My Life Without Me,
106 mins, rated M, opening in cinemas Sydney and Melbourne on 15 July
2004, other cities to.
In the April 2004 Law Society Journal, I reviewed The Barbarian
Invasions, a French Canadian film in which the hero is dying of cancer
(“Babyboomers’ approach to death”, p99). Here’s another film
along similar lines, but this time it’s the heroine, and this time
she’s no babyboomer. Ann is young: 23 years old, and the mother
of 2 little girls. At the beginning of the film she finds out she
has terminal ovarian cancer, with only 3 months to live.
Based on a short story from the collection Pretending the Bed Is a Raft
by Nanci Kincaid, this film has a terrific cast. Young Canadian actress
Sarah Polley (The Sweet Hereafter, Egoyan, 1997 and Go, Liman, 1999) is
a favourite of mine. She’s an actor of the utmost subtlety and
sensitivity. She plays Ann, who’s doomed to die. Then
there’s Mark Ruffalo (You Can Count on Me, Lonergan, 2000 and The
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Gondry, 2004), another talented
and sensitive actor, who has himself recently survived cancer.
There’s also rock and jazz singer Deborah Harry, who plays Ann’s
disappointed and lonely mother. Amanda Plummer (Pulp Fiction,
Tarantino, 1994 and The Fisher King, Gilliam, 1991) plays Ann’s friend
from their work as night cleaners at a university. Maria de Medeiros
(Pulp Fiction, and Henry and June, Kaufman, 1990) makes a fairly brief
appearance as a hairdresser, and Alfred Molina (Frida, Taymor,
2002 and Magnolia, Anderson, 1999) has one scene as Ann’s father.
That’s a lot of top-notch actors.
There are some significant departures from the original story. In
the book, Ann tells everyone that she is dying. But Spanish
writer-director Isabel Coixet wondered, "What would happen if this
person didn't tell anyone that she’s going to die, what if she
discovered that the greatest gift … was not to burden them with the
weight of her future death?" Coixet also changed names,
eliminated one child (a son), added some new characters and moved the
action from sultry New Orleans to foggy, damp, cold Vancouver.
These are radical changes. All but the first work well.
Instead of giving her family the chance to say goodbye, or to help her
through illness to death – as Remy’s family and friends do in The
Barbarian Invasions, even to the extent of euthanasia – Ann chooses to
lie, even to her little daughters. She refuses to let her doctor
treat her. This is treated by the film makers as a noble
decision: she is sparing them pain and keeping her dignity. But I
thought it callous and selfish.
Ann has a curious way of preparing for death. She draws up a list
of 10 things to do before dying. Some are sensible, some are
trivial, some are self-indulgent, and some are just plain cruel.
For example, despite her happy marriage to a handsome, if immature, man
(Scott Speedman), she resolves to make someone else fall in love with
her. Mark Ruffalo plays that unfortunate man. As a love
story, it feels contrived. Would a happily married woman with an
adoring husband who is a wonderful father really risk tarnishing their
relationship for mere sensation? And when she has only 3 months
to live? This plot development devalues the otherwise marvellous
portrait the film paints of a happy working-class family doing well
under trying circumstances (they live in a trailer in Ann’s mother’s
The script has some other irritating aspects. One character tells
a moving story about Siamese twins. At the end she mentions that
one was male and one was female. This is impossible, as
Siamese twins are genetically identical. And it may be due
to language difficulties, but writer-director Coixet refers to The Mule
Serenade, rather than The Donkey Serenade. This is picky, I know,
but I found these errors distracting.
Two of the stars of Pulp Fiction appear in My Life Without Me, and
there is a certain amount of Tarantinoesque dialogue in the film.
For example, Maria de Medeiros’ hairdresser goes on and on about the
now-obscure 80s pop duo “Milli Vanilli”. This is too cute, and at
odds with the balance of the film’s tone.
So, despite the fine performances, the film, for me, was
self-indulgent, manipulative and strangely unmoving. Only in the
final few “life goes on” scenes did I feel any emotion. Even this
great cast could not convince me that My Life Without Me could be true.