Cheating Life in "In Your Arms"

in 45th Molodist Kyiv International Film Festival

by Carmen Gray

A strong and varied international competition of feature debuts with no crystal-clear standout was considered by the FIPRESCI jury at the 45th Molodist Kyiv International Film Festival. While we ultimately awarded Ben Sharrock’s Pikadero, a bittersweet Basque-set comedy filtered through the lens of Europe’s economic crisis, food for thought also came from features with a heavier touch and bent for provocation. Danish drama In Your Arms (I dine hænder), directed by Samanou Acheche Sahlstrom, was an emotional sledgehammer that on one level manipulated sympathy for its campaigning pro-euthanasia agenda, and on the other raised fascinating, difficult questions about free will and the borders and definition of selfless compassion.

Niels (Peter Plaugborg) is living – or rather, just, bitterly existing – in a care home in Copenhagen as his motor neuron disease advances. A failed, bloody suicide attempt one evening after nurse Maria (Lisa Carlehed) unsuspectingly leaves him alone with a glass in his hand brings the predicament of his mental torment to a head in his own mind: he wants to die, and can’t manage it on his own. Others around him are less convinced that death offers any sort of solution. Niels’s brother has channeled his opposition to his brother’s wishes into anger, while his mother cannot bring herself to accompany him on his planned trip to Switzerland for assisted suicide, going as it does against all maternal instincts. This leaves him to request help from Maria, whose gestures of kindly affection only seem to have reminded him of the demise of his capacity for active sexuality, and whose guilt at his attempt to kill himself under her watch has left her with a confused sense of responsibility toward him. When she agrees, an intense road journey begins, as the pair make their way to the clinic via Hamburg, where Niels revisits the ghosts of his life before illness and his brutal severance of ties.

The complicated dynamic between Maria and Niels is the backbone of the film, its force underpinned by wonderfully convincing, nuanced acting performances from both Carlehad and Plaugborg. Maria is a lonely young woman with few friends and a low self-image who lives with just a cat. As we see from an awkward, casual sexual encounter with a work colleague, she has a somewhat dysfunctional romantic life devoid of true emotional connection. She’s also ambivalent about whether her nursing job carries much meaning, and can be nonchalantly unprofessional in its tasks. Niels perceives all this, and has no qualms in setting out his brazen evaluation on their train journey. Cynical antagonism and self-loathing have driven his character since the onset of his illness – and Maria hypothesises, also before it (“You’ve always been a bastard,” she accuses him in a devastating scene after he lashes out at her). This lack of sentimentality is a strongpoint of the film, and underpins one of its central questions: Is Niels’s desire to die a legitimate reaction to his illness, or is it a fallacy based on emotional immaturity? In this sense, Maria’s enabling could also be read as stemming from her own unmet needs and an urge to feel wanted, as much as selfless empathy. Whatever the ultimate truth of their ambiguous, movingly layered motivations, the stakes of life gain weight in their proximity to death, and an intimacy unavailable to them through sex flowers.

The film’s difficult questions of the link between love and will are reminiscent of films such as Leaving Las Vegas, in which the tenderness of a man who has decided to drink himself to death for his emotionally damaged street worker companion is dependent on her very respect for his wish to not be stopped. Of course with In Your Arms illness is in the frame, and the institutional laws governing its last resorts, but these somehow take a backseat to the dying man’s rugged and intense mental vitality and the very personal questions of conscience about the right to snuff out such a fire. The film makes us feel deep sympathy for his mindset, as glimpses of his sensitive capacity for humanity only accentuate his brokenness – but also for his companion’s doubts, as his influence on her show his lifeforce to be undeniable.

Carmen Gray