Thursday, April 3, 2008

Away From Her

For a Canadian film, Sarah Polley's Away From Her (2006) is an above average effort--which simply means it didn't make me want to claw my eyes out. If I were a teacher, I'd give it a C+.

It's almost a given that Polley would improve on Alice Munro's short shorty, "The Bear Came Over the Mountain," simply because movies don't have paragraph breaks. Her most significant alteration is to shuffle the chronology so the film begins with Grant (Gordon Pinsent) going to meet Marion (Olympia Dukakis), with their conversation interrupted by flashbacks showing how Grant's wife, Fiona (Julie Christie), decided--against his will--that she should be put in a nursing home when she starts to show symptoms of alzheimers. Grant isn't allowed to visit Fiona during the first 30 days while she's settling in, and when he finally does go to see her, he's shocked to discover she no longer remembers him, having fallen in love with Marion's husband (Michael Murphy), who Fiona believes she knew as a teenager.

Polley expands on the source material in various ways, which results in the story losing some of its focus. As in the original, the other important character is a sympathetic nurse, Kristy (Kristen Thompson), whose husband abandoned her. However, the flashback structure shifts the emphasis of the story so that it's more about memory than absent spouses, making this piece of backstory somewhat gratuitous. When the camera spins around Grant and Fiona in the final sequence, it's impossible not to be reminded of another memory movie, Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958).

Writing about the film in CineAction!, Robin Wood wonders whether the subject of alzheimers disease was Polley's first choice. I'm afraid that it was. Polley's "committment to left-wing politics" creeps into the film as kneejerk anti-Americanism, first as an asside when she has Fiona glibly dismiss American cinema as "garbage." Later, while watching a TV news report on the war in Iraq (which is far more graphic than anything you'd ever see on Canadian television), Fiona says to the camera directly: "How could they forget Vietnam?" Clearly Polley thinks this is a profound insight--an amnesiac commenting on another kind of forgetting--but even if it were true (in Vietnam, the U.S. didn't topple a dictator expecting to be greeted as liberators), it has no relevance to the story because, unlike the allegorical amnesia that afflicts Guy Maddin's characters, Fiona is suffering from a specific medical condition.

As a director, Polley lacks the stylistic finesse that Olivier Assayas' brought to similarly timid material in Clean (2004), a French-British-Canadian co-production shot partly in Hamilton. But where Assayas, a former editor of Cahiers du cinéma, draws inspiration from a wide aray of filmmakers from around the world (his demonlover [2002] was compared to David Cronenberg's Videodrome [1983]), Polley appears to want to close herself off to outside influences entirely. Over the closing credits, she uses a k.d. lang cover of a Neil Young song, and one of her additions to the story which I could've done without is a nursing home patient who used to do the play-by-play for the Winnipeg Jets--that is, back when Winnipeg had a team. However, despite her contempt for American garbage (which presumably includes Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, The Darjeeling Limited, Gone Baby Gone, Hairspray, I'm Not There., and Margot at the Wedding to name only a few of my favorites from the past year), Polley only succeeds half-way in doing something different: the slightly over-exposed cinematography, which floods the nursing home with heavenly light, is a convention of recent Hollywood films, and the low ASL and minimal camera movement make it more noticeable when Polley has her characters standing still during dialogue scenes than it would be in an Intensified Continuity film like Jerry Maguire (1996).

There's nothing really wrong with Away From Her. It's consistantly engaging and the four leads are uniformly good (it seems unfair to single out Christie over Pinsent, Dukakis and Thompson). I just didn't feel very challenged by it. In a sense, it's the anti-Marie Antoinette (also 2006). One wants to like Sarah Polley, who was so good in Exotica (1994) and Go (1999), because we feel she's earned it instead of having everything handed to her. (Incidentally, when Sofia Coppola was asked whether her film was a veiled comment on the Iraq war, she replied in so many words: Don't ask me, I'm just a movie director.) And while Polley took a risk in making a film about people different than herself, even if she occasionally uses them as mouthpieces for her political views, Coppola can only empathize with Marie Antoinette (Kirsten Dunst) insofar as Coppola turns her into an American teenager. So why is it I can't wait to see Marie Antoinette a seventh time, but probably wouldn't give Away From Her a second go around? I don't want to write an essay on the two films, so let's put it this way: Sometimes the prom queen is smarter and more interesting than the drama kids who define themselves in opposition to what's popular.

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