“Love is not proud.”
“Love always protects.”
“Love always perseveres.”
(Author’s note: In order to discuss Sarah Polley’s films fully, I have inevitably revealed some of her carefully crafted narrative surprises. Please don’t let that deter you from searching out her films.)
Near the end of his life, my father had a heart attack that left his brain deprived of adequate blood flow for crucial minutes. He survived to live another three years, but he never recovered his intellectual prowess. A professor, theologian, and writer of prodigious analytical acumen, he was left in his final days unable to do third-grade arithmetic problems. He was embarrassed when I had to help him balance his checkbook. Such experiences with loved ones are sadly common as we age, and certainly anyone who has cared for someone in decline will be a receptive audience for debut writer/director Sarah Polley’s brilliant Away from Her, a heartbreaking rumination on the power and obligations of love in the face of losing someone who hasn’t gone away. When I saw Away from Her during its original release in 2007, I thought of the picture largely in its context as a film about Alzheimer’s disease. Now that Polley has written and directed two more features, I see her first film in the broader perspective of her reflections on marital love and the temptations of infidelity.
I had been aware of Polley before Away from Her. She had already established herself as a talented and stubbornly independent performer unusually committed to quality work, regardless of a film’s financing or commercial potential. Today I regard her as a master artist. And yet, outside her native Canada where she is justifiably regarded a national treasure, she is little known except among ardent film buffs. Born into a show business family in 1979, her performance career began early. She was cast in Disney’s One Magic Christmas at age four and in Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen at age eight. At eleven, she starred in the Canadian television series Road to Avonlea, which led her national entertainment press to dub her “Canada’s Sweetheart.” In 1991, her hit series was picked up by the Disney Channel in the United States, and she began to attract attention in the lower forty-eight as well. That attention increased with her role as a teenager in Atom Egoyan’s adaptation of the Russell Banks novel, The Sweet Hereafter in 1997 and in 1999 for her performance in the indie hit Go.
If Polley harbored more conventional aspirations, we might all know about her as a movie star. In 2000, she was offered the role of Penny Lane that launched Kate Hudson’s career in Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous, but turned it down for a part in the low-budget Canadian film The Law of Enclosures. Remaining in Canada, she won the Genie (Canada’s Oscar) for her lead role in My Life Without Me, Isabel Coixet’s story of a young mother, dying of cancer, who is in love with her husband and another man she has met late in her short life. This theme of divided romantic loyalties is one Polley would return to when she began to make her own films.
Polley is blond, slim, lithe, and striking, not conventionally beautiful, like Kate Hudson, but very pretty and commanding on the screen. We can easily enough imagine for her the career trajectory that Hudson has followed, a series of romantic comedies with handsome male co-stars, many nights of blinking through camera flashes on the world’s red carpets, entertainment magazine cover shoots, and a comfortable life. But Polley wasn’t interested. Instead, after turning away from Almost Famous, she attended the Canadian Film Centre’s directing program, took acting roles like that of a deaf factory worker in Coixet’s The Secret Life of Words, a film that was barely released, or small parts, like that of Nabby Adams on the HBO television series about the second American president that starred and won both Golden Globes and Emmys for Paul Giamatti, Laura Linney, and Tom Wilkinson.
Then in 2007, at the age of only twenty-eight, Polley wrote and directed her first feature, the shattering Away from Her. The picture captured a Golden Globe for star Julie Christie and Oscar nominations for Christie as lead actress and Polley for adapted screenplay. But it grossed only fifteen million dollars in the United States. Not surprisingly, the film was much more warmly received in Canada where the movie won Genie Awards for best picture, best direction, best screenplay, best actress, best actor (Gordon Pinsent), and best supporting actress (Kristen Thomson).
Again, a filmmaker of a different sort might have tried to build on this impressive debut writing/directing performance by seeking out a big Hollywood project, which Polley almost certainly could have commanded. But as usual, marching to the beat of her own drum, she instead wrote and directed the independent romantic drama Take This Waltz, which grossed less than two million dollars in the United States. In commercial terms she was going backward. But she made no correction and instead brought out as her third feature, Stories We Tell, a documentary about her family. Or at least this film presents itself as a documentary, even though it contains many surprises, reversals, and other narrative techniques that we more commonly associate with fiction. In fact, one of the film’s central points is that even stories we regard as “true” are so influenced by the vagaries of memory and point of view that they are inevitably in some significant part fiction.
The Mother in the Frame
A conventional strategy in an essay of this kind would be to discuss Polley’s films in the order in which they were released. But the filmmaker reveals so much of herself and her background in Stories We Tell, I find it more enlightening to look at her work in reverse and to start with the most recent film, released at the Telluride Film Festival in September 2012.
Sarah Polley was only eleven years old when her mother, Diane, died in 1990. Stories We Tell is an attempt on the part of the filmmaker to learn more about the parent she lost too early. The picture purports to be assembled home movies and the filmed recollections of Polley’s father and siblings and a number of her mother’s friends and professional associates. But the movie ultimately reveals itself to be something other than it initially pretends.
Born in 1935, Diane Polley was a television and theater actress and casting director in her native Canada. She was married twice. Her first marriage to George Buchan produced two children, John and Susy, and her second to Michael Polley, Sarah and her older siblings Mark and Joanna. Or so everyone long believed.
Diane was high spirited and energetic. She was the life of every party. She was the wild girl who became the mother that every child wanted. Her second husband, Michael, was her polar opposite and confesses in the film that he suspects Diane fell in love with the character in a play he was performing and not with the actor himself. Diane wanted Michael to pursue his acting and writing career, but with children to feed, clothe, and house, he went into life insurance, disappointing his wife for much of the rest of her life. Michael liked little better than reading or listening to music while alone. Diane craved perpetual interaction with others.
Despite Diane’s electric personality, her life included its sorrows. Acknowledged by all who knew her, her marriage to Michael fell short of what she hoped. And her first marriage to George Buchan ended in sad acrimony. When Diane tried to share custody of her first two children, both of whom preferred to live with her, George fought her in court and prevailed. His lawyers painted Diane as obsessed with her acting career, and the judge ruled against the mother on this basis, for perhaps the first time in Canadian history. Diane was allowed to visit with John and Susy only once a month, and their absence ate a hole in her heart which she concealed with drink and flamboyant behavior.
Michael and Diane spent their first extensive time apart when Diane was cast in a 1978 Montreal production and Michael had to stay home in Toronto with the kids. By this time, much of the physical passion in their marriage had been depleted. Or, at least, most of Michael’s passion had disappeared. He admits as much to his children and tells Sarah’s camera that Diane wanted sex much more than he did from the beginning of their relationship. Ironically, Diane’s time in Montreal rekindled Michael’s libido, and for the first time in some years, the couple began to have sex again. The result of their renewed relations was the birth of daughter Sarah in 1979. Or so for years, everyone believed.
However, blond Sarah looked little like her dark-haired full siblings or her dark-haired father Michael. But Diane was a blond, so Sarah’s looks were the subject of teasing and little more. When Sarah was eighteen, though, she did seek out Geoff Bowes, the actor in Diane’s 1978 production who her siblings claimed she resembled. Bowes denied paternity, and Sarah let the matter rest for a long time. Years later, in an early quest to get to know her long deceased mother, Sarah arranged an interview with Harry Gulkin, her mother’s friend, a founding titan of Canadian cinema, and the producer of the movie Lies My Father Told Me, a title almost laughingly a case of art imitating life.
Harry Gulkin looks amazingly like Albert Einstein at the great physicist’s most frazzled and wild-haired. Yet, Harry Gulkin told Sarah Polley that he had an affair with Diane in 1978 and that he was Sarah’s father. Subsequent DNA testing proved it to be true, although Sarah and Harry kept that fact a secret from Michael for a long time, revealing it only when a reporter got the story and revealed to Polley his intention to publish her true paternity. Michael, remarkably stoic, accepted this news well despite his telling Sarah that he was always closer to her than to his other children, primarily, he thought, because he had to raise her after age eleven by himself. Michael not only let himself be interviewed for Stories We Tell, but agreed to write and read the film’s narration. He and Sarah have remained close.
These surprising details are plenty and could be all. But there is more. As the film draws to a close, Sarah edits in shots from behind the camera. Those home videos we watched are not what we have been led to believe. They are not home videos; rather, they are reenactments with actors playing all the members of her family, including Harry Gulkin. We see them in make-up. And we see Sarah giving them notes and directing their scenes. This is her way of saying that, though she set out to tell her mother’s story, what she has in the end told is her own story about her mother, and about Michael, John, Susy, Mark, and Joanna. And about Harry Gulkin too, Harry who didn’t come forward to claim Sarah as his child for three decades. Harry says he and Diane continued to have an affair for several years after Sarah’s birth. Are we to believe this? Are we to believe that he was present at Diane’s funeral? Michael says he wasn’t there. And the scene showing him at the back of the church during the service was one that Sarah staged. Is Harry really Sarah’s biological father? He says so, and DNA confirms it, save for those few unlikely decimal places of uncertainty. So what are we to make of the film’s concluding scene where Geoff Bowes finally admits to an affair with Diane during the very season that Sarah was conceived. Could Harry be lying and the DNA be wrong? It depends on who is telling the story.
The Child in the Adult
Note well that Sarah Polley was born of infidelity and grew up loving as a father a man to whom she is not biologically related. Marital infidelity plays a major role in both of Polley’s fictional features. It is the primary concern of her second movie Take This Waltz (the film’s title taken from a haunting Leonard Cohen song), which focuses on a young couple whose relationship ends despite the fact that they do care for each other.
Take This Waltz is the story of the strikingly childlike Margot (Michelle Williams), a sometime travel writer who has been married for five years to Lou (Seth Rogen), a cookbook author. On a plane returning from a writing assignment, Margot meets a man named Daniel (Luke Kirby), and they end up sharing a cab ride home from the airport. It turns out that they live right across the street from each other. We can tell that Margot is drawn to Daniel almost instantly, though she acts on her attraction only gradually. Daniel is better looking than Lou, and he gives off an air of greater mystery. He supports himself by pulling tourists around town in a rickshaw, but when he’s not working, he paints. That he doesn’t exhibit his work invites suspicion that he isn’t very good, although it remains possible that he merely lacks confidence. Daniel is apparently unconnected to other people (there is no mention of family and no personal friends appear) and focuses on Margot from their first meeting forward. Lou, in contrast, comes from a large, loud, and complicated family, with whom he is constantly involved, and though we are to believe that he loves Margot, he has a cooking and writing project to complete, so she isn’t the sole object of his attention.
Margot and Daniel begin to see each other, chastely at first. When Margot tells Daniel early on that she’s married, he responds, “That’s too bad.” And gradually their meetings become sexually charged. Drinking martinis in a bar one afternoon, Margot invites Daniel to tell her “what you’d do to me” if they made love. Daniel responds in such pornographic detail that the scene plays as adultery without their having yet touched each other.
Polley plainly sees many acts of marital infidelity as the product of emotional and intellectual immaturity. Scene after scene establishes Margot’s childishness. Daniel teases Margot during their first conversation when she orders a glass of milk for her inflight beverage. What adult orders milk, he wants to know. Adults order a cocktail or Bloody Mary mix, at least a soft drink. Lou and Margot act like children with each other on a regular basis. “I wuv you,” they tell each other. They wrestle and pinch each other, and Lou says, “You’re the baddest little baby.” They squirt each other in the kitchen, and Lou repeatedly pours a pitcher of cold water over Margot’s unsuspecting head when she’s in the shower. When Lou tries to conduct an important conversation about his publishing contract, Margot, the child not the center of attention, tickles and kisses him—any- and everything to distract him from adult behavior. They play a regular game of violent gross out that recalls the silliness of junior high boys. “I love you so much I’m gonna mash your head with a potato masher,” Margot says, to which Lou replies, “I love you so much, I’m gonna put your spleen through a meat grinder.” In a subsequent scene Margot coos, “I want to kick the snot out of you and sell you for glue,” and Lou responds, “I want to rape you with a pair of scissors.” And in perhaps the defining scene of Margot’s childish thoughtlessness, she pees in the middle of the community pool, requiring a couple of dozen women performing aquatic aerobics to flee the water in disgust.
Granted, Polley makes clear that Margot and Lou’s problems are not restricted to immaturity. Lou is professionally focused, while Margot remains adrift. She doesn’t know what she wants to do with herself. And she is insecure in ways we don’t at first suspect. Daniel’s physical attraction for her is all the more powerful for Margot because Lou can be inattentive, preoccupied, and romantically dismissive. She is crestfallen when she proposes lovemaking one night and Lou isn’t immediately interested. “Don’t you understand the courage it takes to try to seduce your lover,” she tells him. On the surface the statement seems nonsensical, but I suspect it rings true for most of us who have sustained relationships that outlast the urgent fires that rage when love is new.
Lou, moreover, suffers from among those oldest of human failings: blindness to the feelings of others and overweening pride. When Margot complains that they are eating their fifth anniversary dinner in complete silence, Lou responds, “Well, I’m not just going to say something so we can have a conversation.” Later, when Margot tells Lou she is leaving him for Daniel, he responds in self-protection, “I won’t beg you to stay because if I did, I’d be humiliating myself.” We can only wonder how much, how long, and how often he regrets this statement.
In Take This Waltz as elsewhere in her work, Polley shows herself a master of the visual and aural metaphor. In a scene which presages both the consummation and the decline of Margot’s relationship with Daniel, the two are riding a tilt-a-whirl car in an amusement park. Spinning, laughing, holding on to each other, their mutual attraction is intoxicating. The music by the Buggles that accompanies the ride repeats the lyrics, “Video killed the radio star; we can’t rewind, we’ve gone too far.” Slim, sexy, mysterious Daniel is the video who kills Lou, the slightly chubby, not nearly so handsome, radio star. Once they make the break together, Daniel and Margot feast from a buffet of physical passion. They make love at all times of day, in all places, and in sundry positions. They have sex with just each other, with two women, with two men, and with a group of friends. But we recall, back on the tilt-a-whirl, the ride abruptly jerks to a stop and the music ceases in mid-lyric. In their relationship, time passes, the flame burns lower, and they are just another couple. Still together. Fixing dinner. Watching television. Reading at opposite ends of the living room sofa. OK, we presume. But nothing special. No special, enduringly urgent heat. After a not-so-long while, nothing happens between Margot and Daniel, nothing that we can imagine any different from what Margot would have known with the less sexually adventurous Lou had she remained true to her marriage vows.
Polley drives home her view that infidelities can be overcome and that jettisoned relationships are probably mistakes in a scene with Lou’s sister Geraldine (Sarah Silverman). Geraldine and Margot are showering after a swim, and when Geraldine bends to shave her legs, she muses, “Who am I shaving my legs for? I’ve been married ten years, and James [her husband] certainly wouldn’t notice.” She pauses, and then resumes her shaving, saying rhetorically, “But I like James after ten years. Is it worth trading that in for something exciting with someone I might not like in ten years?” Another woman in the shower room interjects, “Sometimes I just want something new.” But still another counters, “Yeah, but new things get old.”
The film ends on that implicit philosophic note. Margot and Lou needed to grow up, but Margot didn’t wait long enough for that to happen. Their marriage possessed no fatal flaw, and they could have made it work. Here is how Sarah Polley communicates that sentiment. Lou and Margot see each other again, and they talk for a while, flirting around the edges of the idea that maybe they had made a mistake. But Lou’s pride rears its ugly head and leads him to deny any responsibility. Saddened, Margo starts to walk away. They will perhaps never see each other again. Realizing it, Lou says in a soft voice with a rueful smile, “I just bought a new melon baller, and I’d like to gouge out your eyeballs with it.” “Yeah,” Margot replies, “me too.”
What Love Demands
Though Away from Her is certainly the film about Alzheimer’s I originally thought it to be, the picture is also a reflection on a different example of the reasons for and results of marital infidelity. Adapted from Alice Munro’s short story “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” Away from Her is the story of Fiona (Christie) and Grant (Pinsent) Anderson, a Canadian couple in their sixties. They have been married for forty-four years, and Grant is now retired from his position as a university professor. Twenty years ago, Grant had a series of affairs with his students, the final one of which led to a scandal that required his early retirement. But the marriage endured. Today Fiona and Grant live a quiet life in a rustic house on a lake. They like to hike, cross-country ski in the winter, and entertain friends for dinner. They are sexually active and exude a fond comfort in one another’s company. Their habit of quiet evenings of reading side by side reminds us of Margot and Daniel in Take This Waltz, evenings that could have been shared by Margot and Lou had their marriage endured.
In an early voiceover repeated later in the film, Grant speaks of his mad love for Fiona when they first met and then later calls that first burst of love “superficial” compared to what they had until recently. Fiona proposed to Grant when they were very young—she was only eighteen, he a little older—and he accepted because, “I never wanted to be away from her. She had the spark of life.” (The latter is a sentiment many friends and family attributed to Diane Polley.) Grant still feels that way toward Fiona even as cruel fate begins to steal her away. Fiona is suffering from ever more debilitating symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease, and in the film’s early scenes she has to be institutionalized. Grant was unfaithful to Fiona, but he never left her, and it always remained true that he never wanted to be away from her. Now he has to be.
We presume that Grant is contrite about betraying his marital vows, and we presume also that Fiona has forgiven him. Polley establishes these developments in a telling visual metaphor, typical to her work. In the footage behind the opening credits, the couple sets off skiing across the frozen lake. Then Grant begins to ski in an angled direction as Fiona continues straight on. By the time the opening credits are ending, however, Grant and Fiona are next to each other, headed together again on a straight path. We gather that they have been faithful to each other for the twenty years since the scandal. But that does not mean that either has forgotten what happened. And the memory of the infidelity on both their parts no doubt influences what happens once Fiona begins to live in Meadowlake Alzheimer’s facility.
To help them adjust, patients are not allowed visitors during their first thirty days at Meadowlake. So Grant is forced away from Fiona for a long, bitter month. Then when he shows up for the first of his permitted visits, Grant finds that Fiona has formed a fierce emotional attachment to another patient, Aubrey Burke (Michael Murphy). The film doesn’t address whether the facility allows sexual connections among its residents, and we aren’t sure that sex is an element in the relationship between Fiona and Aubrey anyway. But they are indubitably a couple, and Fiona is as devoted to Aubrey as she previously has been to Grant, whom she now finds familiar and treats politely, but doesn’t really recognize.
Grant arrives at Meadowlake daily, bearing flowers that Fiona doesn’t want and books that Fiona isn’t interested in or capable of reading, always hoping that his next visit will jog her memory and she will be his again. Fiona doesn’t recognize Grant as her husband of four and a half decades, but she does acknowledge his solicitations, usually by saying with a smile, “My but you are persistent, aren’t you.” But until the film’s end, in a scene of cruel irony and uncertain portent—probably just a blip of momentary recovery that a nurse has warned Grant sometimes occurs but almost never lasts—the recognition Grant yearns for doesn’t come. Fiona remains constantly at Aubrey’s side. These developments would be sad enough, but then a twist arrives that’s sadder yet and demands even more from Grant than he has previously been asked.
We learn that Aubrey is not a permanent resident of Meadowlake but has only been housed there for a brief time to allow his exhausted wife Marian (Olympia Dukakis) a time of recovery from her usual duties as his sole caretaker. Without selling her house, which is her only financial asset, Marian cannot afford to let Aubrey remain in Meadowlake. She must take him home. And when she does, both Aubrey and Fiona are devastated. Fiona is so psychologically destitute after Aubrey is taken away, that her mental and physical health decline rapidly, and Grant is afraid she will soon be bedridden and vegetative.
That fear leads to this story’s most insightful and emotionally affecting turn. Betrayed her though he has, Grant loves Fiona with all his heart, and he realizes that he can only save her by restoring Aubrey to her side. His love for his wife demands that he yield Fiona to another man. But accomplishing Aubrey and Fiona’s reunion requires convincing Marian to allow it and making it possible for Marian to afford it. Moreover, Grant has to overcome his distaste for Marian. Polley and her actors establish the differences between these two characters with great subtlety. Whereas Grant is an intellectual scholar and patrician of manner, Marian is lower-middle class in her financial resources and in her affordable tastes. And though she is not ultimately a mean or insensitive person, she is brusque and suspicious and also faintly coarse. But while Dukakis renders Marian as edgy and raw, the actress lets us glimpse Marian’s flinty exterior and naked calculation as a mask for her vulnerability. The terms of her agreement with Grant are never quite spelled out, but they amount to this: if Marian is to give Aubrey to Fiona, then Grant has to take Marian unto himself. Grant’s love for Fiona demands that he be away from her and, more, that he make room in his life for another for whom he will have to learn to care. Away from Her will reduce you to tears, not once, but many times. It is as powerful a statement about what love requires as any I have ever encountered.
How has so much artistic maturity and human wisdom come to reside in someone as young as Sarah Polley? A blessing. Hers and ours. May she make more films and share her understanding of the human heart and soul with moviegoers for decades to come.
Fredrick Barton is University Research Professor and Writer in Residence at the University of New Orleans where he directs the graduate program in creative writing. He is the author of the novels The El Cholo Feeling Passes, Courting Pandemonium, Black and White on the Rocks, and A House Divided and the collection of essays, Rowing to Sweden. His new novel In the Wake of the Flagship will be published in the fall of 2014.