Isabel Coixet’s My Life Without Me , based on Nanci Kincaid’s short story “Pretending the Bed Is a Raft,” confirms the stature of one of the most gifted young actresses in the world today. At the age of 24, Canadian actress Sarah Polley has been blessed with a heroic and brilliantly written role that could’ve easily degenerated into maudlin sentimentality and whiny self-pity. But the morbid premise of the narrative-involving the early death of its young protagonist-shouldn’t keep moviegoers away from this truly inspiring cinematic achievement.
Ann (Ms. Polley) lives just above the poverty line in Vancouver in a tiny trailer in her mother’s backyard. She shares these cramped quarters with two young daughters and a husband (Scott Speedman), who is only intermittently employed. It’s never much explained why Ann’s mother (Deborah Harry) lives alone in the big house while her daughter and two grandchildren are squeezed into the trailer outside. To make ends meet, Ann works the night shift as a janitor at a local university she could never afford to go to in the daytime. But she remains remarkably unresentful of her bitterly ungenerous mother, her loser husband and her two children, whose needs keep her working like a dog. She hasn’t spoken to her father in the 10 years he’s spent in prison, and she bears the brunt of her mother’s unhappiness over her failed dreams. (At this point, if someone stopped the film to preach the injustices of the North American capitalist system, you’d be hard-pressed to argue the contrary.) The film goes on as Ann receives her most crushing blow: She’s told by a shyly hesitant doctor (Julian Richings) that she has an incurable illness and has only three or four weeks to live.
It’s here that Ms. Coixet makes a crucial change in Ms. Kincaid’s short story. The setting had already been shifted from sunny Louisiana to foggy, rainy Vancouver. But much more importantly, the aftermath of the doctor’s revelation has been completely changed. Ms. Coixet describes the deviation in the film’s production notes: “In the short story, once Ann discovers she’s going to die, she tells it to everyone. And I thought of the same situation but with a complete different reaction: what would happen if this person didn’t tell anyone that she’s going to die, what if she discovered that the greatest gift she could ever do to her family, especially to her kids, was not to burden them with the weight of her future death?
“‘Cause I would do exactly the same as the character of the short story, I would tell everyone that I’m going to die. I mean, I would get out of the hospital screaming and I would get into a taxi and I would tell the taxi driver that I’m going to die. I would share my grief with everyone around me; I would be commiserating myself all the time. But I wanted to make this film about a heroine, about the woman that I’d like to be and I am not. Because Ann is a heroine. She’s not flawless, but there’s no doubt she’s a heroine.”
If I applaud Ms. Coixet’s creative decision, it’s partly because I am more a romanticist that a realist, and in these times, particularly, we need genuine heroes and genuine heroines. Still, Ann would not function as movingly as she does as a secular saint if she were not surrounded by characters coping seriously and honorably with problems of their own, though of a lesser urgency and magnitude than Ann’s. But almost miraculously, because of her own misfortune, Ann is endowed with the capacity to empathize with her troubled mother, her emotionally insecure husband, her flaky co-worker Laurie (Amanda Plummer), her celebrity-obsessed hairdresser (Maria de Medeiros) and her worshipful lover Lee (Mark Ruffalo), whom Ann lifts up from despair and disarray after he’s abandoned by his own wife. Ann even breaks down and visits her imprisoned, guilt-ridden father for her one final expression of a daughter’s eternal debt to her father, whatever his failings.
None of these transformations in her relationships are forced, excessive, turgid or cheaply sentimental. Ann becomes just a little franker and straighter than usual. She leaves recordings for her children, her mother, her husband and her lover, urging them to find happiness when she is gone. She isn’t on a hunt to find a lover for her last days, but she meets Lee in the laundromat as more a fellow sufferer than a dishing seducer. I almost didn’t recognize Mr. Ruffalo, whom I hadn’t seen since his acclaimed jaunty performance as the wandering brother in You Can Count on Me (2000). The production notes tell us that he recently underwent brain surgery for a cancerous tumor, in an eerie echo of Ann’s illness on screen. At a time when the industry is breathlessly awaiting the onset of the various franchise blockbusters, it’s good to know that films as exquisitely rendered as My Life Without Me can emerge from almost complete obscurity at a cost not much greater than that of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s celebrated bikini wax.
Olivier Assayas’ Demonlover , from his own screenplay, has been described by Mark Peranson in Cinema Scope magazine as “a graduate seminar in that oxymoron called ‘business ethics.’” Mr. Assayas, a former editor at Cahiers du Cinema , is a formidable theorist and polemicist who could probably make a powerful case against my disappointment with the final doomsday images he presents in his film: that I’m one of those naïve defenders of the “classical values” cinema against the onslaught of the New Barbarians. Indeed, Mr. Assayas’ Demonlover struck me as a tiresome exercise in self-demonization, and his most overrated work since Irma Vep (1996). Conversely-and perhaps quixotically as well-I much prefer his more “classical” works such as Late August, Early September (1998) and Les Destinées Sentimentales (2000).
From the outset of the film, we’re acquainted with the poisonous rivalries between a group of media conglomerates with names like VolfGroup, TokyoAnimé, Mangatronics and Demonlover itself. Diane (Connie Nielsen), a high-level executive at VolfGroup, drops an emetic concoction into a rival colleague’s drink so as to jump rank at the company. Like everyone else in the film, Diane is driven to seek power for its own sake and like everyone else she plays by the same cutthroat rules-it’s like a snake-pit devoid of any good creatures for whom to root. Gina Gershon, Chloë Sevigny and Charles Berling play Diane’s assorted antagonists with considerable brio and panache, but it’s hard for these actors to sustain their impact amid the mystifying intrigues that unfold. The climactic thuggery that results in Diane’s ironic undoing is executed with low-tech car chases and brute force that is somewhat chilling, but not sufficiently horrifying in effect. There’s some titillation in the scenes illustrating the realities of pornographic “snuff” spectacles available on the Internet to children with credit cards.
I might add that the word “paranoia” might’ve been invented for movies like Demonlover ; indeed, the condition itself has been with us for a very long time both on and off the screen. But without a raisonneur or a sympathetic protagonist, Mr. Assayas is unable to generate any suspense about the outcome of his video-game-like maneuvers by mostly unseen evil forces operating outside any recognizable sociological or political context. Here the medium is not only the message, but also a mantra that becomes increasingly indecipherable. Are we supposed to care what happens to Diane? Not when she, like everyone around her, is dehumanized by the alleged subordination of the individual to a runaway technology.
Bowling for Conn.
Ben Coccio’s Zero Day , from a screenplay by Ben and Chris Coccio, is the second of three cinematic meditations on the Columbine massacre, following Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine , which focused on American gun culture in 2002, and Gus Van Sant’s Elephant , the Cannes prize-winner featured in this year’s New York Film Festival.
Shot in and around the Connecticut suburbs, Zero Day seems to project a narcissistic coolness about the subject. Certainly, the self-named “Army of Two,” made up of best friends Andre Kriegman (Andre Keuck) and Cal Gabriel (Calvin Robertson), do not fit any profile accessible to media punditry. Their self-satisfied expressions of a private and exclusive nihilism and their incongruously disciplined military posturing, combined with their upper-middle-class access to expensive video equipment and a virtual arsenal of lethal firearms, don’t allow any intimations of their having been bullied or treated as outsiders by their eventual victims. Quite the contrary: Cal is seen to be very popular with the local girls, and Andre seems to get along fairly well with his own family. If there are any previous models for Andre and Cal in the ranks of teenage assassins, one would have to go back several decades to Leopold and Loeb, but without the gay subtext. Even so, Cal and Andre seem culturally light years ahead of the two homicidal-suicidal misfits who shot up Columbine High School.
My final judgment on Zero Day : that the Coccio Brothers have indulged in a filmmaker’s fantasy by making a movie recording their characters’ thought processes while loading up their weapons with the metaphorical bullets of self-expression. Unfortunately, I never found what the Coccio Brothers were saying through their surrogates, Andre and Cal, either convincing or compelling.
Michael Winterbottom’s In This World , from a screenplay by Tony Grisoni, is a truly noble effort to take us overly complacent moviegoers in the West on a shared journey with two Afghan cousins traveling from Pakistan to London. Since they cannot afford the cost of the much easier air journeys to the same destination, Jamal (Jamal Udin Torabi) and Enayat (Enayatullah) travel a long and dangerous overland route from Asia to Europe. Their elders place them in the hands of people-smugglers, and the two cousins join the mass exodus of one million refugees a year, most of whom are driven by economic need rather than political oppression. By the end of the film, Mr. Winterbottom has taken us to London, but then circles back to the troubled lands left behind, showing us the faces of the children smiling and silently beseeching us for recognition. In This World is not a facile entertainment, but a prescribed cure for one’s compassion fatigue.
Brian De Palma’s Scarface (1983), from a screenplay by Oliver Stone, has been dredged up from the swamps of violently self-indulgent flopperoos, after 20 years of well-advised neglect, to be made culturally respectable by Lillian Ross in the September pages of The New Yorker -including a generous citation of ghoulish tag lines from the soundtrack for the amusement of upstanding rappers like Snoop Dogg as well as C.E.O. types. The original Scarface (1932), by Howard Hawks and Ben Hecht, was deemed more shocking in its own time than the remake. The biggest difference is that, in the 70 years since the original Scarface , we have retrogressed from the end of Prohibition to the dead end of the eternal drug wars. Plus ça change .