Life and Death Decisions at San Sebastián

in 67th San Sebastian International Film Festival

by Pamela Hutchinson

Pamela Hutchinson on three films screening at the 67th San Sebastián International Film Festival that tackled the euthanasia debate: Blackbird,And the Birds Rained Down, Death Will Come and Shall Have Your Eyes.

Architect Lily keeps a package of phenobarbital in a cupboard in the kitchen of her stunning beach house in Connecticut. Asked where she bought such a thing, her husband replies “from Google”. In Quebec, three elderly hermits living in shacks deep in the forest keep a bottle of cyanide on a high shelf – its presence is a condition of their isolated life. Meanwhile, in Chile, Maria and Ana retreat to their own cabin in the woods, where Maria will face her last days without the consolation of a chemical exit.

Euthanasia and assisted suicide are legal only in a handful of countries and US states, and yet they seem to be on the rise everywhere. Cases of terminally ill patients who travel to end their life, petition the courts for permission or take action in their own homes in defiance of the law frequently appear in the news. So perhaps it is natural that three of the films showing in the Official Competition at the 67th San Sebastián International Film Festival took end-of-life choices as their subject.

Lily, who suffers from some kind of progressive nerve disease, is played with warmth and elegance by Susan Sarandon in Roger Michell’s star-studded Blackbird, a remake of Bille August’s Silent Heart (Stille Hjerte, 2014). The film begins as her family gathers at her home, the house she designed herself and intends to die in. She has planned a dignified, beautiful exit: a weekend with her family, gifts, good food and wine, and then in solitude, a fatal dose. Her husband will excuse himself so as to be able to deny culpability, and secure in the knowledge that she has designed her death as precisely as her elegant home and nuclear family, Lily will drink the poison. Michell’s glossy film, with its handsome cast and coastal location, may in many ways be a fantasy of bourgeois good taste, but it doesn’t quite allow Lily’s vision to come true. Bitter arguments and personal revelations rock the harmony of her final weekend. However, when she goes, she does so in the arms of her husband and daughter: tasteful shallow focus, crisp linen sheets and hugs present a sanitised vision of expiration, one we might expect from a Hollywood melodrama, a denouement even more pleasant than the one Lily envisaged.

Not so for Tom (Rémy Girard) in Louise Archamboult’s tender adaptation of Jocelyne Saucier’s novel And the Birds Rained Down (Il pleuvait des oiseaux). Tom’s most serious complaint is alcoholism, but given the pains of old age and general ill health he doubts he can stand another winter in the woods. Added to which, his best friend has fallen in love, and forest fires threaten to engulf his home. Tom digs his own grave near a beautiful lake, and lies down inside it alongside his dog, Drink. Out of compassion, he gives his dog a stronger dose, but his own demise is painful to watch: he twitches and froths at the mouth. Archamboult refuses Michell’s hazy focus and oblique angles – we stare Tom’s death in the eye. Does he regret his decision as the poison takes hold? For both Lily and Tom, however, taking control of the manner of their death is the final emphasis of the freedom they sought in life.

Death Will Come
In Death Will Come and Shall Have Your Eyes (Vendrá la muerte y tendrá tus ojos), Maria doesn’t choose poison, she rejects it. She refuses another bout of invasive chemical treatment for her terminal cancer, and instead of fighting her disease, chooses to die in her lover’s arms. José Luis Torres Leiva’s film is unflinching in its use of close-ups, as the women embrace, or when Maria’s body is ravaged with pain, her face grimacing and her torso racked with tension. And yet, as she takes charge of her life, and spends her last moments with the woman she loves, Maria is reborn. Embedded narratives unearthed in the forest tell a tale of a man who regrets a lost love, of a feral girl cared for by a kind stranger.

In all three films death comes with an embrace, in a well-chosen location and on the dying person’s own terms. As Lily’s medic husband in Blackbird, Sam Neill voices well-intentioned lectures about the importance of dying with dignity, but the Québécois and Chilean films seem to uncover a deeper truth. Archamboult and Leiva use the modes of naturalism and magical realism, respectively, to explore our connection with the earth, and our understanding of what it means both to live and die well.

Pamela Hutchinson