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Euphoria: A depressingly meaningless death in post-Christian Europe
By Thomas M. Sipos
Lisa Langseth's Euphoria (2017) is a cinematic masterpiece, though perhaps not for the reasons she intended. Her film is a family drama about death and dying. What distinguishes Euphoria from similarly themed works is its depressingly acute portrayal of how post-Christian Europe shapes peoples' attitudes toward death. I doubt that Langseth was aware that she was commenting on post-Christian culture. Rather, she lives in it and assumes its premises. Like a fish that's unaware of water, Langseth has unintentionally shown us land dwellers what it's like to die underwater.
Emilie (Eva Green) lives in Europe. (Where exactly is never stated, but this British-Swedish-German co-production was shot in Germany.) She's asked her sister, Ines (Alicia Vikander), to fly in from New York to join her at a nature retreat. Ines is an artist whom Emilie has not seen in many years. We never learn Emilie's occupation, but like Ines, she's single and childless.
Arriving at the retreat, Emilie drops a bombshell. She is dying of cancer. The retreat is a euthanasia hospice. After six blissful days in the hospice's bucolic setting, Emilie will be offered poison. No one will force her to take it. She can change her mind and leave. But she will die, now or later.
Well, we all knew that euthanasia was legal in much of Europe. Apparently resorts like this exist to "allow those of us who can afford it to pay for a comfortable death," as Mr. Daren (Charles Dance) cynically observes. Daren is dying of a brain tumor.
Euphoria charts these last days in Emilie's life. She has long conversations with Ines. Good memories and suppressed resentments emerge. They talk, argue, laugh, and cry. Ines confesses that the best sex she ever had was with a couple (a threesome!) in Spain. Emilie has sex with a fellow ... patient? ... and dances with a staff member. All this is supposed to add up to something. Then Emilie takes poison and dies.
When we first meet her, early in the film, she says, "I'm nobody. Alone. Unimportant. Full of unfulfilled dreams." Beginning with that self-assessment, Euphoria asks the Big Question: Was there a meaning to Emilie's life? Is there meaning to any human life?
The quest for meaning haunts the film's dying characters. Sitting beside a tranquil pond, Daren remarks to Ines, "I understand everything. But I have yet to find the meaning in anything."
Ines replies. "People seem to think that there's a kind of meaning. Something they should be able to understand before they die. There's nothing to understand. You just die. Very few accept that their lives are completely meaningless. Especially women. I mean, why would a life suddenly become important only because you're about to die?"
Langseth brilliantly captures the modern European. Her characters are so secular. So existential. So materialist. So full of angst. So despairing. Euphoria is full of characters facing death. Yet not a one ever mentions God, religion, or the afterlife. Ines mentions Heaven once, in a cynical throwaway line not meant to be taken seriously, and no one does. It's clear that she and Emilie regard Heaven as a myth, unworthy of serious discussion.
I don't think Langseth even considered that people facing death might want to discuss God. It's not that she's opposed to discussing religion. It just never occurred to her. Her story's materialist premises are assumed rather than advocated.
Ironically, Euphoria takes a larger (albeit still mild) swipe at New Age spirituality. A man burns incense amid Buddhist bells and statues. A woman meditates in the nude. The entire hospice has a squishy, non-denominational, New Agey feel to it. True, Euphoria depicts this as yet another futile grasp at meaning, but it's telling that in crafting her materialist universe, Langseth took a poke at the New Age, whereas Christianity she ignored. New Age spirituality is rational materialism's greatest rival among Europeans. Christianity isn't even in the competition.
(Muslims are invisible in Euphoria. The hospice serves the dying past, not the vibrant future.)
The wealthy Daren seeks meaning in mammon. He throws a party, paying for champagne, fireworks, and a rock band to perform in his honor. It's futile. He has an emotional breakdown, stops the music, and attacks one of the staff, screaming, "I want you to comfort me. Just give me some, put the fucking macaroon down and comfort me. That's what you're paid for. Give me some comfort, you fucking wanker. You're just a fucking amateur."
That last line is more perceptive than was perhaps intended. Daren should be talking to a priest, not to some New Age amateur.
Daren collapses on the lawn. His despair is palpable. How empty all that partying, with death so near. So much for Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die. Everyone stares uncomfortably at Daren while he composes himself. He grits his teeth, reclaiming his dignity, and announces "Okay. Okay. I'm ready." He arises and walks off to take his poison. Having rejected hedonism, he finally seeks comfort in stoicism.
Ines worries that Daren might not be in the right frame of mind to choose suicide. "Are you going to let him go like that?" she asks Aron, a staff member.
Aron replies, "Our job is to allow him to make his own decisions. He is free."
Choice and comfort are sacred virtues in secular Europe. When the sisters arrive, Aron emphasizes that the hospice is all about choice. We are in Socialist Europe, but it could as easily be Objectivist Europe. I suppose Galt's Gulch would have such a place, where Ayn Rand's men of genius can book a room for a cold and rational death.
Langseth does try to refute Ines and offer us some meaning to life. The purpose of life is life. To live it. To form strong human bonds, feel strong emotions, comfort one another, have fulfilling careers, great sex, be true to ourselves, gain experiences, travel, laugh, cry, and have fun. It's nothing original. The protagonist in Albert Camus's The Stranger came to a similar conclusion when facing death. So have many other novel and movie protagonists.
But this is a futile "meaning" because life ends, and with it all our experiences and memories, and what then our "meaningful" lives? This point is emphasized when the sisters go for a picnic. Emilie asks Ines what she'll do when she returns to New York. Ines hesitates. How do you enthusiastically discuss next week's fun adventures to someone who, by then, will be dead? Ines relates her plans, trying to sound unexcited. Yet tears well in Emilie's eyes. The sudden realization of continuity of life without her. She'll be gone. Not in Heaven or Nirvana or reincarnated. Just no more. And people will go about their affairs as if she'd never existed.
Daren makes a futile attempt at continuity when he asks a staff member to hack his information on the internet. "Scroll down. Stop. Take out any reference to that woman. ... Now, can we make it look as if I'm hugging a refugee." He explains to a puzzled Emilie, "She can tweak things about you on the net. So that if anybody Googles you in a few years time, you'll appear to be much nicer than the person you perhaps really are."
And so it seems the purpose of life is to come up well in Google searches. Modern afterlife is the traces that remain of us on the web.
These are among Euphoria's many powerful scenes that subvert Langseth's attempt to find meaning in her materialist universe. Emilie and Ines are modern women, without husbands or children or God. We never learn how old they are, but Green was 36 when Euphoria was made, Vikander 28. A century ago, at their ages, they'd have families to comfort them in death. Instead, they're still seeking random sexual hookups.
One reason the sisters might still be unmarried is that their mother committed suicide after dad left for another woman. But while Langseth depicts the sisters' emotional scars, she doesn't connect the dad's infidelity to the sisters' sexual freedom. Yet both stem from the same materialist ethos. If it feels good, do it. Life is short. Live it to the fullest.
Emilie is tempted by a random hookup before entering the hospice. She accepts another at the hospice. Confined to a wheelchair, Brian (Mark Stanley), tells Emilie he wants to sleep with her. He can't "do it," because he's paralyzed, but they go to bed anyway. Whereupon Emilie is shocked to discover that Brian isn't dying. He plans to commit suicide because, as he explains it, "I hate this body. This fucking disability. I don't know what to do with it. It disgusts me."
Apparently, in Europe, you can obtain legally assisted suicide even if you are not terminally ill. It's your choice. You are free.
Emilie's suicide is well handled. Langseth wisely depicts it quickly, without fanfare. It's a powerful artistic choice, because the entire film builds up to this moment. We expect a profound and memorable death, with speeches and epiphanies. But why would there be? Death is death. Emilie drinks the poison, Ines by her side, and dies. Peaceful, painless, clinical, sterile. It reminds me of the euthanasia centers in Brave New World and Soylent Green.
Langseth tries to end her film on a happy note. As Ines boards the helicopter to leave the hospice, so does Brian. He's changed his mind. Presumably Emilie convinced him that life is worth living, even in a wheelchair. Emilie's modest, brief life had meaning because she saved Brian. Emilie has left a ripple in life's continuity.
It's a powerful final scene. The camera lingers on Ines's brooding face, perhaps thinking of Emilie gone for good. Unaware that the man sitting ahead of her is only there because of her sister.
Even so, Euphoria is a profoundly depressing film, leaving me unable to focus on anything for the rest of the day. Without being heavy-handed or treacly, Langseth and her cast do an amazing job conveying their characters' agony. We catch glimpses of Emilie's cancer scarred body, her breasts without nipples. It's meant to instill audience sympathy for her choice. It works. I sympathize. I don't condemn her. I lament the hopeless cultural sterility in which she lives and dies. I can understand her seeking death. I might too in her case. Her tragedy isn't that she dies. It's that she dies without hope in some greater purpose and continuity. Europeans once had that in Christianity. Now no more.
Everything about Euphoria is first rate. The dialog is sparse, insightful, and true to character. Charles Dance and Eva Green offer the strongest performances, though they have the advantage of dying. All the cast is great. The film is well edited, excising any useless exposition, aimless chitchat, or pointless scenes.
Even the production design serves the story well. We open in a cold, sterile airport. That might be how most airports look, but it also accurately reflects the modern European soul. Cold, sterile and dead. The rest of the film is set amid grandiose European buildings, the sort that were built before the Great War. Modern Europeans are dying amid the relics of their Christian past, unable to maintain their once great civilization because they've lost faith in its source.
Euphoria's trailer is ridiculously deceitful. It sells this deeply depressing work as a feel-good movie. We learn that Emilie will "leave" in six days, without being told what that means. Then we see this magical wonderland of choice and freedom. We see Daren's fireworks and dancing with the band. We don't see his emotional breakdown and agony-racked face. We see Emilie's laughter and joy, not her cancer-scarred body. Where are we? We never learn.
The IMDB description is similarly dishonest: "Sisters in conflict traveling through Europe toward a mystery destination." There is no mystery. We learn that it's a euthanasia hospice 15 minutes into the film.
I see the problem. How do you sell such a downer about cancer and suicide to audiences? Market it as "the feel-good film of the summer," I guess. Nevertheless, I highly recommend this thought-provoking masterpiece to all intellectually discerning viewers.
Thomas M. Sipos's novels include Manhattan Sharks, Vampire Nation, and Hollywood Witches. He has no Facebook or Twitter, only a website: http://www.CommunistVampires.com