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Wednesday, Nov. 5, 2003
The simple bare necessities of death
By KAORI SHOJI
There's never a shortage of movies about terminally ill heroines. Having reviewed "Autumn in New York" a few years back, I felt I had done the genre sufficient justice for the next two decades and that I could relax and devote my time to things more worthwhile -- like early Schwarzenegger movies. Seasons passed and life went on, but yet again, I found myself sitting in front of yet another beautiful and terminally ill heroine at the tender age of 23. In this film, "My Life Without Me," the doctor in the movie gives her two months. I figured this roughly translated to a screen time of 1 hour and 5 minutes before the scene of her loved ones weeping beside her open casket.
The surprise is that "My Life Without Me" never sinks into the swamplands of schmaltz. This is partly because the main protagonist is played by the amazingly versatile Sarah Polley and partly because her imminent death is not a spoiler but a prerequisite of the story.
Polley plays Ann, a 23-year-old working class mom with two daughters. When she's told by a doctor that she has ovarian cancer and only a couple of months left to live, Ann decides to keep the whole thing to herself. Instead of being strapped to tubes and putting her family through waiting-room hell in the little time she has left, she quietly sizes up her situation and makes a list of 10 things to do before she dies. Finding a new wife for her husband, Don (the likable Scott Speedman), telling her daughters daily that she loves them, having an affair ("to see what it's like"), and going for a big picnic on the beach are at the top of the agenda, followed by "doing something" about her hair and getting her nails done.
Directed and written by Isabel Coixet, with Pedro Almodovar on board as executive producer, "My Life" demonstrates a clarity of vision and has deftly inserted humor in all the right places (frequently supplied in lines from Ann's coworker Laurie, played by Amanda Plummer). Having said that, "My Life" is still prey to many of the sins committed by other movies in this genre: namely: 1) the heroine never deteriorates but remains pristine, even on her death-bed; and 2) she goes for such deliberate, tear-duct opening ploys like tape-recording birthday messages for her daughters for every year until they turn 18.
Death by ovarian cancer is a dreadful ordeal for any woman, but this movie makes it seem like nothing more than a rigorous spa treatment in which the patient re-emerges looking a bit paler but full of resolve and passion about living her life the way she wants to live it.
Of course, the message here is clear and would fit nicely on a coffee mug: Live everyday as if it were the last. What's a bit harder to take is the undercurrent of moralizing -- as if Ann were being given a second chance after living for so long on auto-pilot. Death as a wake-up call. But is it really fair to do that to a 23-year-old working mother? Ann had dropped out of school at 17 to raise a family, she had married her teenage boyfriend and been living in a trailer parked in her mother's backyard. She pulls the graveyard shift cleaning at the local university and hardly has the time or the means to take care of herself or ruminate on the meaning of life. Surely that doesn't mean she should be punished for it.
A lot of critics in the United States were put off by what they called Ann's "utter selfishness" by not letting her family know, but ensuring that they never forgot her by this last act of heroic concealment. Others were bothered by Ann's list of things to do: that the items were too small, mundane or selfish, such as instigating an affair with someone only to leave him in the lurch.
But hey, when you're 23 with two kids, wouldn't you want to put a little drama into your life? The things Ann chooses to do are the kind of things other girls had all done to death in high school and college. That she chooses to do them now is a very understandable symptom of a deprived girlhood. And who can fault her for choosing not to check into a hospital where she'd be put through hundreds of tests and costly chemotherapy that may prolong her life but in the process will hack it to bits?
The mistrust Ann displays toward hospitals and the whole medical system is actually the most viable statement in this film -- the doctor who gives her the news of her cancer doesn't even look her in the eye or offer advice or solace of any kind. Ann's choice to live the last months of her life away from the medical system sand all its implications sparks much debate, but the underlying message is heartfelt and sincere: The choices made about death should be just as important as choices made about life.