Dreams of a Life
Zawe Ashton, Alix Luka-Cain, Alistair Abrahams, Martin Lister, Catherine Clarke, Kim Bacon and Daniel Roberts, Kirk Thorne, John Ioannou, Lynne Featherstone
US theatrical: 3 Aug 2012 (Limited release)
UK theatrical: 16 Dec 2011 (General release)
I wanted to situate my quest in it, but not in a way that I’d be there with a fluffy microphone saying, “Hi, here I am!” I don’t like to be in things, I think it’s too imposing, I don’t do voiceover or commentary. It allows more gaps for the audience to work their way in.
“It was a story that everyone wanted, but no one could get.” The story, introduced by a London journalist at the start of Dreams of a Life, is about Joyce Vincent. She was discovered in January 2006 in her Wood Green bedsit, some three years after she died. The story that “everyone wanted” was how she died, so alone that no one would have noticed her loss, not a landlord, not a friend or a sister. Her skeleton lay surrounded by Christmas gifts she had been wrapping, on a couch in front of a television that was still on when she was found.
It’s a grim story, but, as Carol Morley’s film proceeds, it’s less about Joyce Vincent than it is about the “everyone” who might want it, to report it, to know it, to understand it. When Morley first came on it, she writes, “The image of the television flickering over her decomposing body haunted me as I got off the train on to the crowded platform.” And so she began to investigate, placing ads in the paper and on the sides of cabs, looking for someone who knew Vincent, someone who might help explain what happened. Her queries solicited responses, and the film is largely comprised of talking heads, people remembering bits of their interactions with Vincent.
These interview subjects include a couple of boyfriends, some ex-flatmates and coworkers, unnamed here until a final credits list. (The list does not include Vincent’s sisters, though a nephew remembers brushing her hair when he was a child.) Their memories are brief, occasionally heartfelt, sometimes situated, having to do with her great beauty and her elusiveness, her background (“She looked like she had good education from the way she spoke”), and her class (“I always put her in the same class as the rest of us, which is what? Middle class”). A couple of speakers note her blackness, in relation to her social efforts (“A lot of people who came to the house did think she was stuck up, that she didn’t want to be black”) or her white and black boyfriends (“I don’t think she was into the race thing, I don’t think she was into black or white, I think she just wanted to get places”).
Less a documentary than a meditation on what documentaries can and cannot do, an investigation of a life that becomes an investigation of process, Dreams of a Life lets some memories slide and contradicts others, either by other memories or by the movie’s reenactments. These range from figures in white hazmat suits sorting through the dust and detritus in Vincent’s rooms to scenes showing Vincent, as an adult (played by Zawe Ashton) or a child (Alix Luka-Cain), at school, in an office, in her apartment.
Martin Lister, an ex-boyfriend, provides photos and stories (he punched out a friend who came on to her, he let her stay at his flat when she was in need of a place to stay). He insists that he thinks of her “constantly, constantly.” Here the scene cuts from his interview to a reenacted moment, Vincent in a hospital, gaging on a gurney, an off-screen tech’s voice urging her to breathe. “She was the love of my life,” he says tearfully. And yet he can’t remember, quite, what answer she gave when he asked if she was being “bashed around,” or maybe whether he asked her.
Other memories seem more fixed, but also less concrete. “She definitely wanted something more out of life,” says Catherine Clarke, “whether it was to be somebody or to have somebody.” Alistair Abrahams, an ex-boyfriend, remembers her differently, “like a chameleon in many ways.” A music producer, he says, “She just seemed to adapt her whole life to mine, she had no great ambitions, no great drive, no great plans.” Here the movie tracks Ashton walking in an alley, her collar pulled up and brick walls close behind her, until she leaves the frame. A cut back to Abrahams shows him gazing off-screen for a moment, then looking directly into the lens: “She wasn’t a person with a past and she certainly wasn’t a person with a future.”
That much seems obvious, in hindsight. More than one interview subject, tracked down by Morley, was surprised that the dead person in the headline was “our Joyce.” Cut again, this time to Ashton in a dingy, slate-colored flat, wearing a blue rubber dress a friend had remarked earlier, once dazzling and now, perhaps, despairing. She mouths lyrics into a hairbrush, as you’ve seen the reenacted child version of Vincent do before: where once she was encouraged by her mother and sisters, now she’s alone, the camera circling as she lip-syncs to Carolyn Crawford’s “My Smile Is Just A Frown (Turned Upside Down),” a song that comes up more than once here. The effect is much as you’d expect, haunting and a little weird. And then, when she sits on her couch, the film imagining her last moments, the hazmat workers reappear in a long, wide shot, brushing off dust, bagging photos and the blue dress, now faded and mottled.
The cut between these reimagined versions of the dress underlines the reimagining that suffuses the film. Most obviously, the process parallels how we might know anyone, fragments of experience slipping into memory, assembled into an idea of someone. Relationships can only ever be comprised of such fragments, and so the movie develops one with Vincent, not only in friends’ recollections but also in the recollected investigation: maps of the city, newspaper headlines (“Telly still on”), and colorful post-its on a wall. At times the camera zooms close to these notes, to reveal a vague bit of timeline (“92/93 splits up with Alistair”) or a guess about a change. The film includes as well shots of cabs emblazoned with Morley’s inquiry (“Did you know Joyce Vincent? Born 1965”), including one bearing Ashton as Joyce into a melancholy night.
Such excursions don’t so much tell the story (the one that “everyone wants”) as they set up the problem of story, per se. If story provides structure, an order of events and possible causes for them (Joyce’s mother died when she was young, Joyce may have been abused, and she was registered with a domestic violence refuge, a point underscored by bruises on the reenacted Joyce’s arms), it doesn’t provide information or answers as much as it sets up for guesses, possibilities, and expectations. In this, Dreams of a Life does what all films do (and some films make it clearer than others), insisting on your part in the interpretation, on your investment in the storytelling and in the ordering of events.
“We just accepted that we never heard from her again,” observes a coworker late in the movie. “I don’t know, there’s a part of me that feels a little bit uncomfortable about that.” Dreams of a Life invites you to feel that discomfort. It also asks you to let go of your investment, to embrace the juxtapositions and incongruities, some smoothed over with dissolves and pop songs, some explicitly disturbing. It’s in this letting go, when you might imagine the artifice of order and the poetry and possibility of everyday life, so disordered and so random, that you might see as well the preciousness of connections, of curiosity, of time. You might see this is a story that is less about Joyce Vincent than about everyone who could be her.