Monday Movie: My Life Without Me, by David Bax
Isabel Coixet’s films never seem to garner too much buzz or ceremony, at least not in the U.S. Her Learning to Drive played festivals for more than a year before being released here this summer on four screens. I only got the chance to catch up with it a week or so ago and found it to be an artful, modest, charming and heartfelt piece of work. It put me in mind of her shamefully underrated 2003 film, My Life Without Me (and not just because Coixet sneaks a copy of Nanci Kincaid’s source novel into the frame at one point), a film that had a similarly unheralded release structure and that I only managed to see when the DVD came to the video store where I worked during college.
My Life Without Me is the story of a young woman named Ann (Sarah Polley) who lives in a trailer on the property of her mother (Deborah Harry) with her unemployed husband (Scott Speedman) and their two daughters. When Ann learns that she has cancer that will end her life in an estimated two months, she decides not to tell anyone. She blames her poor health on anemia and sets down a list of things to do before she dies, including recording years’ worth of birthday message for her daughters, finding a potential second wife for her husband and, most importantly, having an affair.
Coixet’s smartest decisions are to be unsentimental about Ann’s impending death and unapologetic about her behavior. It’s easy, and perhaps even correct, to say that Ann is being selfish in her plans for her final weeks on Earth. My Life Without Me’s asssertion is that being accused of selfishness is of no consequence to a person who knows she’s about to die at the age of 23. Here is a woman who works menial jobs to scrape by, supporting the family she has with her high school sweetheart. She has never truly lived for herself before.
Ann has that in common, in a way, with Learning to Drive’s Wendy (Patricia Clarkson), fending for herself after the sudden end of a 21-year marriage. It’s unfortunate for us as a culture that depictions of women free of judgments, stigmas and standards is so rare. Until that changes, we have the films of Isabel Coixet. At least, inasmuch as we get the chance to see them.