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Peter T. Chattaway

Ending It

Mercy killing at the movies.

It might be possible, C. S. Lewis suggested, to create a decent theology based on nothing more than dirty jokes; of all the animals, only human beings seem to find something strange or unnatural about their bodily functions, and this, in turn, may be a clue not only to our spiritual natures, but also to the fallenness that has impaired the relationship between our spiritual and animal natures. Could something similar be said about a phenomenon like suicide? As far as we know, human beings are the only animals that consciously choose to end their own lives, and in this, we may see evidence of the freedom and self-knowledge which are ours as beings imprinted with the image of God. Paradoxically, it is our very ability to negate the breath of life that indicates God once breathed it into us.

Million Dollar Baby, which won Academy Awards for picture, director, and two of its co-stars, kicked up a firestorm of debate with its surprise third-act twist. For its first hour and a half, the film seems like a Rocky-style movie about a scrappy young boxer, Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank), who rises to the top of the boxing world under the reluctant sponsorship of a trainer named Frankie Dunn (played by director Clint Eastwood). But then an illegal punch thrown by one of Maggie's opponents, combined with an unfortunately placed stool, breaks Maggie's neck and turns her into a quadriplegic who will be hooked up to a respirator for the rest of her life. As her body wastes away, forcing the amputation of one of her legs, Maggie asks Frankie to kill her, just as her father once killed their similarly crippled family dog. Despite the warnings of his ineffectual priest, Frankie does as Maggie wishes.

Much of the debate has swirled around whether the film "promotes" euthanasia. Films tend to glamorize whatever they portray, simply by focusing our attention on it and giving it big-screen treatment, and this tendency may be even more pronounced when the actions onscreen are performed by famous actors who dazzle us with their skill. Eastwood has insisted that his film doesn't promote euthanasia any more than his Westerns and detective stories promote gunfights—and he has a point. Million Dollar Baby hardly romanticizes the right to die. But on a much deeper level, it is still a basically nihilistic film, not unlike Eastwood's previous multiple Oscar-winner, Unforgiven (1992).1

One of the film's recurring themes is abandonment. Frankie is abandoned by the fighter he was managing before Maggie comes along. One of the gym's regulars has been stuck in that city ever since his mother's boyfriend abandoned him there. Frankie and his best friend, Eddie "Scrap-Iron" Dupris (Morgan Freeman), were abandoned by a manager in Mississippi a few decades ago—and Frankie himself abandoned Eddie by hitching a ride out of there, until his "conscience" got the better of him and he walked two miles back. Most important, Frankie has been abandoned by his daughter, who returns all his letters unopened, and he feels abandoned by God, from whom he senses no forgiveness. And finally, Frankie is abandoned by Maggie, who demands that she be allowed to die. It is this grim overarching worldview, rather than Maggie's decision, that is the film's most unsettling aspect.

For a film that does endorse and promote euthanasia, one need look no further than The Sea Inside, the Spanish film which won this year's Oscar for foreign-language film. Director Alejandro Amenábar has broached the subject of death before, in Open Your Eyes (1997) and The Others (2001), but there he did so through the genre trappings of ghost stories and science fiction. The Sea Inside, based on the life of quadriplegic right-to-die activist Ramón Sampedro (Javier Bardem), is a much more conventional sort of movie, in which Ramón lies in his bed and explains his point of view to everyone who visits, while friends and activists argue his case before the courts. Life, he says, is "a right, not an obligation." Religious objections to euthanasia are brushed aside—a lawyer argues, in effect, that secular courts have no business addressing the alleged sanctity of life—or caricatured, as a quadriplegic priest whose wheelchair won't fit in the stairwell hectors Ramón from downstairs.

Amenábar introduces some interesting flights of fantasy that help make his film a work of cinema and not just a political tract. Ramón, who lost the use of his arms and legs after a diving accident nearly three decades ago, becomes smitten with Julia (Bélen Rueda), one of the lawyers working on his case, and at one point, when she says she is going down to the beach for a stroll, he imagines himself getting up out of bed, running to the window, and flying over hill and forest until he meets her in a passionate embrace by the sea. Curiously, this scene kind of works against the film's central theme; if Ramón can say his life has no dignity because he is confined to his immobile body, the aerial shots serve as a reminder that we, too, are confined to bodies that cannot do certain things, such as fly—and just as we transcend our limitations through art, technology and, yes, aerial shots, so too Ramón transcends his limitations by writing books of poetry.

The Sea Inside was the second Oscar-winning foreign film in a row to climax with a scene of assisted suicide; the year before, the award went to Quebecois director Denys Arcand's The Barbarian Invasions. But Arcand is a much more complicated filmmaker, and his film is infused with a critical realism and a generosity of spirit that allows for a wider range of responses than a simple yea or nay. This is partly because the film builds on Arcand's two previous Oscar-nominated successes: The Decline of the American Empire (1986), a satire of highbrow hedonism and sexual mores among the intellectual class, and Jesus of Montreal (1989), a film about actors looking for meaning in a shallow, media-driven world.

The Barbarian Invasions is, primarily, a sequel to the former film. Rémy (Rémy Girard), the serial adulterer of Decline, is now long divorced and estranged from his children, but his friends and family reunite when he finds himself confined to a hospital bed with just a few months left to live. Rémy's son Sébastian (Stéphane Rousseau), a successful securities broker now living in London, has never forgiven his father for the dissolution of their family, but out of concern for his mother, Louise (Dorothée Berryman), he comes home and bribes hospital administrators, union officials, and others to ensure that his father has the best treatment possible. Rémy's friends and colleagues, including two of his former mistresses, are simply happy to swap stories and relive the days when they pursued vain philosophies ("Is there an 'ism' we haven't worshipped?", asks one) as well as their own personal pleasures.

Rémy is such a charismatic character—as any successful womanizer would have to be—that it is tempting to think the film shares his lecherous superficiality. (When he recalls watching the spiritual masterpiece Heaven over the Marshes at a Catholic school, all he can talk about is how he masturbated at the sight of the star's thighs.) But Arcand is also careful to show moments of panic and introspection, when Rémy drops his guard and worries that he has made no mark on the world. A history professor by trade, he bemoans the fact that he never published anything significant, and his students barely notice when a teaching assistant takes over for him in the lecture hall. When someone reminds him that death is a law of nature, and many other people will die at the same moment that he does, Rémy fails to find any consolation. "I won't be here any more," he insists. "Me. I'll be gone for good. If at least I'd learned something. I feel as helpless as the day I was born."

Rémy bemoans the fact that he has not yet found any meaning. But Arcand does, at least, hint at where meaning can be found—and he does this by subtly introducing a handful of characters from Jesus of Montreal into this parallel storyline. In particular, we learn that Constance Lazure (Johanne-Marie Tremblay), the compassionate single mother who joined the passion play in that other film, has become a nun and is stationed at Rémy's hospital. She teases him about his chances in the afterlife, and she encourages Sébastian to be reconciled to his father. In one scene, after Rémy rants at her about all the atrocities committed throughout history, Constance tearfully replies, "If what you say is true, and history is a series of abominable crimes, then someone has to exist who can forgive us. That's my belief." Rémy, silenced by her sincerity, can only say, "I envy you."

When Rémy finally leaves the hospital, Constance takes his hand and kisses it. "Embrace the mystery and you'll be saved," she says. Rémy kisses her hand in reply, but it is not clear that he ever does know what to make of this advice. His friends take him to a cottage by a lake, where he is surrounded by natural beauty as the daughter of one of his mistresses gives him a morphine overdose. Yet the last image on his mind is that of the movie star's naked thighs; right to the end, he misses the spiritual mystery before him, preferring to dwell instead on the most banal kind of sensuality.

Like Million Dollar Baby, The Barbarian Invasions finds solace in the precious, rare gift of friendship in an otherwise indifferent universe. But the two films set up their climaxes in radically different ways. Frankie is entitled, and perhaps even required, to end Maggie's life because he helped her to find a sense of purpose through boxing; rather than emphasize the possibility that Maggie could go on to find new forms of purpose, Eddie tells Frankie that, when Maggie dies, she'll go out cherishing her recent successes. For Rémy, however, death is the ultimate hollow experience, after a life spent in hollow pursuits. Admittedly, Rémy's death is depicted in terms as beautiful as possible, but it is to Arcand's credit that he allows for the possibility that there just might be something better out there after all.

Peter T. Chattaway lives in British Columbia and writes about movies.

1. In Unforgiven, bounty hunter Bill Munny (Eastwood) is a wicked man who is haunted by nightmares of his good wife's rotting, worm-covered corpse. Hence, when Munny famously says that "we all have it coming," he is not referring to meaningful judgment—as many Christian interpreters of the film have supposed—but rather to meaningless death: good or bad, it doesn't make a difference; every one of us will still die.

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