Stories We Tell (Sarah Polley, 2012)
“When you are in the middle of a story it isn’t a story at all, but only a confusion; a dark roaring, a blindness, a wreckage of shattered glass and splintered wood; like a house in a whirlwind, or else a boat crushed by the icebergs or swept over the rapids, and all aboard powerless to stop it. It’s only afterwards that it becomes anything like a story at all. When you’re telling it, to yourself or to someone else.” – Margaret Atwood, Alias Grace
Sarah Polley’s brilliant, manipulative, and brilliantly manipulative new film – Stories We Tell – opens with a blatant announcement of its intentions. Her father, the actor Michael Polley, reads first the above-quoted passage from Canadian author Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace, and then sits down to narrate a tale of his own creation, about his daughter, to his daughter, as she sits in a recording booth, watching him. Very quickly, we begin to realize that this film, ostensibly about Sarah Polley’s search for the truth about her mother and father, is really about time and memory, family and cinema, and how they all interact and interconnect through the art of storytelling. The great Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky called cinema the art of time, and here Polley shows just how well the medium can be used to control our perception of time and reality, as she allows the various participants – or “storytellers,” as she calls them – to each offer up their own point of view on her own story. In the end, we are left marveling at how she fooled us – like a good fabulist – into believing that everything we have witnessed is real, while also realizing that we have been witness to the Truth (with a capital T) about not just her life, but our own. For what is truth (little t) but perception . . .
Polley – an actress of distinction, known for films as diverse as The Sweet Hereafter, Go, Dawn of the Dead, and Splice, and for TV series such as “Avonlea,” “Slings and Arrows,” and “John Adams” – has directed two previous feature-length films: Away from Her and Take This Waltz (which I called one of the most underrated films of 2012). In both films, she displayed a remarkable visual sensibility, a strong – yet sensitive – hand with actors, and an extremely powerful set of narrative skills (she wrote both films, as well). So it is not surprising that these same skills – substitute “subject” for actors (or – *spoiler alert* – should we?) – are on vivid display.
So what’s the film about? Before Polley was born, her mother and father – married for 10 years at that point – were going through a rough patch, and so her mother (an actress, as well, among many things) took off from the family’s Toronto home for a two-month stint in a theater production in Montreal. While there, she may or may not have had an affair that may or may not have had significant consequences on the Polley family. Diane (the mother) died in 1990 (Sarah was born in 1979), and it wasn’t until many years later – in 2007, in fact – that Sarah Polley began a serious exploration of her mother’s life, possible affair, and of the history (and mystery) surrounding her father(s). I’ll stop there, to avoid giving away any more of the pleasure of watching this multi-layered film. I will add that if you’ve seen films like JFK or the little-known Halving the Bones, you will appreciate the ways in which Polley mixes film and digital media, current and archival footage, and actual interviews and re-enactments. She – like her subjects – is a master storyteller, and a master cinematic storyteller, able and willing to use all the tools and tricks of the trade to structure her tale in the most intriguing way possible.
If the film has one fault, it’s that it is about 10 minutes too long, with a few too many false endings (a failing I feel it shares with Take This Waltz, though that other film was 30 minutes too long). Still, it is her story, and she should feel free to tell it in the way she thinks best.