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Film Review: Stories We Tell

Stories We Tell (2012; Directed by Sarah Polley)

A film about family connections and the ways that they are defined and forged and stretched and reordered, Sarah Polley’s engrossing self-origins documentary also meditates on how our images and impressions of others, even of those we love the most, are unreliable, in flux, and prone to misleading constructions in our own heads and in the heads of others. It also introduces a self-examining, destabilizing meta element to Polley’s established themes as a filmmaker of family intimacy being challenged by the vagaries of human will and pitiless tragedy.

The ostensible focus of Stories We Tell is Polley’s own family history, in particular that part of it that relates to her own conception, a full story which she has only recently learned. Raised with the impression that, like her older siblings, she had been born of her parents, Michael and Diane Polley, she learns through personal investigations into the past of her sometimes-actress mother that her biological father was actually Harry Gulkin, a film producer from Montreal who met Diane there while she was appearing in a play.

Different members of the Polley family have different perspectives and slightly-twisted versions of the same events, not to mention varying reactions to the revelation. Michael Polley, in particular, emerges as a complex character, as well as the focal point for the meta elements previous mentioned. He and the more freewheeling Diane met while both were actors, and he suspects that she fell for the more rakish and free-spirited character he was playing in that specific production than for the reserved and private man he is off the stage.

Though he had a creative, bohemian temperament in his youth and some talent at writing (which his daughter’s story re-energizes), Michael gave up the artistic realm and took a secure insurance job out of a sense of duty to support his wife and young, growing family, which the more personally liberated Diane seems to have taken amiss. Although her acting sojourn in Montreal rekindled her relationship with Michael, Diane also had affairs, not only with Gulkin (with whom her relationship was more long-lasting, if private) but with other members of the play’s cast as well (one of which is revealed in a tantalizing stinger which suggests that one never truly knows the whole of the story).

Michael, it turns out, was not hurt by this and even suspected her of being dissatisfied with him (personally, sexually, or otherwise) and encouraged her to pursue other relations if that made her happy. His own reaction to his daughter’s life-altering paternity news is that it didn’t really change anything between them, and their relationship remains essentially the same.

These intimate family details are unveiled with a sure narrative hand by Polley, who made the acclaimed dramas Away From Her and Take This Waltz. Although her mother died of cancer in 1990 and therefore cannot speak for herself, Michael Polley does have a lot to say, and acts as defacto narrator. In a fourth-wall-breaking move, he is filmed while recording his voiceover for the film, which he himself has written, while Sarah listens from the control room, directing, cajoling, and adjusting his “performance”.

It’s the core image in a film riven by the concept of life as performance, and performance intruding into life; it proceeds directly and obviously from her parents falling in love with stage versions of each other. It also speaks to Sarah Polley’s directorial control of the story, which various appearing figures note and sometimes chafe at (Gulkin, in particular, feels like the story of himself and Diane belongs to him alone). She hides behind the camera, letting others tell even her side of the story as much as possible, only occasionally speaking from behind it, saying what she herself thinks about it. She uses actors, costumes, and lens filters to re-create faux-archival footage of the older participants in their youth as well, including one thespian playing her dead mother.

It’s a bit odd, sure, but also undeniably apt for the type of story it is, and for the point Sarah Polley is making about storytelling. When we tell stories of our own lives, we are structuring and narrativizing them and therefore making them something other than the reality that we lived, a reality that now exists only in memory. Sarah Polley claims to be most interested in the way that memory fools us and can’t be counted on to be accurate when recalled, but that’s not really the way this particular story works, or how she choose to tell that story in this documentary.

Stories We Tell is about how we construct our memories as stories, stories in which we are the protagonist and are most deserving of our share of sympathy or recrimination, depending on our self-image or temperament or level of guilt about what happened. The other people in these stories are characters who are, if anything, more prone to fall victim to fictionalization and adjustment than we ourselves. By laying bare the trappings of her own storytelling and being sure to expose those of the people she’s telling the story about, this young Canadian filmmaker of great (fulfilled) promise demonstrates elegantly and eloquently that our lives are stories, and that we cannot always control them, even if we feel we should be able to.

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Categories: Film, Reviews
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  1. October 24, 2014 at 8:00 pm
  2. January 24, 2015 at 12:23 pm

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