End-of-life movie review - Death: A Love Story

Posted by Karen M. Wyatt on March 9, 2012 at 7:00 AM

Death: A Love Story is a documentary film by Michelle Le Brun that was co-produced with her deceased husband, filmmaker Mel Howard. For this movie Michelle and Mel turned the camera on themselves as they traced the story of Mel’s battle with liver cancer, diagnosed just 2 years into their married life together. This is a beautiful movie that I highly recommend to everyone as a stunning and heartbreaking portrayal of the end-of-life journey.

The movie begins with scenes of their lives before the cancer diagnosis as the audience gets a glimpse of a couple madly in love, despite their 23-year age difference. The two seem perfect together as they take a road trip from Vancouver to LA on their honeymoon and share humor and light-hearted adventure.

But by their second Thanksgiving in LA, Mel has received a diagnosis of liver cancer and the tone of the movie takes a sudden turn toward seriousness, just as their lives are turned upside-down by this development.

With great courage and honesty, Michelle and Mel allow us to see the confusion and soul-searching agony of dealing with a terminal illness. We follow them to medical visits with overly optimistic doctors, we fret through the temporary cancellation of Mel’s insurance due to delayed recording of a premium payment, we listen in on a conversation with a Swiss physician who, unlike the US doctors, openly discusses the option of foregoing treatment in order to experience greater quality for fewer days of life.

We experience all the ups and downs of this process of coming to terms with impending death as we travel to Joshua Tree with the couple for a soul-searching respite before chemotherapy and endure the agonizing wait for a donor liver to be available for transplant. We share in Mel’s progression from recognizing that he needs to transform his life to his ultimate healing of deep wounds of anger and bitterness as he becomes visibly calmer, softer and more content.

We see the couple struggling to find a balance between being prepared for death and optimistic about life. There are moments of laughter, touching visits with family and friends, and always the deep love between Mel and Michelle that forms the foundation of the entire movie.

When Mel initially feels better for a short time after the transplant, there is tangible hope that against all odds a miracle has occurred and we desperately want to believe it. But this turns out to be a short-lived hiatus in the relentless course of this disease. Within a few weeks Mel is readmitted to the hospital with fever and a rash, which a callous specialist eventually diagnoses as a graph-host reaction as he bluntly states that Mel “doesn’t have a chance.”

We struggle to grasp this reality along with Michelle as she observes, “the liver that was supposed to save him is now killing him.” The irony is unbearable and undeniable. Now the camera is turned off because the reality of Mel’s suffering is just too painful to see. But Michelle uses the imagery of flames to graphically convey the blistering and burning away that is taking place both inside and outside for Mel.

The microphone captures Mel’s voice as he urgently conveys the wisdom that is emerging through the flames of his suffering. He sees a bright light, pleasant faces and angels dressed in unusual costumes. Mel points out that he now understands the difference between curing, which is being free of disease, and healing, which involves “opening the closed spaces of my heart to Thanksgiving … love … real honesty.”

At the same time Michelle, who has been frustrated with Mel’s doctors, begins to surrender her attempts to control the situation. She succumbs to the flames and burns along with Mel, her “heart bursting with pain and love.” Just before Mel dies there is a glow in his face and palpable energy and peace in the room.

In my previous movie reviews I have expressed disappointment that the portrayals of death scenes were too superficial and unrealistic. This movie has no sugar-coating and pulls no punches as it draws us into the flames along with Mel and Michelle. We must face the reality of death just as they must, but in so doing we find the redemption and deep love that is possible only through honest suffering.

On many levels this movie is disturbing as it reveals the flaws in our medical system, challenges our assumptions about end-of-life decisions, and exposes our own fears of suffering and ultimately dying. But it is also life-changing in its message of the invincibility of love, the enduring hope of the soul and the ever-present possibility of transformation through the flames of suffering.

Michelle Le Brun has crafted a film that serves as a memorial and a tribute to the life and death of her husband Mel Howard. I highly recommend this movie for all audiences and particularly for healthcare providers, hospice staffs, and all who deal with end-of-life issues.

In addition Michelle is using this movie and the knowledge she gained from her experiences to help others. She and Dr. Mitchell Levy will be screening the film and doing a presentation entitled “Dignity in Death” at Salve Regina University, Newport RI, on April 3, 2012 at 6:00 pm.

Death: A Love Story can be purchased for educational purposes at

Categories: Death & Dying, Suffering, Movie Review

Copyright ©2010 Karen Wyatt, MD

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