My Life Without Me
directed by Isabel Coixet
(Sony, 2003)

Twenty-three-year-old Ann (Sarah Polley) has much to live for and very little time in which to live for it -- two months, to be exact -- after being diagnosed with tumors in both her ovaries .

But rather than spend her last weeks on earth railing about the unfairness of it all, she spends it making plans for her two young daughters (Jessica Amlee and Kenya Jo Kennedy), her loving husband (Scott Speedman), her needy mother (Deborah "Blondie" Harry) and even the lonesome stranger she meets in a laundromat and decides to have an affair with (Mark Ruffalo) -- just to see what it's like to make love to someone besides her husband. (She never has.)

And so begins My Life Without Me, a very close-up and introspective look at the last two months in the life of a very wise young woman who charts a very untried course for herself.

In some ways it's like reading the journal of a stranger whose life -- there's that word again -- nevertheless speaks to you in unexpected ways. The film is narrated from beginning to end, not so much with descriptions of events, but of feelings and observations.

Even before the first image appears, we hear Ann's voice describing what it feels like to stand in the rain, letting it soak its way through all your clothes to your skin, and what it feels like to stand in the wet grass as the ground beneath you grows soft.

Other images are strictly nonverbal -- recurring shots of wine glasses being used to make music, for example, or her doctor (Julian Richings) unpacking the box of homemade audio cassettes she's decided to have handed out after she dies. In many ways, My Life Without Me is a very haunting film. It's almost two films: a wistfully sad tale recounting Ann's last musings and a joyous celebration of all that's fun in life by the people around her -- none of whom know, except her doctor, about her terminal illness.

That gives writer-director Isabel Coixet freedom to explore both worlds in ways that never fail to turn up unexpected treasures: from her running debate over Milli Vanilli with the quirky hairdresser she's chosen to give her a new look (Maria de Medeiros) to her argument with her mother over whether or not anyone is normal. (Her mother thinks Barry Manilow is.) And that, in some ways, makes My Life Without Me more a collection of short stories than a celluloid novel -- an approach that would be risky if the stories weren't so good.

But ultimately, My Life Without Me is Ann's story, and nowhere is that clearer than in the vignette in which she records birthday messages for her daughters -- one for each birthday each has until age 18. It's a daunting task, but so is My Life Without Me.

Coixet's film was a winner at the 2003 Berlin International Film Festival and an official selection at both the Toronto and Telluride film festivals, and it's no wonder. It's beautifully shot, carefully edited for effect, erudite in the simplest ways and moving without being melodramatic. And if you think Polley was good in Go and The Sweet Hereafter, wait 'til you see her here. Her gift for understatement seems to grow with each role she tackles.

Few films ever give death -- or life -- the dignity each deserves. My Life Without Me gives both of them that -- and much, much more. It's a keeper.

- Rambles
written by Miles O'Dometer
published 10 July 2004

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