat, lacking any real friends and having been dumped by her boyfriend (who also works at the nursing home). So the two head off on a journey towards one's death, and the other's discovery of a new life.
Niels is, understandably, bitter and angry, and does not refrain from imposing his emotions on others. His sarcastic, biting comments to everybody around him are cruel, but Maria shows compassion even as he straight-out insults her.
The narrative unfolds to show the development of emotions and the changing outlook on life for Maria. The assisted-suicide theme is actually more of a background for a story of personal self-discovery than an ethical issue.
In many respects – the tragic theme; the use of handheld camera and jump cuts in order to display the emotional states of the characters; a selection of strong, almost in-your-face musical numbers (including Mozart's Requiem and Nick Cave's Into My Arms); and one brutally ugly sex scene – the film is strongly reminiscent of Lars von Trier's earlier works such as Idiots and Breaking the Waves, but also even of Antichrist [+see also:
interview: Lars von Trier
film profile] and Melancholia [+see also:
interview: Lars von Trier
film profile] in a couple of lyrical, beautifully shot scenes. So it is hardly a surprise when you see the Danish auteur's name listed as creative producer in the closing credits.
But this is not to say that Sahlstrøm is ghost-directing for von Trier. On the contrary, all these elements are put together in a much less obtrusive way, maybe even as a half-parodic wink at his over-the-top sentimentality. The characters are treated with care and tenderness – especially Maria, who is marvellously and bravely played by Carlehed – and all this can provide for a nice discussion after seeing the film, which to some more cynical viewers may feel bathetic, while for the sensitive ones it can be devastatingly tragic.
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