My Life Without Me, 106 mins, rated M, opening in cinemas Sydney and Melbourne on 15 July 2004, other cities to.

In the April 2004 Law Society Journal, I reviewed The Barbarian Invasions, a French Canadian film in which the hero is dying of cancer (“Babyboomers’ approach to death”, p99).  Here’s another film along similar lines, but this time it’s the heroine, and this time she’s no babyboomer.  Ann is young: 23 years old, and the mother of 2 little girls.  At the beginning of the film she finds out she has terminal ovarian cancer, with only 3 months to live.

Based on a short story from the collection Pretending the Bed Is a Raft by Nanci Kincaid, this film has a terrific cast. Young Canadian actress Sarah Polley (The Sweet Hereafter, Egoyan, 1997 and Go, Liman, 1999) is a favourite of mine.  She’s an actor of the utmost subtlety and sensitivity.  She plays Ann, who’s doomed to die.  Then there’s Mark Ruffalo (You Can Count on Me, Lonergan, 2000 and The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Gondry, 2004), another talented and sensitive actor, who has himself recently survived cancer.  There’s also rock and jazz singer Deborah Harry, who plays Ann’s disappointed and lonely mother. Amanda Plummer (Pulp Fiction, Tarantino, 1994 and The Fisher King, Gilliam, 1991) plays Ann’s friend from their work as night cleaners at a university. Maria de Medeiros (Pulp Fiction, and Henry and June, Kaufman, 1990) makes a fairly brief appearance as  a hairdresser, and Alfred Molina (Frida, Taymor, 2002 and Magnolia, Anderson, 1999) has one scene as Ann’s father. That’s a lot of top-notch actors.

There are some significant departures from the original story.  In the book, Ann tells everyone that she is dying.  But Spanish writer-director Isabel Coixet wondered, "What would happen if this person didn't tell anyone that she’s going to die, what if she discovered that the greatest gift … was not to burden them with the weight of her future death?"  Coixet also changed names, eliminated one child (a son), added some new characters and moved the action from sultry New Orleans to foggy, damp, cold Vancouver.  These are radical changes. All but the first work well.

Instead of giving her family the chance to say goodbye, or to help her through illness to death – as Remy’s family and friends do in The Barbarian Invasions, even to the extent of euthanasia – Ann chooses to lie, even to her little daughters.  She refuses to let her doctor treat her.  This is treated by the film makers as a noble decision: she is sparing them pain and keeping her dignity.  But I thought it callous and selfish.

Ann has a curious way of preparing for death.  She draws up a list of 10 things to do before dying.  Some are sensible, some are trivial, some are self-indulgent, and some are just plain cruel.  For example, despite her happy marriage to a handsome, if immature, man (Scott Speedman), she resolves to make someone else fall in love with her.  Mark Ruffalo plays that unfortunate man.  As a love story, it feels contrived.  Would a happily married woman with an adoring husband who is a wonderful father really risk tarnishing their relationship for mere sensation?  And when she has only 3 months to live?  This plot development devalues the otherwise marvellous portrait the film paints of a happy working-class family doing well under trying circumstances (they live in a trailer in Ann’s mother’s back yard).  

The script has some other irritating aspects.  One character tells a moving story about Siamese twins.  At the end she mentions that one was male and one was female.  This is impossible, as Siamese  twins are genetically identical.  And it may be due to language difficulties, but writer-director Coixet refers to The Mule Serenade, rather than The Donkey Serenade.  This is picky, I know, but I found these errors distracting.

Two of the stars of Pulp Fiction appear in My Life Without Me, and there is a certain amount of Tarantinoesque dialogue in the film.  For example, Maria de Medeiros’ hairdresser goes on and on about the now-obscure 80s pop duo “Milli Vanilli”.  This is too cute, and at odds with the balance of the film’s tone.

So, despite the fine performances, the film, for me, was self-indulgent, manipulative and strangely unmoving.  Only in the final few “life goes on” scenes did I feel any emotion.  Even this great cast could not convince me that My Life Without Me could be true.