Love & Death
My Life Without Me
In theaters now are a pair of movies that deal with love on the final approach to death. In The Human Stain, based on the Philip Roth novel, a widower is gifted with one last fling. My Life Without Me progresses through the weeks leading up to a young working-class hero’s death from ovarian cancer.
Really, The Human Stain is a chronicle of a dead man walking. It looks back to the day Coleman Silk (Anthony Hopkins) killed off his identity as a black man in order to pass for white, a decision that allowed him to escape being a “mess boy” in the Navy, to enroll in the college of his choice under the GI Bill, and subsequently to make his way successfully into ivy-walled New England academia. He adopted a Jewish identity, preferring the possibility of a life spent facing anti-Semitism to a life spent facing racism. There is symmetry here. Silk’s stern father, an optometrist forced to work as a train porter, demands that he give up boxing to concentrate on his studies. After his dad dies on the job, Silk’s Jewish boxing promoter becomes the most influential man in his life.
So Coleman Silk, chair of the classics department at an unnamed college, is brought low by an idle comment willfully misinterpreted as racist. Referring to two students who have never graced his classroom with their presence, Silk suggests that perhaps they are “spooks.” Unfortunately, the two students are African Americans and his phraseology is not understood in the ectoplasmic sense he intended. (It brings to mind a news story of a few years ago, when some government functionary used the word “niggardly,” to disastrous effect.) Despite his protests that he has never seen the students and could not have known their ethnicity, Silk’s academic career is destroyed, and his wife dies of an aneurysm—another victim of PC!—upon hearing about the racism charges. This rather far-fetched outcome is necessary to achieve what this movie has on its mind—a stinging indictment of political correctness.
The Human Stain is set in the late 1990s, just in time for a juxtaposition of the Clinton-Lewinsky cock-sucking scandal and Coleman Silk’s racism scandal. Political correctness takes a number of body blows for its pursed-lip disapproval and its persecutory aspects, but the movie is careful to show that the effects of political correctness are a walk in the park compared to the real discrimination minorities experienced in Silk’s youth.
Unable to adequately write his own defense, Silk befriends reclusive author Nathan Zuckerman (Gary Sinise), who is recalled to life by Silk’s joie de vivre. Part of what puts the spring in Silk’s step is his unforeseen, passionate affair with Faunia Farely (Nicole Kidman), a college cleaning woman 30 years his junior. Unfortunately for viewers, this affair, his “last love,” does not swoop us up in its embrace. We neither feel their passion nor see anything to make it believable, and it is further undermined by nearly identical scorching scenes of Silk as a young lover (played by a quietly intense Wentworth Miller). No amount of Nicole Kidman sashaying around bare can substitute for the genuine article. Just to show that their relationship isn’t wholly lubricious, Faunia is melodramatically damaged, bringing a country song’s-worth of baggage—abuse, grief, and a deranged ex-husband (Ed Harris)—to the party. Yet the storylines with Nathan and Faunia, dealing with age, class, and actual instead of assumed Jewishness, seem almost incidental; the main event is race and the sort of Sophie’s Choice that Silk made.
At the end of The Human Stain it is posited that claiming his blackness would have cleared Silk of the racism charges, as though blackness itself makes racist thought or speech impossible. That’s just the kind of bullshit that pervades this prestige project and is further evidence that it lacks both a beating heart and a brain.
In My Life Without Me, Ann (Sarah Polley) lives in a trailer and—what a coincidence—cleans classrooms at the local college where, in a fairer world, she would be a student. After learning that she has advanced, untreatable cancer and will die within weeks, she decides not to reveal her diagnosis, not to her husband (Scott Speedman) and children, not to her mother (Deborah Harry). Instead, Ann composes a list of things to do before she dies and sets about doing them in as energetic and unsentimental a way as one can imagine. Some of these things aren’t particularly nice and some are merely the things one can do when one no longer cares whether one looks silly. Several list items have to do with the uses and possibilities of her body, interesting choices since her flesh has betrayed her. Ann’s list contains a number of predictable items involving plain speaking and a better hairdo, but she also wants to make love to a man not her husband and to make someone fall in love with her. She sets about doing these things unapologetically and finds a likely candidate (Mark Ruffalo, in full puppy-dog mode) with surprising ease. Mercifully, Ann does not set out to learn a great thing or to have a great enlightenment, thus sparing us the sort of beatific wisdom that young, dying movie characters often spew.
At once a fairy tale and a dream, the basis of My Life Without Me is this rather selfish notion—that one would conceal the news of imminent death from one’s loved ones—that allows Ann to indulge her understandable desire to have a life of her very own to the end. Apparently a lot of viewers and reviewers have issues with this. Ann sidesteps the possibility of weeping, wailing family members who might prevent her from using her last days as she sees fit. Generous and self-sacrificing as it would be to renounce all claim to her life and comfort her loved ones by acceding to their wishes, where is it written that a dying character, especially a young person dying untimely, must go the noble route? It’s refreshing to watch a movie character who uses her last days for something other than maudlin contemplation of her metastasizing flesh.What’s most interesting about My Life Without Me is that Ann’s life is really good and she knows it. She doesn’t embark on her must-experience list because her existence is barren or shallow. Sure, she’s got some static with her mom, her dad’s been in prison for a decade, and her husband is only intermittently employed. But the core of her life isn’t the penny-pinching or her menial job or the tiny, cramped trailer she and her family inhabit. Ann’s real life is her role as wife and mother in a warm, incredibly loving family. That her family life is so wonderful and fulfilling allows us to see her to-do list for what it is—simply a series of questions that have to be answered in rather short order.
Sarah Polley is one of the finest young actresses around and she’s made some good career choices. Seeing her name in the credits is a guarantee of a certain kind of quality—that the movie about to unspool will be, if not good, at least interesting to watch. My Life Without Me is both. Adapted from Nancy Kincaid’s story “Pretending the Bed Is a Raft,” the film almost trips over its own feet in earnest pursuit of indie street credibility. The cast includes arthouse darlings Amanda Plummer, Maria de Medeiros, Deborah Harry, and Mark Ruffalo, and the story is set in Vancouver. Despite this embarrassment of riches, writer-director Coixet pulls off a movie that, except for the ending, keeps you guessing about what will happen next, and keeps you caring about it too.
Roxanne Bogucka copy edits the Observer.