Film of the week: Stories We Tell

Sarah Polley revisits her love-tied mother, their knotty family and the dawning of women’s lib in this richly reflexive documentary.

Sophie Mayer
Updated:

from our July 2013 issue

Spoiler alert: this review reveals a plot twist

Coverage of Sarah Polley’s first documentary feature Stories We Tell has focused on the director’s discovery of her paternity, a subject of some gossip in the Canadian press since it concerns not only Polley but also leading Canadian film producer Harry Gulkin. Yet, as Polley insists from behind the camera when her siblings challenge her about her investment in the documentary, it is not about her father(s), but about her mother.

At the centre of the film is a black-and-white audition reel of Diane Polley speak-singing ‘Ain’t Misbehavin’’ straight to camera. It’s an adorable, irresistible performance – one that becomes more so the more we hear about her life and its resemblance to the song.

Diane’s trajectory matches that of many women in post-war North America, as women’s lib was vaunted but society and legislation resisted. Married in the 1960s to a wealthy scion of Toronto society, she rebelled, falling for English actor Michael Polley, who was performing in the Canadian premiere of Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker. Toronto the Good, as it was known, was unprepared for such liberated behaviour: as a newspaper article shows, she lost custody of her son John and daughter Susy on moral grounds.

Michael suggests early on that Diane fell for his role in Pinter’s play – an angry young rebel very different from the genial man he really was. They subsequently married, and acted together twice, the second time in Filumena, on which the 1964 Sofia Loren vehicle Marriage Italian Style was based.

A play about an independent woman that turns on a question of her children’s paternity, it seems almost as overdetermined a resonance in the film as ‘Ain’t Misbehavin’’ and the title of Gulkin’s Oscar-nominated 1975 feature Lies My Father Told Me. Further, Polley’s previous films, Away from Her (2006) and Take This Waltz (2011), were preoccupied with questions of marital fidelity and the vagaries of memory, as if pre-telling this story.

Here, we see Sarah acting in Mister Nobody, whose protagonist narrates multiple incompatible life stories to a reporter. While on set, Polley was contacted by a reporter wanting to publish the story of her discovery before she had told Michael. The conversation this prompted led Michael to write his version of the story, which he reads as the voiceover narration to the film.

The viewer knows this because Stories We Tell, uniquely, reveals its process as if we are thinking, sifting and selecting along with the filmmaker. We see Michael and Sarah in the recording studio, focusing on moments when she directs him to “take back” a line that he’s overplayed. Even the soundtrack – mostly populated by excerpts from Play Me a Movie, Abraham Lass’s 1971 Smithsonian recording based on his repertoire as a neighbourhood movie pianist in the 1920s – uses knowing humour as it conjures a phantom paradigmatic film from our memories, all the while taking apart its conventional narrative of love and marriage.

The reflexivity is enhanced, but never exaggerated, by the family’s involvement in theatre and film. John, Sarah’s oldest sibling and Diane’s assistant in her casting business, is the most camera-aware, offering a waspish, self-deprecating and transparent take on the kind of reflexivity that characterised the early films of Atom Egoyan, one of Polley’s key influences. It has to be a knowing gesture that John has visible in the book stack behind him a Penguin Classics copy of Anna Karenina. Like ‘Ain’t Misbehavin’’, Tolstoy’s novel offers a reflection of Diane’s life, highlighting the distortions that patriarchy produces in women’s stories as they are lived and then inherited.

Joanna’s comment, when asked what changed for the family after the revelation of Sarah’s paternity, that all three sisters got divorced, is a subtle marker of social as well as personal change. Never overt, Polley’s documentary embraces both the political and cinematic heritage of feminism, particularly the seminal film Daughter Rite, which screened internationally in 1978, the year Polley was conceived. Polley, of course, couldn’t have seen it at the time but Michelle Citron’s unique and influential combination of optically printed home movies, vérité footage revealed to be staged and poetic voiceover is deeply woven into the DNA of Stories We Tell.

Where Citron’s ‘daughter rite’ was one of an adult daughter’s separation from the mother, Polley’s is one of reunion. The use of reconstructed footage shot on a Super 8 camera closes the film with startling ‘off-camera’ shots of the adult Sarah directing her mother, played by Rebecca Jenkins. Canny in their uncanniness, the two women’s intimate conversation held in privacy under the dark folk song of the soundtrack, these impossibly moving and movingly impossible shots are the telling heart of the story. 

  • Sight & Sound: the July 2013 issue

    Sight & Sound: the July 2013 issue

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