Grief Will Tear Us Apart: On In Jouw Naam

In Jouw Naam (In Your Name) is a quietly devastating Dutch drama about a young couple struggling to cope with the death of their infant daughter.

When Els (Lotte Verbeek) becomes pregnant, she and her husband Ton (Barry Atsma) are overjoyed. Ton plants a tree for their new daughter. Their life is complete now that they have a child. However, only a few months after the little girl is born, she dies. The film represents this transition from life to death in one of the most heartbreaking ways I’ve ever witnessed: The sound of a lullaby gives way to the screech of an ambulance siren. Els and Ton’s perfect life shatters in an instant. At the hospital, they are told that their daughter died due to a congenital defect of some kind. The remainder of the film explores how Els and Ton navigate grief in drastically different ways.

In Jouw Naam centralizes the silence and loneliness of grief. Rarely do Els and Ton grieve together. Instead, they mourn separately, reminding us that, often, grief happens inside our heads, when we are alone with ourselves and must face the immense emptiness left by the death of a loved one. The isolation of grief is captured in scenes of shock and rupture. One day, Ton is outside when he hears children playing nearby. He is so overcome by pain that he steps inside his shed to escape the sounds. At the funeral, Ton leaves the attending guests and stands in the rain, his head leaning back to stare at the sky, a pose of despair and exhaustion.

Els stays at home while Ton works. One morning, after Ton leaves, she summons the courage to enter the nursery again. She opens the dresser drawer and gently touches the baby clothes, her tears falling like rain on the garments. She throws them into a black trash bag and puts them in the garbage can outside. She even watches as the workers load the bags into the garbage truck. The rapidity with which Els discards their daughter’s belongings infuriates Ton. He says that she is moving too fast, but she doesn’t seem to hear him.

This is the point at which Els and Ton begin to split apart. Their conflicting approaches to grief ensure that they cannot support one another; they can only follow their own divergent paths, wandering farther and farther away from each other as they attempt to process their pain and find a way forward. Recently, I watched the documentary Becoming Mike Nichols. In it, Nichols says that “a movie is a metaphor,” it’s not life but “is something about life.”  It makes me think about how Els and Ton are a metaphor for grief. They are the embodiment of how we confront loss in very different and individual ways.

Els focuses on going forward. She convinces Ton that they should move out of their apartment where they lived with their daughter during her short life and move to a new housing development. He relents. As Els and Ton socialize with a young couple in their new neighborhood, the couple asks them if they are thinking of having children. Ton starts to say something, most likely he wants to mention that they did have a child at one time, but Els cuts him off and says that they are interested in having children. Ton is surprised when Els quickly becomes pregnant again. He has barely absorbed the loss of their daughter and now another child is on the way. At the first meeting with her new doctor, Els lies and says it is her first child. Ton confronts her about why she wants to deny what happened.

If Els is in denial or moving too quickly, Ton is the complete opposite. He feels tremendous grief that overwhelms him and he is in a relationship where he cannot acknowledge that grief. It’s true that Els asks him if he wants to talk to a therapist, and this could certainly have been beneficial for Ton, but it seems that what Ton really longs for is to share his loss with his wife. His pride and the pressure placed on men to be strong and not show emotion could also explain why he does not seek out counseling. Instead, he suppresses his feelings until they explode, as they do at the end of the film, in a moment of shocking violence. Ton is so mired in grief that, when he visits his elderly father, who suffers from dementia, he pretends as though his daughter is still alive and tells stories about her. He finds the urn that holds the ashes of the child and eats them, almost as a way to make a connection with her again, to absorb her into his body and his being.

I characterized In Jouw Naam as a “quietly devastating” film because it’s filled with silence. It depends almost entirely on the performance of the actors to convey the interior psychology of the characters. Grief is turned into a series of gestures, mannerisms, and physical expressions: Els touching the baby clothes, Ton standing in the rain, Els and Ton sitting on a bench at the hospital, the water of a Dutch canal streaming by in the background, Ton trying to rip up the tree he planted for their daughter, Els furiously cleaning the apartment as a way to release her anger, Els catching Ton in the nursery section of a furniture store. Quiet moments that communicate the magnitude of grief, that hint at what cannot be spoken or comprehended. The death of a child often fractures married couples; they rarely recover from the loss, they rarely stay together. Els and Ton show why that is. They show how two people can love each other and still not understand each other. They show how grief fundamentally alters some people to the point where they can never be who they were again, they cannot connect to those they once loved. 

If the film shows us anything, though, it is that we need to expand our social ideas of how people cope with loss. Some, like Els, can move on immediately and be resilient. Others, like Ton, grapple and struggle and don’t know how to live in the wake of such devastation. We can accept both reactions and all the reactions that fall somewhere in the middle of these two extremes. We can be more compassionate, more sympathetic, more open to diverse ways of dealing with death. It’s sad that, when we lose a loved one, we often lose so much more than just that one person. We lose our dreams, our identity, our family, our friends because they don’t know how to talk to us or what to even say. In Jouw Naam is a raw, honest depiction of how grief manifests in myriad forms and how we are missing something if we can’t find a way to integrate those forms into our understanding of what it means to be human and to confront loss.

For  limited time, you can watch In Jouw Naam for free at Festival Scope.