Stories We Tell (Sarah Polley, Canada)

By Adam Nayman

Even if they didn’t say it in print, there were plenty of Toronto critics who suspected that Sarah Polley was being disingenuous when she claimed her sophomore feature Take This Waltz (2011) contained little to nothing in the way of autobiography. That Polley crafted her Parkdale-set Scenes From a Marriage after the dissolution of her own partnership may well have been a coincidence of timing, and the torrent of speculation to the contrary symptomatic of a need to reframe the artworks of famous people as self-portraits. But whether the very articulate filmmaker’s demurrals to that effect were themselves carefully calculated—or if they only had that ring because they were reprinted word for word in the usual festival-time publicity roll-out—it seemed that Polley was adamant that the work’s openness to interpretation had a definite cutoff point. And that, more specifically, it was located at the intersection of the romantic indecision being portrayed onscreen and the details of the director’s personal life.

Fair enough, but the roundly acclaimed Stories We Tell could still be read as Polley’s attempt to corner both sides of this argument. It’s a documentary that features Polley onscreen alongside multiple members of her extended family (siblings, step-siblings, aunts, and uncles), and it very much concerns the clan’s personal affairs, literally. In the middle of it all, Polley casts herself as acted-upon subject and string-pulling puppet-mistress (she’s most frequently glimpsed standing behind a studio mixing board, like Rick James in the “Party All the Time” music video). There’s surely something juicy in that dynamic, as well as a built-in escape hatch against charges of mere navel-gazing narcissism.

For Stories We Tell is not only about the discovery of this Canadian theatre scion’s parentage—a story the self-describedly private star sat on until the film’s Venice and TIFF bows—but also the revelation of exactly how unlikely her birth was under the circumstances. Not only was Polley’s DNA a 50-50 proposition, as her mother slept with two different men during the weekend she was conceived, but there was also, according to those in the know, some serious talk of terminating the pregnancy. Who wouldn’t have some sort of existential crisis upon hearing that bit of news?

As somebody who judged Take This Waltz to be not altogether awful and perhaps at best a split decision—with the Leonard Cohen-scored money-shot sequence being the aesthetic equivalent of a standing eight-count for both filmmaker and her audience—I’m most intrigued by how Stories We Tell serves to vindicate Polley’s claims about the earlier film. If Michelle Williams’ fragile, impulsive character seemed a case of authorial self-projection, I’m now convinced that she’s at least a pale shade of Polley’s mother Diane, who, as we learn in Stories We Tell, also fled an early, unhappy marriage (which, unlike the one in the film, yielded two children). She then settled down with actor Michael Polley, easily seduced by his roughneck stage persona, and they had two more kids before settling into a stagnant co-habitation. (Recall the dark punch line of Take This Waltz, where the mad dash for total fulfillment leads into another cozy dead end.)

The first half of Stories We Tell is a sort of séance in which Diane, who died at a young age, is reanimated through the words of her husband, children, and friends. The picture that emerges is of a vivacious, beautiful, and surpassingly sad woman who loved her family fiercely but restlessly, as if she might fly away at any moment. It’s the fallout of that restlessness that gives Stories We Tell its big twist and its true hook: Diane’s death from cancer when Sarah was 11 didn’t quell the clan’s shared but only half-whispered doubts that she’d conceived her youngest daughter with someone other than Michael. Sarah’s subsequent adolescent inquiries yielded a revelation to that precise effect, although not the one that some had anticipated.

What’s important in considering Stories We Tell is not to tally up the turns of the story, which are numerous and compelling enough both on paper and onscreen (and are duly inventoried in just about in any other review), but rather the way that Polley chooses to present them: as a thick, interlaced tapestry. There are intimately shot interviews, eloquently scripted and delivered voiceovers (one of which is written and delivered by Polley père in his plummy stage actor’s voice), authentically degraded old home movies, and also elaborately degraded fake old home movies featuring well-cast actors as the younger versions of the major players.

Editor Michael Munn does excellent work lining all these ducks up into a row (whereas Take This Waltz was much more laxly cut together, as if its director didn’t want to lose a single moment). The technique is impeccable, but the movie is enervating—not entirely, but enough that its good points become obscured. In his productively against-the-grain review for The Globe and Mail, Rick Groen suggested that there was a “smug patina of self-congratulation” overlaid on Stories We Tell. I would argue that it’s less a case that the film has a slightly tarnished exterior than that it’s a rusty old vehicle masquerading as a new, tricked-out model. Polley’s decision to operate the documentary machine with the hood so conspicuously popped is not in and of itself inappropriate, but there are cues that this is more of a victory lap than an exploration. “It’s an interrogation process,” says Polley to a sibling who asks (understandably) about why the family laundry is being aired in a documentary. The implication in Polley’s choice of wording is that the form itself is going to break under all of the pressure.

On the contrary, Stories We Tell is almost perfectly structured: for all the assumedly volatile emotions on display, there’s nothing messy about it at all. This carefully wrought economy of effects would be more impressive if it wasn’t so clearly straining to be just that, or if Polley didn’t so assiduously annotate her accomplishments in real time. Leaving aside the half-dozen instances where one of the subjects comments on just how remarkable the stories they’re telling are—sound bites that Polley might easily have left on the cutting-room floor—the film’s tactics smack of self-regard. For instance: a montage revealing which of the home-movie flashbacks to Diane’s past and fateful affair with a Montréal-based film producer were faked is placed about three-quarters of the way through the proceedings. It’s too early to be a truly climactic gotcha moment (that would be gauche), but late enough that it feels like point-scoring: it lets us know that we’ve been punked.

The pointedly blink-and-miss-it presentation of this information feels like grandstanding. And the reality-blurring technique might have been even more provocative if the director hadn’t called attention to it at all. As it is, the emphasis is not on how easily we accept the visual codes of documentary filmmaking, but rather how skilfully they’ve been manipulated. Similarly, the decision to give one of the film’s most important participants a platform to call the whole enterprise into question serves a deceptively dualistic purpose. Her father chides Polley that her choral, he-said/she-said structure might detract from rather than enhance the value of the truths being unearthed, and the fact that she doesn’t cut away could be taken as a gesture of humility in the face of lucid criticism. Except that the larger implication is that by leaving it in, Polley proves herself to be a humble, receptive artist, and the proverbial bigger person. Duly satisfied by this carefully engineered episode, we’re supposed to ignore or at least accept the fact that the film keeps doing the very thing the interviewee was so persuasively dubious about in the first place.

There are things here that are moving, like the way that Polley frames her heightened mutual infatuation with her biological father as a replay of sorts of his long-ago clandestine romance with her mother. Polley compassionately depicts the specificity of this déjà vu sensation for one of the parties while retaining a fine perspective on her own behaviour. Because she so clearly sees how her own sudden and urgent daughterly attachment to a man she’d just met was an unconscious act of imaginative self-projection, we see it too. The operative word here is most definitely “see,” because, quite rarely for this extremely verbose movie, it’s not something that we’re also told.

Polley’s need to explicate so much of what she’s doing while she’s doing it may come from a very honest place. It may be a way of convincing herself, along with her audience, that the endeavour has been worth the effort. And when she says in interviews—or in an epic-length blog post on the NFB’s website—that making Stories We Tell was a truly arduous process, I’m as inclined to believe her as I was about Take This Waltz, without losing sight of the fact that someone who’s been doing interviews since she was a child star is uniquely equipped to help spin the reception of her work. But there are limits to control, and Stories We Tell is finally a film that, for all its careful integration of disparate elements, feels at cross-purposes with itself. It’s hard to practice sleight-of-hand when you also insist on giving yourself a thumb’s up. Nayman Adam