Spoiler Alert – This post contains specific details about the film, including the ending.
It’s the classic love story: Boy meets Girl. Boy and Girl fall in love. Boy asks Girl to be at his side while a doctor enables his suicide? This is the premise of the romantic drama Me Before You, a film based on Jojo Moyes 2012 novel. If the 1970’s taught us that “love means never having to say you’re sorry,” (a statement with its own problems), in the 2000’s love is, evidently, actively supporting and assisting in the suicide of one’s beloved. This understanding of love asserts that not all lives – or “qualities” of life – are equal, or good, or worthwhile. This kind of love says it’s noble and brave to end a life that is challenging (and, admittedly, sometimes overwhelmingly painful). This love embraces a kind of “generosity” that relieves of any burden or obligation anyone who freely chooses to be present to the one who is challenged, suffering, and in pain. Of all of the distortions of love that have manifested since the Fall into Sin, this latest (that physician-assisted suicide is not only a right, but a truly human act) is particularly insidious because it’s entering our consciousness through art, entertainment and media. More than 400 years ago Shakespeare deliberately termed Romeo and Juliet (whose titular characters unwittingly fall into suicide), a tragedy. Me Before You portrays a love presumably so powerful that it embraces death as its highest means of expression. The tragedy here lies in a deeply flawed understanding of love and the unconditional good of the human person.
Will Traynor is young, handsome and filthy rich. Though he comes from money (he literally grew up in a castle in the English countryside) he’s doing fine on his own. A successful businessman, Will lives in a luxurious flat with his beautiful girlfriend. He’s charming and athletic, with a magnetic personality. Will has it all. Until…he doesn’t. No more than five minutes into the film we watch in horror as Will is struck by a motorbike on his way to close a deal. In an instant, his life has ended; or so it seems.
Enter Louisa Clark – Lou – the quirky, cute girl with a heart of gold. Lou is kind and warm, and all the more endearing for her funky thrift-store-chic fashion sense. When she’s let go from her job at a local bakeshop it’s a blow to her working-class family, with whom she still lives. Lou’s dad is unemployed and diligently seeking work. Everyone must pitch in to keep the family (Lou’s parents, her grandad, and her sister and young son) afloat. They are hard-working, salt-of-the-earth, and demonstrative in their affection for each other.
Lou answers an ad to care for a man living not far from her home. She’s not qualified for the position, yet the man’s mother – who is doing the hiring – sees in Lou precisely what her quadriplegic son needs. It’s a short-term position (6 months) but the money is good, and her “office” is a castle. She doesn’t have to provide medical care (Nathan, the friendly and capable nurse provides for those needs and other activities of daily living). She’s there to be a companion and cheerful presence. Lou has never taken care of anyone sick or infirm; but caring for the heart comes naturally to her.
Lou greets Will Traynor for the first time with her signature sweetness and affability. Will, on the other hand, is sarcastic and brusque. With every day she spends at the castle, Lou becomes more convinced that the once vibrant – yet still handsome and witty – Will may well be “trapped” in his wheelchair, but he moves about with ease in resentment and bitterness. Will can’t walk or even turn his head, and the horrific accident apparently robbed him of the ability to smile. Just ten days in Lou is ready to quit, but not before she lets Will have it with as good as he’s given her. Her willingness to challenge him – to treat him as a person rather than a victim or object of pity – breaks the ice, and Will begins to feel like a person again. As they begin to appreciate each other as more than “wheelchair-bound,” or (as Will calls Lou) “chatty,” Will and Lou develop a friendship that is beautiful to watch. The hours they spend talking, watching movies, and just being with each other nourishes an intimacy that allows for the possibility of being moved by another. And not just moved, but changed. Will’s icy exterior slowly melts, exposing a heart that’s been closed to the outside world for too long. The audience member is also moved as Will realizes Lou wants nothing from him. Money, magnetism and physical prowess neither impress nor attract her. It is Will, precisely as he is, with whom Lou enjoys spending time. Lou’s presence isn’t magic, and it remains difficult for him to rely on her (and others) for his needs. Yet the scene in which Will attends Lou’s birthday dinner is among the most touching in the film. As the conversation buzzes around the table, Lou quite matter-of-factly feeds Will. The scene doesn’t play as “compassionate caregiver helping poor young man who used to have potential.” Nor is it the focus of the scene. Rather it’s the most honest and true moment between them. As hard as it is for him to be “dependent,” in the rare moments in which he lacks any self-consciousness Will simply receives her assistance without complaint over needing it. When he allows himself to abandon cold analysis and self-pity, Will’s dependence on Lou is as natural as taking a breath. When he lets go of himself Will receives not the assistance of a caregiver, but Lou herself. For her part, Lou embraces her role as neither a burden nor an extraordinary sacrifice. She simply does for Will what he can’t do for himself, much as a mother helps her child, spouse supports spouse, or friend helps friend. In moments like this one, where Will lets himself be cared for, he teaches Lou what it means to care. More than caring (in a strictly emotional sense), Lou acknowledges Will as a person, rather than the burden he believes he’s become. Precisely because of Will, Lou experiences love as she never has before: to be with and be for another. Lou knows Will; and in brief flashes of vulnerability, Will lets himself be known.
In another scene Lou arranges to take Will to a piano concert. She’s never been herself, she’s willing to go if it means getting Will out of his room and back into the world. Handsome in his tuxedo, Will is overwhelmed at the sight of Lou in her red evening dress. As they listen to the music, Lou is moved by its beauty – and Will is moved by Lou’s experience of being moved. He can’t turn his head toward her, but his sidelong looks assure him that Lou has entered a new and beautiful world – and in this time they inhabit it together. Arriving back at the castle, Lou begins to exit the van. Will stops her. “I just want to be a man who’s been to a concert with a girl in a red dress. Just a few minutes more.” Lou closes the door and they sit quietly, drinking in the night and each other’s presence.
As their relationship blossoms, and each lets down his/her guard, the possibility for the patient/companion paradigm to open into love grows. Will’s brusqueness is softened and more often replaced with playful teasing. He offers Lou new experiences (including films with subtitles!), and challenges her to consider her own hopes and dreams, too. Lou loses none of the innocent charm that is so endearing, but becomes more confident and self-assured. In this context of receptivity, this openness to the other (however fragile it may be in Will) lies the seed of love. There is great potential here for authentic love to flourish between them. Unfortunately, Moyes (both in her novel and screenplay) has planted this seed in bad soil, and the root begins to rot before it has a chance to produce fruit. Will’s death is imminent – but it’s not necessary.
Having promised his parents 6 months to “reconsider,” as the deadline approaches Will vows to travel to Switzerland to commit suicide – with the help of a physician and the activist group Dignitas. (Dignitas is at the forefront of the phenomenon of “suicide tourism.” Yes, that’s a real thing.) When Lou overhears Will’s parents talking about his plan – and his mother’s desperate desire to convince him otherwise – she does her best to offer Will as many joyful and fun experiences as possible in an effort to show him that life is worth living. Will is determined to end a life he finds unbearable – despite describing the six months spent with Lou as his happiest. Unable to stop or support him, Lou says goodbye and seeks comfort in her family. Will is constantly in her thoughts, and she winds up at his side in the Dignitas clinic to share a last kiss. She is with him in his final moments – but the audience is not. Our “goodbye” comes as Lou sits outside a Paris café reading a final letter from Will (who has financed the trip and provided enough money for her to start a new life on her own). Lou smiles as she reads Will’s final testament, and his admonishment that she “live boldly.”
How sad I felt as I listened to these words. Will and Lou were already beginning to live boldly – to love boldly. In an unexpected twist, the very thing Will believed had destroyed him (the accident that caused him to the lose the life he once lived and made him forever dependent on others) actually made him more fully – and boldly – human. Lou understood this transformation in Will, and she was different too. Sadly, the author herself misses this point entirely. I’m not suggesting we “put a halo” on Will, or any person with a disability, simply by virtue of their circumstances. Living with a disability, (or chronic illness, depression, infertility, or any number and degree of difficulties) is a legitimate challenge – and sometimes a burden we find hard to bear. But acknowledging challenges, suffering and pain doesn’t justify putting a halo on suicide either. Life is hard, often unfair, sometimes overwhelmingly burdensome. Even so, life is good! Not because it is perfect, or we’re perfect – but because each one of us is a gift, simply because we exist. It is reductive of an individual person to assert that he/she is simply too pitiful to live. It is unfair to the one who loves a person with a disability to suggest it isn’t “real love”, but only pity. Will needed Lou, but she needed him too. Will wasn’t Lou’s “good deed.” He was a man who generously, if tentatively, allowed a woman into his heart. This is the “human condition.” This is living boldly enough to give of oneself, and to be received.
Many Christians and advocates for persons with disabilities have called for a boycott of Me Before You. Others have spoken out and written eloquently in defense of the intrinsic worth and goodness of persons with disabilities. While I can’t recommend the film as an example of Christian values or the proper understanding of personhood, I wouldn’t go as far as a boycott. Instead, I think it’s a necessary conversation for people of faith to have together. I went alone to a matinee, but my experience of the film was not in isolation. I talked about it at length with my friend Laura, who is a recent law school grad, pro-life advocate for persons with disabilities, and a woman who is blind. Laura –one of the smartest, funniest and fiercely independent women I know – said people have actually asked her how she gets up in the morning (because she’s blind), or said they’d kill themselves if they were her. If someone could think an accomplished woman like Laura isn’t “fully alive,” why would they look any differently at Will? Yet Laura isn’t more worthy of life because she’s so accomplished. Her being – like each one of us – is a gift. This is one of the things Will taught Lou, but he refused to learn himself.
Maybe I’m naïve, or just a sucker for romance, but I was moved by Will and Lou. I became invested in them. Unlike the other (mostly women) around me who sniffled and sobbed in the dark, I wasn’t so much sad as reflective. I thought about Will and Lou the rest of the day, and wondered how many people on that day decided the world would be better off without them. I can’t save everyone, or convince those, like Will, who are determined to commit suicide to reconsider. And I certainly can’t step into a movie and rewrite its script. And neither can you. But we can “boldly” acknowledge and defend human dignity in our families, parishes and communities. We can be people of encounter – like Lou – even when it’s uncomfortable or scary. We can choose to love when it is messy and hard and really hurts. We can be with and for each other – right where we are.
Ann Koshute teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online Theology Program.