In Each Other's Arms

in 38th Göteborg Film Festival

by Yesim Tabak

Yesim Tabak on Samanou Acheche Sahlstrøm’s “In Your Arms”

One recalls films in terms of different elements. Striking visuals, a surprising story, fun, horror, eroticism, experimentation, philosophical depth … it all depends. What “In Your Arms” (I dine hænder) will be remembered for is its characters, for their sheer believability and soulfulness.

“In Your Arms” successfully focuses on the interaction of its characters, instead of creating a busy chain of incidents between them. You will be interested to follow Maria and Niels on their path through tough emotional landscapes. No, the journey is not pleasing. And a key plot point is euthanasia. But in his first feature, French-born Danish director Samanou Acheche Sahlstrøm isn’t looking to dig up all the controversies surrounding this subject. Nor is he trying to create a tearjerker. What he does is to make sure that a serious subject is handled with conviction, carrying intense emotions without sentimentality.

So he introduces us to Maria (Lisa Carlehed, in her first leading role). She is a nurse. It looks as if she has chosen the right job. There’s not a trace of weariness in her face: only empathy, patience, compassion, endurance. She brushes a patient’s teeth, feeds another one, gives yet another a bath, and takes her work as it comes. She doesn’t whine about the conditions of the medical system, or complain that “This job is killing me!”  

Niels (Peter Plaugborg) is the bitter, cynical, suicidal patient. Paralyzed below the waist. A young, angry man. Someone who is selfish enough to project his inner turmoil onto the people around him. Unlike Maria, he dares to ask, “What about me?” He wants to commit assisted suicide in Switzerland. In the eyes of Niels’ family, this suicide plan is just another instance of his egocentric fancies. Although she opposes him at the beginning, Maria agrees to assist him on his last journey.

When is life no longer worth living? To Niels, it is when life cannot be fully lived. This is why he scorns Maria for her selfless attitude and altruistic pride. There is always a tension between them. We have two strong characters who bond over their weaknesses: a man who is in need of the ultimate care he hasn’t given to anyone else, and a woman who is capable of sharing others’ burdens but hesitates to come forward with her own needs. This isn’t a romantic love story, but it is a love story in its own way. In this adverse situation, the two characters become each other’s saviors. Taking part in a conscious “death story” – one of the most intimate things two people can share – brings them together in a silent way, which the film is able to elegantly depict (crowned by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ song “Into My Arms”).

With this kind of structure, the performances become the backbone of the film. Carlehed and Plaugborg both convey wonderfully the introvert and extrovert aspects of their characters. While the film has a dynamic camera and editing, it’s so fluently focused on Maria and Niels that you might leave the cinema feeling as if you’ve watched a good piece of theatre. The film’s style has a mature simplicity.

When a brown-tinted Danish production begins with the image of a boy with Down Syndrome in hospital, it’s hard not to flash back to Lars von Trier’s “The Kingdom” (Riget, 1994). Of course, “In Your Arms” doesn’t have anything of “The Kingdom’s” mischievous humor and dark fantasies. But on further reflection, it’s also not that surprising to see von Trier listed as creative producer in the closing credits. Sahlstrøm has assisted in various roles on films by von Trier and Zentropa. So it’s not out of the question to include him in the “école de Zentropa.” But what is projected as morally sharp, devilish, punishing or provocative in von Trier is presented in this film as the natural contradictions and complexities of emotions and behavior. Yet the effect is just as intense.

Edited by Lesley Chow