My Life Without Me

(Isabel Coixet, Spain/Canada, 2003)


This touching film, made by Spanish director Isabel Coixet in Canada, is based on an oft-posed question: what would you do if you knew you only had a short time to live?

Once Ann (Sarah Polley, giving her best performance) gets over the shellshock of the news from her doctor near the start of this film, she turns inward. She does not share her predicament with anyone in her family, not even her mother (Deborah Harry), her husband Don (Scott Speedman), or her two daughters, Penny (Jessica Amlee) and Patsy (Kenya Jo Kennedy).

Instead, Ann makes a list. She knows there are many things she will not have the opportunity or money to do, such as travelling. But her mind turns to the romance and sex generally missing from her (not unhappy) marriage, as well as to the messages of life advice she wants to leave her children, to be delivered on their birthdays.

This film is a delicate character study. Ann is a complex figure, not always lovable. Her interactions with the well-meaning but not entirely smooth Dr Thompson (Julian Richings) are full of silences, awkward miscommunications and tense outbursts. And the relationship with her cynical, given-up-on-life Mum does not proceed any more easily.

Coixet, adapting Nancy Kincaid's story "Pretending the Bed is a Raft", devotes herself to evoking Ann's fragile, hyper-sensitive, subjective experiences. The preciousness of small moments, the magic of chance encounters, the epiphanies and sudden surges of melancholy: we never stray far from this bedrock of intimate emotion.

I was not surprised to learn that Coixet has made her career in music video and television advertisements. Like many young filmmakers, she is in thrall to the high-key visuals and the jittery pace of films by Wong Kar-wai or Olivier Assayas. Occasionally, the fussiness of the incessant jump-cutting or the excess of attention paid to sparkling reflections of light distract from the human centre of the piece.

The style also helps Coixet avoid some of the deeper implications of the story. It is an oddly self-centred tale that never quite acknowledges the solipsism and potential harm of Ann's decision. The film avoids looking too closely at the pain that the members of her family will eventually feel. Particularly in the case of Don, Ann's (and the film's) efforts to 'fix up' this issue are a little too easily and simply resolved.

Even with the lover she finds – Mark Ruffalo doing his trademarked sensitive-guy turn as Lee – Ann is not altogether forthcoming. All the same, the film deftly records their undramatic but still momentous time together. Coixet even pulls off a normally impossible scene, in which Lee picks up his favourite, highly symbolic essay by John Berger and starts reading it to the troubled Ann.

The film sometimes gives the impression of padding out slender material with kooky sidebar characters like a hairdresser (Maria de Medeiros) obsessed with the band Milli Vanilli, or Ann's diet-obsessed co-worker (Amanda Plummer).

But My Life Without Me works best and touches our hearts most profoundly when it reaches those classic moments of contemporary solitude in which its sad but defiant heroine speaks into a tape recorder, engages in a difficult phone conversation, or at last faces her long-absent father (Alfred Molina) through the visitor's glass in prison.

© Adrian Martin July 2004

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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