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A Spanish-Canadian co-production from Pedro and Agustin Almodovar’s El Deseo team and helmed by Isabel Coixet, My Life Without Me came from strong indie stock. Made in 2003 it proved a success on festival and mainstream screens and confirmed the credentials of all involved. When the DVD came out last year, Sarah Polley was the zombie out-runner of the day(Dawn of the Dead), but My Life Without Me had already proved to the many just what talents both star and director had developed through the indie scene. With their next collaboration, The Secret Life of Words, currently in post-production, we revisit their first film together.

My Life Without Me
Film
The films open with a white, almost candescent screen and Polly’s voiceover: “This is you”, she says to herself, the image then dissolving to her standing still in the pouring rain, feeling her senses and sensibilities. In effect, her character, Ann, is saying ‘this is me’ to the viewer and so the dominant narration in the film is established. We hear Ann’s inner voice, we are privy to her thoughts and it’s almost always through her that we see her life, what happens to her and how she continues to feel and think. As a filmic device this may sound clunky, clichéd, but it soon becomes subtly integral to My Life as Ann’s voice regularly returns to us.

A twenty three year old mother of two young daughters, Penny and Patsy, Ann works as a cleaner at a university at night and as a housewife and mother during the day. Her home is a cramped and chilly unit in a non-descript trailer park where she lives with the kids and husband Don (Scott Speedman). Several trailers down lives Ann’s mother (Deborah Harry), morosely cynical and bitter about her defunct marriage to Ann’s father, who’s now in prison.

Ann’s life is routine, hard work and uninspiring—ever since having kids with her first and only boyfriend it’s a living loop of getting by and doing right by her family, not really allowing herself to ask what’s really important to her. Then one day she crunches over the sink with sudden, excruciating pain until she passes out. Scans in the hospital reveal a cancerous tumour in both ovaries that has reached her stomach and is spreading to her liver. There is nothing they can do and Ann has only months left to live.

Almost immediately Ann resolves to keep the diagnosis to herself, telling everyone else that it’s just anaemia. With time now running out, Ann surprises herself by actually questioning what she has and wants—it's at these times her narration returns. Ann draws up a ‘things to do before I die’ list, eloquently personalised as her handwriting scrolls across the screen—this includes visiting her dad in jail, doing something different with her hair, getting false nails, and making a tape recordings for Penny and Patsy for each of their birthdays until they’re eighteen. More intriguing are her decisions that will affect her relationships before and after her death and, avoiding spoilers, these more constructively power the film.

My Life Without Me
Sarah Polley’s performance throughout is superlative. Effectively ordinary, she convinces throughout. The moment when Ann learns of her terminal illness, Polley’s face registers the news, the reaction, denial, determination and fear in moments. It’s a superb piece of acting as her face gently fractures to only recover composure, save for a single tear. This simplicity, filmic yes, but still unfussy and honest surmises well Polley’s performance and the film’s tone. There are no histrionics here and Polley manages to keep emotionally wrought scenes, such as when recording messages to her daughters (and so merging inner and outer narration), pretty much on the level.

The rest of the committed cast are equally strong. Deborah Harry’s jaded and joyless mother is a revelation. Ruffalo’s mumbling literate lover has earnestness and frailty (one of his better characters, with more tangible history than, say, his one dimensional cop in Collateral). Scott Speedman, in particular, acquits himself in fine form, fully fleshing out his straight and simple hubby Don, a part that could easily have been eclipsed by Polley’s. Amanda Plummer’s lonely, diet-obsessed cleaning friend Laurie is a glorious foil of comedy and pathos. Only the kooky, and not much else, hairdresser played by Maria De Medeiros (Fabienne in Pulp Fiction) seems more superficially drawn.

Of course, these performances wouldn’t be possible without a script of talent and assurance. Coixet adapted her screenplay from Nanci Kincaid’s story, Pretending the Bed is a Raft and steadfastly avoids mainstream cliché and misplaced sincerity—as in much real life, the people here communicate at times obliquely, with feelings spoken about or hinted at, evident beneath the skin, but too close to be said out straight. As Ann keeps her secret, we notice how the people in her life just seem to talk about themselves—or rather moan about their lives fatuously. With dark, subtle humour it reinforces the tragedy of Ann’s position, (both before and after her diagnosis). This is enchantingly affected when Ann imagines her fellow customers spontaneously dancing along the aisles of the local supermarket. It is this, and not some languishing death scene, that informs the film’s conclusion—with the hopeful knowledge for Ann that she did actually make a difference. And anything that can make bittersweet symbolism out of Milli Vanilli has a confidence that won’t be ignored!

My Life Without Me
Video
There is a subtle but evident grainy, unrefined quality to the film that has carried over in this 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer. The picture is never completely sharp and one hundred percent defined throughout the screen. The colours, fairly uniform and deliberately ordinary throughout, are always maintained, just never completely sharp-edged.

This is one of those few examples of when such a texture works in the film’s favour. It perfectly suits the everyday ordinariness of stilted living, the humdrum and grind of her family’s living. Things are not perfect for people. In this sense, the style is as affected as in any other film, but here, combined with the subdued tonal palette, the result truly adds to the ambience of the whole rather than drawing attention away from it.

Audio
The disc has a basic stereo track that’s serviceable enough if nothing more. Perhaps this lack of flair is in keeping with the film’s script and look, but this does require a leap of faith to give the audio that much credit. There was some re-recording later in the production, which unfortunately seemed a little obvious at times. It’s not too distracting and is quickly forgotten while watching at the time.

The original music was composed by Alfonso De Vilallonga and is as leftfield and moving as the film itself. A simple selection of strings, acoustic guitar and piano that regularly punctuates scenes, it echoes and helps convey the inevitability of Ann’s situation and the little self-realisations and understandings she achieves in her last few weeks. A small, eclectic soundtrack is equally at home, featuring one of the most poignant uses of God Only Knows by the Beach Boys in film (outside of, perhaps, Brian Wilson himself singing it for 40 years after penning it). There are English subtitles for the film only.

My Life Without Me
Extras
A short selection of extra’s pad out the disc and provide some insights into how Isabel Coixet put the film together. This begins with the ‘Behind the Scenes’ featurette, which has interviews with Coixet, her producer and the cast, interspersed with both clips from the film and the work on set.

Coixet also has a fair say in the Cast & Crew biographiess, the most elucidating feature. Along with more edited interviews with most of the cast again, Coixet provides quite varied insights into how she worked on the film, from adapting the source material to operating the camera. ‘Filmographies’ are also included.

Finally, there’s a short recording of a ‘Q&A’ session that Coixet held on London when the film was released. This, too, is diverting if a little brief and adds to, rather than re-hashes, the other two featurettes.

A rather basic music video is less purposeful, cut with clips from the film again. On a purely personal and subjective note, I liked the soundtracks and in this instance just wanted them kept within the film, having been so subtly effective. More repeat viewings, of course, may change this.

Spanish and English trailers are included, as well as a number of less memorable trailers for Spellbound, Valentin, Amandla, Last Party 2000 and Northfork.

My Life Without Me
Overall
My Life Without Me has some genuinely tear-tipping moments that challenge most hardened hearts, all achieved with minimal saccharine. It’s a weepy drama, but a deft indie weepy that avoids the potholes of more mainstream, straight-for-those-heartstrings-again films, and ultimately delivers a more moving and enjoyable experience. Its treatment of terminal cancer and the socio-financial context of the protagonists have a maturity and respect that’s immediately evident and appealing. Rather than a maudlin conscience-salve for everyone, Coixet’s is a more individual tale. While obviously not entirely realistic, it maintains its own reality throughout. Some may not agree with Ann’s decision, or with her inherently selfish treatment of say Ruffalo’s character, but this makes the piece more human, more accessible. In any event

Like Ann, the disc isn’t perfect, but the extras do widen things out. Sometimes insights into the artistic and production background of a smaller, less orthodox film are more engaging than reams of special effects deconstructions and vacuous celeb praise. In this the disc and My Life again delivers an alternative that’s worth revisiting from time to time. Moreover, it’s an excellent score on both Polley and Coixet’s ripening CVs, which bodes well for their future projects.


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