'In Your Arms': Gothenburg Review

Spoiler alert: no happy endings in this one way trip to Switzerland

The top prize-winner at Scandinavia's biggest film festival is a tough but tender Danish drama about terminal illness and euthanasia

Assisted suicide movies have enjoyed a mini boom over the last decade, from Clint Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby to Danish director Bille August's new family drama Silent Heart. Fellow Dane Samanou Achece Sahlstrom takes a more hardcore approach in his polished feature debut, which has just won the most lucrative prize on the film festival circuit, Gothenburg's Dragon Award for Best Nordic Film, which comes with a cool check for one million Swedish Krone (more than $120,000). Raised in France before studying in Copenhagen, Sahlstrom is a former assistant to Lars Von Trier, who gets a "creative producer" credit on this Danish-German co-production.

In grand Danish tradition, In Your Arms takes an unflinching look at a tragic, difficult subject. Then again, being Scandinavian, it also features exquisitely cheekboned Nordic lovelies weeping softly in gorgeous snowy landscapes and having tastefully rough sex in delicious oatmeal-colored knitwear. This is bleak material, but also a compelling human story with just the right amount of soapy melodrama lurking beneath its frosty surface. With sensitive marketing, it could have solid overseas sales potential based on its emotionally charged theme and powerful lead performances.

Niels (Peter Plaugborg) is a 40-ish man dying of a slowly paralyzing condition in a Copenhagen hospital. He is also a hot-tempered egotist, blasting loud classical music at all hours, fighting with the doctors and driving his family to despair with urgent demands for them to help him legally end his life in a Swiss euthanasia clinic. One of his nurses is Maria (Lisa Carlehed), an under-confident 35-year-old Swedish exile who leads a lonely, loveless life with just her cat for company. Neils and Maria meet, spark and quarrel. But they clearly need each other.

Inevitably, with a little convenient plot contrivance, the dying man recruits Maria to escort him to Switzerland. Their staggered journey includes a stopover in Hamburg, where the wheelchair-bound Niels insists on visiting a sex club, and has a prickly encounter with some ghosts from his past life. Maria also has an awkward sexual hook-up with a German musician, which leaves Niels seething with bitterness. At several points he comes close to firing her. But in the journey's final alpine stages, a somber calm descends on the bickering duo as the endgame comes into sharper focus.

Sahlstrom does not sweeten the humiliating horrors of terminal illness, from thwarted sexual urges to incontinence. Nor does he gloss over the forensic detail of assisted suicide, showing the multiple stages of legal consent and grim medical explanation that Niels must go through before he gets to choke on a foul-tasting, lethal chemical cocktail. A tragicomic interlude when Maria hits a deer with her rental car ("you've run over Bambi!", Niels laughs gleefully) pushes the heavy-handed symbolism a little over the red line, but otherwise In Your Arms handles its euthanasia scenes with admirable candor.

That said, Sahstrom is not above giving our heartstrings a gentle tug with some familiar movie tropes. Niels starts the story as a fiercely unsympathetic grinch, but it is a safe bet he will warm up and win us over by the final act. Looking like a Nordic Juliette Binoche, the beautiful Carlehed is never entirely plausible as the kind of shy, asexual, golden-hearted Eleanor Rigby type that exists more in male-written screen fantasy than reality. Even so, both leads give gutsy, forceful performances.

Heavily hand-held, Brian Curt Peterson's cinematography has an agreeably intimate feel, favoring a tastefully washed-out color palette that shows off the wintry Nordic setting in its best light. August Rosenbaum's score, mostly twinkly piano and strings, uses sparkly uplift to counter the heavy subject matter. The placing of Nick Cave's hymnal love ballad Into My Arms, with its almost too-perfect title, is timed for maximum tear-jerking effect. Ultimately, In Your Arms proves to be an unconventional love story between Niels and Marie. She helps him to die, he helps her to live.

Production company: Meta Film
Cast: Peter Plaugborg, Lisa Carlehed, Johanna Wokalek, Kirsten Olsen
Director, screenwriter: Samanou Achece Sahlstrom
Producer: Sara Namer
Cinematographer: Brian Curt Petersen
Editor: Theis Schmidt
Music: August Rosenbaum
Sales company: K5 Media Group
Unrated, 88 minutes