August 2013

Arts & Letters

‘Stories We Tell’, ‘Frances Ha’ and ‘Upstream Colour’

By Luke Davies

Stories We Tell’s Sarah Polley

New films from Sarah Polley, Noah Baumbach and Shane Carruth

“We’ve told you it’s a documentary,” says Sarah Polley to her father, Michael, “but actually it’s an interrogation process we’ve set up.” He has come to a recording studio at his daughter’s behest to read aloud his memories of his relationship with Sarah’s mother, Diane, his long-dead wife, and is somewhat bemused by the presence of the camera. In the mostly good-natured interrogation process, Polley will corral various brothers, sisters and family friends into talking about Diane, who died quite suddenly of cancer almost 25 years ago, at the age of 54, when Polley was 11.

Stories We Tell (in national release 26 September) is a documentary (though some scenes, shot in grainy home-movie style, are re-enactments) about the way families construct their myths and retell the tales that become, over time, the fabric of their self-image. Each chaotic family is chaotic in its own way, and the Polleys no less so; the story that unfolds is odd and compelling, but the film’s real vibrancy lies in the way it resonates outwards. The “we” of the title becomes, for each of us, our own family, our own stories.

Michael and Diane were actors. They never quite blossomed in film or TV work, but thrived in the Toronto theatre world. Polley’s career, on the other hand, took off from the age of four; at eight she played the little girl in Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, and at 17 came to notice for her spellbinding performance in Atom Egoyan’s dark, dreamy and disturbing The Sweet Hereafter. But for a couple of exceptions, such as the ill-chosen Splice, she then turned her back on Hollywood. Instead, she gained notoriety as a political activist, acted in small but interesting films, and directed three features, including Away From Her, a subtle drama based on the wrenching Alice Munro story ‘The Bear Came Over the Mountain’ and starring Julie Christie as an Alzheimer’s patient.

Now, with Stories We Tell, Polley turns to her own life. Diane was in her 40s when she had Sarah. There was discussion of what to do about the pregnancy. “It’s amazing … how close we were to your never existing,” Michael tells her. Michael was the quiet one, Diane larger than life, the centre of every party. She’d been married and had children before – the older half-siblings are a gentle, wry presence in the film – and was happy, after a hiatus from acting, to be cast in a play in Montreal. It was around this time she became pregnant with Sarah. As Sarah was growing up, the playful family joke was about which Montreal stage actor her father might be.

Polley doesn’t attempt to investigate her own relationship with her mother; that strand is entirely absent from the documentary. What interests her is more how the grown-ups saw Diane. (“She was so far outside of herself,” says Michael, “that sometimes there was no inside.”) “In every family,” Polley has said, “people have their own specific versions of pivotal events or even small memories. They are 100% certain that their recollections are the truth because whatever the truth is, as they recall it, has formed them and is part of their history.”

Stories We Tell is no Rashomon: there’s no radical divergence between points of view. There’s resistance, and wariness, from some of the interviewees, but the sympathetic convergence of recollections about Diane adds depth to the fascinating, if elusive, portrait of her that Polley builds. It’s “not that there are different truths”, says one character. There are only “different reactions to particular events”.

The documentary takes a surprising turn in following the trail of these events. The family joke may turn out not to be such a joke after all. There are rumours. There will be DNA tests. Through all this, Polley keeps herself, quite coolly and deliberately, at the observational fringes of the film. It’s Michael, eloquent and ageing, who becomes its warm, generous centre. Stories We Tell is moving, and contains a certain reserved majesty – or at least builds to it, through unexpected revelations.

Indie poster boy Noah Baumbach (who has directed films such as The Squid and the Whale and Margot at the Wedding, and written, for Wes Anderson, The Fantastic Mr Fox and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou) teams up with indie darling Greta Gerwig (who since 2006 has starred in a whole lot of small films you have never seen) in a (yes) indie charmer, the freewheeling, pleasantly likeable Frances Ha (in national release 15 August).

Gerwig plays would-be dancer and choreographer Frances (the clever joke of the title is revealed at the film’s end), a young woman trying to find the usual suspects (love, professional stability, creative satisfaction) in the same New York, psychically and emotionally speaking, as that inhabited by Lena Dunham’s Hannah Horvath and the girls of HBO’s Girls. Frances is in one of those intense, long-standing friendships – “We’re like a lesbian couple that doesn’t have sex any more” – with Sophie (Mickey Sumner), who works in publishing at Random House and is thus (marginally) more grounded than Frances. Like many of the other characters in the film, the two friends talk matter-of-factly about their sex lives, which seem both casual and uncompelling. They imagine their futures: they’ll have “lovers and no children” and be awarded “honorary degrees”. They chafe at the ties that bind them.

In one sense the film is about the inevitable parting of the ways and the subsequent “What might happen next?” that people experience as the carefree 20s give way to the foreboding 30s. In a circular way, despite the young women’s interest in the boys around town, it’s also about how girlfriends are girlfriends, and Gerwig and Sumner capture the love, the excitement, the suffocating closeness and the prickliness that come with this territory.

Frances Ha is unashamedly corny at times, and there are scattered moments when the dialogue is a little arch, but the film gives off an unpretentious glow. Baumbach’s touch is deft. Gerwig never pushes her acting – it’s not mumblecore, but nor is it ever overbaked. She doesn’t have the sharp features of the contemporary Hollywood female lead: there’s something about her that harks back to the ’40s. Not much seems to happen, but the film slowly reveals Frances’ wider life, and at a certain point you suspend your scepticism and her guilelessness becomes beguiling. 

“I like things that … look like mistakes,” says Frances, to a compliment about the dance she eventually choreographs. The piece, of which we see a few moments, is casual and breezy, like the film itself.

In the production notes for Upstream Colour, directed by Shane Carruth (in national release 22 August), we’re told it is “an entirely original, mythic, romantic thriller”, which is good to know, as the film itself gives little away. We’re further told that Upstream Colour, which looks beautiful, “goes in search of truths that lie just beyond our reach”. If only anything resembling an actual coherent story here were not also perpetually just beyond our reach.

What follows are observations I’ll call “best guesses”. We open with a series of strange, seemingly disconnected happenings. A young woman is kidnapped and seems to be the subject of experiments. Her captor says things like, “I was born with a disfigurement, where my head is made of the same material as the sun.” Things become surreal. Shadowy forces are at work in the world. Perhaps they are Monsanto-like corporations. In any case there are definitely goodies and baddies in the mix. There’s a Lynchian weirdness to the disjointed plotline, and the strands somehow, subtly, tangentially, blend into each other. Or perhaps they don’t.

There’s a heightened aesthetic at work here, and serious talent. (Carruth came to attention in 2004 with the audacious, complex Primer, a talk-filled time-travel film he shot for $7000.) But a film can’t be all ambient lens-flare and saturated light, and in the absence of a concrete narrative reality, Upstream Colour free-falls into arthouse kitsch. As indie films go, it’s very hip, but it creates unease without context and its evasion of clarity is either laziness or a bad choice. Like Slava Tsukerman’s trippy, now inadvertently comical Liquid Sky 30 years ago, and Darren Aronofsky’s affected, convoluted Pi 15 years later, one feels Upstream Colour will not age tremendously well.

Luke Davies

Luke Davies is a novelist, screenplay writer and poet. He is the author of Candy, God of Speed, Totem (the winner of the Age Book of the Year in 2004) and Interferon Psalms (winner of the Prime Minister’s Literary Award in 2012). 

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