Saturday, May 11, 2013

stories we tell

I looked at nothing concerning Stories We Tell before seeing it and am grateful, so you might want to wait until after you've seen it before reading this.  A film dependent upon a series of emotional reveals and surprises, Sarah Polley's wondrous piece defies the documentary genre and re-creates--in a dazzling, almost eerily obsessive way--a fractured portrait of her mother's mysterious life.  Once more well-known as a film actress, Polley is quickly emerging as a great filmmaker, showing talent and sensitivity in directing two strong, well-acted films (Away from Her and Take This Waltz) which show wisdom beyond her years by not delving into easy sentimentality or expected routes.  The new doc highlights the thematic elements of infidelity and relationships in Polley's previous work, but also expands upon them in a more unbridled, experimental format.

If examining Polley's parentage sounds slight, it's not, thanks to the quirky and resonant interviews she conducts with family members and friends of her mother (often in fourth-wall breaking ways... as Rory Kennedy did with her clan in Ethel) and the breathtaking use of Super-8 (the line between what's created or not is blurred; the photography is by Iris Ng) and the plaintive music (Timber Timbre's "Demon Host" and the piano nocturnes of Abraham Lass).  Oft-shown in memorable attire (that purple coat) with a late 70s, bell-shaped Lee Grant hairdo, it helps too that the ghost of the picture is portrayed as such an enigmatic, dramatic character; there are contradictions in the way people feel about her and all have, in some way, have been hurt by her loss and the memory of her.  Polley explores the myth and tenuousness of certainty with herself and her subjects.  In eloquent baritone (fussied over in a studio recording that we get glimpses of, with "take that line back again" moments, directed with steely resolve by Polley--is this too a performance?), her father Michael (portrayed as a quippy, showy actor but also a sensitive, reserved man) delivers much of the voice-over, based upon his writings. 

Polley has said of her work, “I don’t know how it has changed me, but I know it has. It is by far the hardest thing I have ever done and the most rewarding in terms of the result.”  Not sure what Polley thinks but making this film seems to be both an attempt in taking control of her mother and the past but also an attempt to clarify the mysteries of her very existence. ****

-Jeffery Berg

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