Sunday, November 25, 2012

My Life Without Me

MY LIFE WITHOUT ME       B+                 
Spain  Canada  (106 mi)  2003  d:  Isabel Coixet    Official website [United States]

You see things clearly now. You see all these borrowed lives, borrowed voices, Milli Vanilli everywhere. You look at all the things you can’t buy – now you don’t even want to buy – all the things that will still be here after you’re gone, when you’re dead. And then you realize that all the things in the bright window displays: all the models and catalogues, all the colors, all the special offers, all the Martha Stewart recipes, all the piles of greasy food, it’s just all there to try to keep us away from death, and it doesn’t work.                
—Ann (Sarah Polley)

This is a fragile, but intricately powerful and poetic film about dying, but one which insists upon losing the morbidity and self-pity, believing that doesn’t serve anyone’s best interests.  Relying upon a beautifully unsentimentalized performance from Sarah Polley, completely unglamorized, wearing little to no make up, this is a bittersweet and highly personalized journey of the last two months in a woman’s life.  Very similar to Gus van Sant’s Restless (van Sant) (2011), this is another film about terminal illness which has seriously divided audiences, where some actually have contempt for the film, calling the protagonist immature and utterly selfish for *not* telling her family or loved ones that she’s dying (a change made by the director from the original story), where their loathing for her personal choice about the way she wants to die undermines their appreciation for the film, where certainly part of this knee-jerk reaction is undoubtedly the fixed ideas that exist in our heads about approaching death, where many are as rigid and solemn as long-held religious views.  Instead, much like suicide, the argument goes, the inevitable finale leaves the family in a state of turmoil, unable to say goodbye or share their final thoughts before death.  If you want that film, where everyone does the responsible thing, watch Debra Winger in TERMS OF ENDEARMENT (1983), perhaps the ultimate weeper, a film nearly guaranteed to make you cry.  Not taking anything away from that movie, this is simply not that film.  Adapted by the director from Florida-born author Nanci Kincaid's short story Pretending the Bed is a Raft, where the prevailing theme might best be expressed by a mother as she writes to her daughter, “Women always know more about the facts of life because most of the facts happen to women.”  Though the overriding theme is death, what’s equally significant is coming to terms with one’s mortality, where the singlemost driving force of the film is refusing to live a single last breath without love.           

In a story that appears to have been written for Sarah Polley (who lost her own mother to cancer at age 11), she literally inhabits the role of Ann, a young twentysomething mother of two young girls (Jessica Amlee and Kenya Jo Kennedy) with a perpetually unemployed but extremely likeable high school sweetheart husband Don, Scott Speedman, who actually went to high school together in real life with Sarah Polley, ironically working the night shift as a janitor mopping the floors and cleaning the hallways of a university that symbolizes kids with a brighter future, with an unnamed and disgraced father in prison, while living in a cramped trailer in her harried mother’s (Deborah Harry) backyard just outside Vancouver.  Clouded in an everpresent palette of layers upon layers of grey, with a hovering mist of rain throughout, this is an unusual film filled with melancholy and sadness, but also small moments that are so perfectly etched into our imaginations with a kind of effortless naturalism, where Polley is onscreen for nearly every shot, filled with beauty and grace, where the storyline becomes synonymous with her interior frame of mind.  In this film, selflessness defines the woman, as she is literally viewed as collateral damage, the price paid for someone elses victory.  With little time to actually sleep, Ann is the kind of working woman we take for granted in our society because of the immense role they play in our lives, as they sacrifice all to take care of others, having little time for themselves, exhibiting a kind of maternal force that’s been providing for us since the dawn of time, all with a kind of noble silence, never asking for or taking credit.  It is this overriding and relentless sense of dedication to others that can become an unbearable weight, always having to do for others, continuing to do what’s expected.  When Ann realizes she has so little time left, her immediate response is to spare her family the unwelcome sight of death, where visits to the hospital with the inevitable ghastly horrors would be their final shared memories.  True to her nature, she prefers another way.    

While the film is set in poverty, where living in a trailer is a fact of life for this family, it is barely noticeable in this film and not referred to again, as there is no pulling on the heartstrings due to her lowly position, it's just a part of who Ann is.  When she writes out a list of 10 things to do before you die, in keeping with her character, her choices are surprisingly modest.  Filmed in subdued colors, there are moments of surprising simplicity and power, occasionally dipping into surreal thoughts, like a quick daydream, where all the shoppers in a supermarket suddenly break out into dance My Life Without Me (scene) - YouTube (1:05), a sequence completely improvised on the set, or Ann’s heartfelt decision to record birthday messages for both daughters for every year up until age 18.  Film critic Roger Ebert Chicago Sun-Times [Roger Ebert] found this choice particularly nauseating, claiming if he was one of those kids “I would burn the goddamn tapes” in anger at his mother’s “stupidity.”  This is a common view held by someone who never had children. Speaking as someone who actually raised two children that lost their mother at an early age, they would have killed for those tapes, or anything else that could help remind them of their mother, as they felt so guilty in forgetting her memory, like not remembering the sound of her voice.  In one of the best scenes of the film, she visits her imprisoned father (the uncredited Alfred Molina), where a children’s choir hauntingly sings “God Only Knows” The Langley School Project : God only knows (3:05) to the empty corridors, where his thoughts reverberate, “Some of us just can't live the kind of life that other people want us to live. No matter how hard you try, you just can't do it.”  Ann also meets and has an affair with a fellow alienated soul, Mark Ruffalo as Lee, a guy living in an empty apartment with no furniture, only piles of books, where he may as well be living in limbo. Their first and last kisses, with supremely inventive music used in between, couldn’t be more memorable, or any less romantic than Eastwood standing in the rain during THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY (1995).  Isabel Coixet is from Barcelona, adding a female sense of elegance that might otherwise have been lost, using a brilliant ensemble cast and one of the most perfectly chosen musical soundtracks that simply elevates this material into unforeseen heights.  Often using slo mo and fast motion changes of speed to reflect internalized thoughts, Polley’s intoxicating opening inner narration couldn’t be more poetically perfect "This is you..." First scene from " My life Without Me " - YouTube (1:31). 

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