Jean-Luc Godard said, "All you need for a movie is a girl and a gun." But really, all you need is a girl, preferably a charismatic one with a secret in her heart. Director and actress Sarah Polley has found that girl: her own mother. Polley's documentary, Stories We Tell, attempts to unravel some of the mysteries of her own family's life, even as it stretches far beyond the confines of your standard navel-gazing autobiography.
This wondrous, absorbing little picture covers a great deal of winding meta-territory, reflecting on the ways in which a single family's story can be told—or maybe, more accurately, examining the idea that there's no such thing as a "single story." You don't need to have seen Rashomon to realize that any story involving multiple participants is bound to have a thousand facets, thanks to the faultiness of memory, our reluctance to face painful truths, and plain old difference in perspectives. And so one girl, as Polley learns, can actually be many girls in one.
Polley opens Stories We Tell by introducing us to her cast of characters: her father, Michael Polley, an assortment of family friends, and various siblings and stepsiblings, all of whom look a little like Polley—and yet don't. The director has assembled this tribunal to reassemble the story of her late mother, Diane, a woman we get to know gradually through home-movie footage, re-creations that have the exact look and feel of that home-movie footage, and recollections from the people who knew and loved her. Even if Stories We Tell ultimately shows how a single narrative can quickly splinter into many different ones, a clear, believable picture of Diane emerges early on: She was vibrant and girlish, an actress who adored being at the center of the action. She laughed all the time, and she was an adamantly un-private person who would share anything with anyone.
How could a person like that have so many secrets? That's for Polley to know and for us to find out, and the movie is structured so that Polley appears to be solving the mystery even as we watch. As both a director and an actress—and as she appears here, as a bit player in the history she's reconstructing—Polley is a foxy one, all right: With her lithe frame and almond alien eyes, she looks like a creature beamed down from another planet, specially disguised to blend in just barely with us Earth creatures, the better to spy on us. Stories We Tell is radically different from any other film Polley has made—but then, her two most recent features, Away From Her (2006) and Take This Waltz (2011), are wholly different from each other anyway, the first a perfectly wrought love story about a no-longer-young but not-quite-old married couple, the second a fumbling but ultimately affecting account of a young wife's affair with a freewheeling artist.
It's probably safe, at this point, to consider Polley a "Who knows what she'll do next?" filmmaker, à la Michael Winterbottom. But Stories We Tell is so ingeniously constructed—and so nakedly intimate—that it may be a watershed. Polley has to execute a particularly delicate dance when it comes to dealing with the movie's two significant father figures: Reticent, undemonstrative Michael, the man Polley has always considered her father, and the far more outgoing Harry Gulkin, a film producer who plays a pivotal role in this extremely tangled tale. Both men were dazzled by Diane in their youth, and neither has fully recovered from that love—although both failed to give Diane that elusive something she so desperately wanted out of life.
Polley treats both of these men with a directness that ultimately reveals itself kind of compassion. She asks her father—who, like her mother, was once an actor—to read a text she's prepared to use as a voiceover. She listens as he reads aloud into a microphone, now and then asking him to back up and redo a line. At one point he tells her, only half-teasingly, "You see what a vicious director you are!"
But the closeness between the two is undeniable—they cuff each other like tiger and cub. Stories We Tell is, of course, Polley's own story, an attempt to reconcile the fact and fiction of how she came into this world in the first place. Yet it's anything but self-indulgent. Polley shapes the picture into a riddle that keeps us guessing every minute, and what she ends up with is so oddly shaped that it could be categorized an experimental film. But it's too warm, and too generous toward all its players, to be off-putting. There's no way, Polley concludes, to tell a reliably true tale. But this particular story, which begins and ends with a woman's face, feels true enough. Maybe reliability is overrated.
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