[23 February 2004]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
1”>I spent a month or two sort of walking around Toronto like a zombie, trying to imagine what it would be like to be this person, and you know, I was really becoming incredibly depressed. Just when I was about to have a breakdown, I realized that all that was unnecessary to play this part. Because actually what’s amazing about this character is that she never dwells on it. She never sits around feeling sorry for herself. She’s incredibly efficient and practical about it, and that’s what’s moving about it.
—Sarah Polley on Ann, “The Making of My Life Without Me”
She’s never obvious, she never takes the easy way. And she knows the easy way. I think she is too perfect sometimes. I’m a little scared.
—Isabel Coixet on Sarah Polley, “The Making of My Life Without Me”
“Thinking, you’re not used to thinking,” says Ann (Sarah Polley). This after she’s been jolted into thinking, to feeling more intensely than she ever has before, with the sudden diagnosis of her terminal ovarian cancer, during the first few minutes of Isabel Coixet’s My Life Without Me. Ann is 23 years old. She lives in a trailer in British Columbia with her husband Don (Scott Speedman) and their two young daughters Penny and Patsy, 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; Ann says, “I didn’t ask you to fill their heads with stupid stories of mothers making dumb-ass sacrifices”). Though Ann’s life is difficult, she remains serene and admirably generous, at once pale and steely.
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 (or even real people) 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.
Her capacity for intense focus, as Polley observes in the terrific “making of” featurette on Columbia’s DVD, makes Ann seem unusual, “incredibly efficient and practical.” 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 she chooses to celebrate the latter, for as long as she can.
She begins by making 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, she decides to “make someone fall in love with me,” visits her incarcerated father (Alfred Molina). She does take 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 complicates and so thematizes the desire to identify 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.
Or, as Coixet notes in the featurette, “Life will go on.” Sitting in a dimly lit diner booth, the filmmaker speaks as if she’s Ann, “There’s something from me here, it’s not just my daughters. The gifts I’m giving and the gifts I’m receiving from people. Again, the love for this lonely guy.” And then she steps back from Ann: “I think she’s not a saint, she’s not Joan of Arc or anything. But she’s very, very… she’s my hero.” The documentary is its own surprise, ingeniously recutting scenes from the film into footage on the set and interviews as the filmmakers discuss their process. Producer Esther Garcia notes, “Isabel’s shooting style, which imparts a certain distance from things, was very good precisely because of the emotion of the script. As it allows you to be somewhat apart and at the same time, transmit something.”
The documentary engages a similar problem, with each actor describing the role and his or her experience on the set. Plummer’s interview is especially telling (and wonderful): she speaks to the camera stranding among trees at night, declaring her admiration for Coixet and Polley: “I love looking into her eyes when I work with her.” This is just what the film is about, in its way, an exploration of identification as a process (can you also find Ann a “hero”?). It initiates the exploration with 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: The film opens with her putting herself in your position, or maybe vice versa. Ann stands outside in the rain, letting it wash over her. “This is you, eyes closed, out in the rain?” she have-asserts, half-asks in voiceover.
You never thought you’d be doing something like this. You never saw yourself as… I don’t know how you’d describe it. It’s like one of those people who like looking up at the moon or who spend hours gazing at the waves or the sunset, or I guess you know what kind of people I’m talking about. Maybe you don’t. Anyway, you kind of like it being like this, fighting the cold and feeling the water seep through your shirt and getting through to your skin, and the feel of the ground growing soft beneath your feet, and the smell and the sound of the rain hitting the leaves. All the things they talk about in books you haven’t read. This is you. Who would have guessed it? You.
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 and elaborates 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.