“I can assure you that you will never wake up.” “Yes, that’s what I want.” This is the final exchange between a stoic Swiss doctor and the even stoic-er Niels, a terminal Danish patient, in Samanou Acheche Sahlstrøm’s I Dine Hænder (English title: In Your Arms). The film chronicles the journey Niels takes with his caretaker, Maria, to seek euthanasia in Switzerland.
The characters in this grim arrangement are hodgepodge of Northern Europeans, seemingly competing for the title of Most Detached. There is Niels, the Dane who has become bitter to the point of abuse because of his illness, which is portrayed as ALS. He’s kind of like Hamlet, but less articulate. Then there’s Maria, a quiet Swede, who is completely alone in life, save for a few quick, dispassionate romances. In passing through Hamburg, the duo comes across Niels’ former lover, an aloof German, who is now raising a son Niels has never met. And finally they end in Switzerland, where a team of sterile doctors give careful instructions about Niels’ upcoming death.
The major achievement of this film is that Niels is an absolute menace. You want so badly to feel sorry for him, and occasionally you do, but mostly you want to smack him. He is in an impossible situation, with his body becoming more reliant on others every day. But the movie doesn’t fall into any traps of painting the chronically ill as necessarily angelic.
Niels is downright mean. He is grotesquely self-deprecating; he has ruined his relationships with caring family members; and most of all, he derides Maria who is inexplicably doting.
In one triumphant moment, Maria snaps: “Everyone thinks your bitterness came with your sickness, but I know you’ve always been a bastard.” That is the sense you get from observing Niels – occasionally, the wicked do suffer.
That forms the film’s primary discomfort and its main quirk; you’re not really sure whether to root for or against the poor wretch. Otherwise, this has many of the trappings of Scandinavian cinema, like cold, awkward sex, self-loathing, and emotional repression.
The phrase “in your arms” communicates intimacy, and there is some of that. At its core, I Dine Hænder is a story about caretaking and compassion. But in the darkness of the circumstances, the phrase takes another meaning of morbid reliance, and the anxiety that comes with it.
In Your Arms (I Dine Hænder)— Denmark. Dialog in Danish. Directed by Samanou Acheche Sahlstrøm. Premiered January 2015 at the Göteborg Film Festival. Running time 1hr 28min. Starring Peter Plaugbord and Lisa Carlehed.
In Your Arms is currently available for streaming on FilmDoo.