Combustible Celluloid

An Interview with Sarah Polley

'Life' Saver

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

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In her new film, My Life Without Me, acclaimed Canadian actress Sarah Polley (The Sweet Hereafter) plays Ann, a young mother secretly dying of cancer who decides to make the most of her remaining days.

In real life, Polley's mother died of cancer when Sarah was only 11 years old. Some actresses might draw on that painful experience for emotional content, but Polley keeps it separate from her professional life.

"It was a really different story for my mother," Polley, 24, says during a recent San Francisco visit. "If anything, this was more an exercise in thinking what it was like for her and realizing that it was probably a lot harder for her."

On the contrary, Polley and Spanish-born director Isabel Coixet, 43, achieved the flip-side of a typical disease-of-the-week film and came up with an extraordinarily life-affirming tale.

"To be aware of your mortality, I think, isn't a bad thing," Polley says. "A lot of people say they come out of the film making their list of what they would do before they die. I think it's good that people don't come out depressed. They come out living."

Coixet achieved this positive attitude partially through her many characters, all of which reveal something about themselves through the stories they tell. Each character is obsessed with something trivial, from a waitress who wants to be Cher, to a hairdresser who feels that Milli Vanilli were robbed.

"We spend our lives obsessing about diets and Joan Crawford and Milli Vanilli, for God's sake!" Coixet says. "And meanwhile life is passing us by. To me one of the funniest moments in the movie is when Ann's mom (Deborah Harry) is complaining about her knees hurting and her hips ache and she has to go to the doctor. But Ann? 'I'm fine.' She never feels sorry for herself because it's a waste of time complaining."

Coixet shot the film herself using a 16mm camera, hand-held for about 80% of the time. Her work gives the film a delicate intimacy, especially in the little trailer where Ann lives with her husband (Scott Speedman) and their two daughters.

"My elbows hurt a lot!" the director says of the cramped set.

The director made sure to dress the set in a certain way, including a mood-setting bead curtain and a special lamp. "It's an homage to Wong Kar-wai, my favorite director," she says. "It's the same lamp they have in Happy Together."

In addition, the film includes a quasi-musical number, where shoppers in a supermarket spontaneously begin dancing. "It was a very cold night, and I was in a bad mood because the supermarket was too yellow," Coixet says. "And you see those extras, cold, holding donuts and coffee and I thought, 'what the hell!'"

Certainly when one comes out of the film, it's with a renewed sense of living and a longing to make the most of every moment. "I think it's one of those things you keep relearning as you live your life," Polley says. "It takes someone dying or a difficult experience or maybe a novel or a movie to remind us. We inevitably forget, and it's a lesson we have to keep running into over and over again."

September 19, 2003

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