Monday, 18 April 2011

Me Life Without Me

Directed by Isabel Coixet
Canada/Spain, 2003

Young woman in her early 20s discovers she's dying of cancer. She uses the little time she has left trying to do the things she always wanted and setting things up for those around her. Yes..., if you read the synopsis of this film, it sounds unbearably maudlin and weepy. And yet it is such a good film!

Ann (Sarah Polley) is a hard-working 23-year-old mother with two small daughters, a husband who spends most of the time unemployed (Scott Speedman), a mother who hates the world (Blondie's Debbie Harry in a remarkably unglamorous role) and a jailed father (Alfred Molina) whom she has not seen in ten years. She lives with her small family in a trailer on the backyard of her mother's house, in the outskirts of Vancouver and works nights as a cleaner at the local university, a place that reminds her of the life that’s passed her by. Ann knows that by falling pregnant at the age of 17 and getting married with the only men she ever kissed, her first and only love Don, she missed out on a lot of what life has to offer, but it's not all that bad after all. Her life's tough, opportunities very limited, but still she has managed to build a warm, loving family. She is certainly not an unhappy person.

Then, one day, during a medical checkup following a collapse, she is diagnosed with advanced-stage ovarian cancer and told she has only about two months to live. The cancer has already spread and become inoperable. This prognosis seems so cruelly unjust that even the doctor can hardly utter it. The scene when Ann is delivered the news is really devastating. In a way it also feels ironic, since she has never really lived her life anyway. Ann takes it quite stoically. Using the cover of anaemia, she decides to keep her condition a secret, and refuses to tell anybody, not even her loved ones, about her impending death. Instead she makes a "Things to Do Before I Die" list. These range from the mundane (getting her hair and nails done, smoking and drinking), to really significant ones (making someone fall in love with her). Little by little she completes all of them, visiting her estranged father in prison, improving relationship with her mother, having an affair with another man. Her decision to "sleep with another man, just to see what it's like", leads her to an encounter with Lee (Mark Ruffalo), which evolves in something much deeper than she probably expected starting it. Most importantly she's prearranging details of her family's life following her death, of “her life without her”. That includes finding a new women for her husband that her daughters will like and recording series of birthday tapes for her two daughters for every year up until they 18, preparing them for a life without her.

“My Life Without Me” was the first English-language project from Pedro Almodóvar's El Deseo company and the directing debut of Isabel Coixet. The plot was inspired by a short story by Nanci Kincaid titled "Pretending the Bed Is a Raft" but Coixet made a few changes, most notably she let the main character keep her terminal illness a secret from her family and friends. While Coixet's decision allowed her to avoid overdosing on sentimentality, for many viewers Ann's refusal to share the news with those that most deserved to know was very troubling. They couldn't believe anyone would be so cruel as to deny her loved ones the chance to say goodbye. But she simply does not want to see people around her with long faces, and obsessed with her approaching death. Through a series of beautiful and poignantly honest recordings to her family, Ann explains her choices and asks for forgiveness. Preparation of these recordings are the film's best scenes - well-acted, well-scripted, deeply touching, often emotionally devastating. In one of those scenes, Ann sits alone in a car trying to speak clearly into her tape recorder. "Now you're five," she says, before kissing the microphone. A few tapes later she says to her other daughter: "If you get a new mum, try and love her, OK?"

It is a smart and charming film, although sometimes I've found the plot too contrived. The moment when this attractive young girl, also named Ann, moves in next door and shares the story about conjoined twins, the movie loses a bit of its credibility it had maintained up to that point. Also Coixet's use of extreme close-ups is sometimes nagging. What Coixet has done splendidly was the choice of actors. A cast of indie-flick darlings is extremely well-assembled, and adds some quirkiness to the film (“Pulp Fiction” Maria de Medeiros, appears as a braid-wearing hair stylist obsessed with Milli Vanilli). The greatest of them is of course Sarah Polley, her subtle, understated performance is particularly impressive and makes this movie work. She's so ordinary in her extraordinary condition. In “My Life Without Me” she doesn't play a survivor, she's really tender, vulnerable. But there is no lapse into melodrama, and blessedly few tears. Instead of this there is plenty of sweet moments and quite a lot of ironic humour. The rest is told with silence, the prospect of incredible pain and suffering is there, but we actually never get to see it. It's a different take on the portrayal of terminal illness.

“My Life Without Me” is low-key, thoughtful, very touching and very sad but also quite a buoyant film. It has a first-rate cast and surprisingly lot of humour and joy in it. In essence it's a kind of fairy tale. Strange to write it about a film with such a serious subject but that is how it feels.... Beautiful, sad fairy tale about the efforts to live the life to the fullest and leave some legacy behind.

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