My Life Without Me (2003)

[20 November 2003]

By Cynthia Fuchs

PopMatters Film and TV Editor

Point of Entry

Ann (Sarah Polley) is 23 years old. She lives in a trailer in British Columbia with her husband Don (Scott Speedman) and their two young daughters, and works nights as a university janitor. She gossips with fragile best friend Laurie (Amanda Plummer) and argues with her angry mom (Deborah Harry), who tells the girls stories based on Joan Crawford movie plots (particularly Mildred Pierce, about the greedy and ungrateful daughter). Though Ann’s life is difficult, she remains serene and admirably generous, at once pale and steely.

Her delicate balance suffers a jolt in the first few minutes of Isabel Coixet’s My Life Without Me, when she faints and, following an endless afternoon’s worth of tests at the hospital, learns that she has terminal ovarian cancer. Here again, Ann shows remarkable resolve, comforting the anguished doctor (Julian Richings) who must tell her the bad news. With only months to live, she makes a decision that runs counter to most decisions made by movie characters in this position: she decides not to tell anyone, to prepare herself for death by prearranging details of her family’s life following her death.

Such focus makes Ann seem odd. Usually, when a girl is dying in a movie, viewers are invited to empathize with the courageous victim-to-be, mourn her imminent passing, and sympathize with her distraught relatives (think: Terms of Endearment or worse, Love Story). In Coixet’s version, inspired by a short story by Nanci Kincaid and executive produced by Pedro Almodóvar, the manipulation is less sentimental. Her uninformed relatives and friends are not upset and Ann’s decision not to tell seems simultaneously selfless and selfish. She is losing herself in a process of discovering herself.

And then she makes a list of things to do before she dies. And then she spends the rest of the film ticking off items: she makes cassette tapes for her two daughters’ birthdays, does laundry, visits her incarcerated father (Alfred Molina) and takes a lover, Lee (Mark Ruffalo). Ann’s simultaneous self-understanding and lack of self-pity might be off-putting. But this difficulty is, in effect, the film’s more interesting concern. By making Ann’s apparent self-interest so morally gnarly and at the same time, making her seem increasingly distant even as you learn more about her, My Life Without Me thematizes the perennial problem of identifying with characters. She’s your protagonist, but she’s hard to understand. She’s your point of entry, but she’s reluctant to let you in.

The most direct route to this theme is Ann’s voiceover, deliberate, sensual, and in the second person. She begins the film standing alone in the night, her pale face turned up to the rain that soaks her, as her voiceover details the experience: “This is you. You never thought you’d be doing something like this. You kind of like it being like this, fighting the cold and feeling the water seep into your shirt.” At this point, you’re unaware of the devastating news to come, but already, you’re imagining what it’s like to be the “you” of her monologue.

It’s a device, certainly, at times more convincing than others. But Polley’s subtle, smart performance supports it in ways you might not anticipate. Even more striking are the rare ruptures in this narrative surface, as when Ann confronts a hospital nurse who is less than helpful on that first day. Worried that her children don’t know where she is, Ann asks, “Do you know what it’s like to be waiting at school?” In fact, the nurse does know, and for scant seconds, the film transports you into her memory of being left at school as a child. It’s a tiny moment, but it’s what the film is about—being in touch enough with your own life so that you can understand someone else’s.

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