Stories We Tell Review

“When you're in the middle of a story it isn't a story at all, but only a confusion, a dark roaring, a blindness, a wreckage of shattered glass and splintered wood, like a house in a whirlwind or else a boat crushed by the icebergs or swept over the rapids and all aboard are powerless to stop it. It's only afterwards that it becomes anything like a story at all, when you're telling it to yourself or to someone else.” (From Margaret Atwood's Alias Grace, quoted in voiceover by Michael Polley at the beginning of Stories We Tell.)

Sarah Polley was born on 8 January 1979 in Toronto, the youngest child of two actors, Diane, also a casting director, and English expatriate Michael. Sarah started acting at a young age, appearing in One Magic Christmas (1985) and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988, which also featured Michael). Sarah made her breakthrough in her teens with roles for Atom Egoyan, Exotica and especially The Sweet Hereafter. She has continued her acting career and more recently moved into direction, her first feature, Away from Her (2006), an adaptation of an Alice Munro story, gaining Julie Christie an Oscar nomination. Her second film, Take This Waltz (2011), starring Michelle Williams, something of a mixed bag, with powerful moments mixed in with self-indulgence.

Self-indulgence is an obvious trap for Stories We Tell, given its subject matter, but for the most part it's avoided. It's a documentary about Polley's family, in particular investigating the impact of two things: firstly, Diane's death from cancer when Polley was just eleven. When Sarah was growing up, there were jokes in the family about how little she resembled Michael, and was she actually his daughter? It turned out that she wasn't. Her biological father was actually Harry Gulkin, a film producer (Lies My Father Told Me, from 1975, an important film in the emerging Canadian film industry). Sarah was the result of an affair that Diane and Gulkin had when she was away from home in Montreal acting in a play.

To say this is a deeply personal work is to state the obvious. It's personal to the point of being uncomfortable to watch, given that we are made privy to matters that many other people, and their families, might prefer to keep private. Diane and Michael were a mismatched couple. They met when he was playing Mick in a production of Pinter's The Caretaker but she was soon to realise that the man she had fallen for when watching from the audience was somewhat different to the real Michael...a story she had told herself rather than one told to her. Michael was, as he says himself, a faithful husband and provider to their children, of which Sarah was the fourth. Diane and Michael seem to have been the classic extravert/introvert mismatch: she vivacious, wanting to go out and grasp life with both hands, he quieter and more passive. This mismatch would seem to have been reflected in their sexual life as well. Diane was forty-two when she fell pregnant with Sarah and, worried by the health effects of such a late pregnancy, was going to have an abortion and was on the way to the hospital when she decided not to go through with it. And so Sarah came within an hour of no longer existing, and Stories We Tell with her.

This is a film quite aware that it is another story told and the truth, if it can be found and pieced together, will never fully be knowable, especially given that one key participant is no longer here to tell her own story. Stories We Tell is built round Michael's account of his own life, before, during and after his marriage to Diane, written by himself. Polley films the recording session, sitting at a mixing desk and listening as he reads this, at times asking him to repeat certain lines. She also films herself listening: what is she thinking? She's most often inscrutable. The rest of the film is made up of interviews with family members and friends, and some 8mm home movie footage. Yet this is not all what it seems either: much of the archive material was newly created for this film, with actors, in newly-shot 8mm footage, its graininess standing apart from the clean and sharp HD-shot material for the interviews and the recording session. This is a gambit that other filmmakers have used – Paul Cox for example – the shaky, grainy images conjuring up the evanescence of a time long past, existing only in memories of which this is a necessarily partial record. Polley also recreates in this way her meeting with Gulkin in a restaurant.

Sarah's own acting career takes a back seat in this account, presumably intentionally so as to emphasise her parents rather than herself. That's understandable, though it would be interesting to hear her thoughts about following in both parents' footsteps in her chosen career, or would that be vocation? The only times her acting does make an appearance in this film is when it's directly relevant to her discovery of her real biological parentage, such as when a reporter questioned her on the set of Mr. Nobody. She was so upset by this story becoming public – before she had even told Michael – that she hurried off the set and into the park, attracting curious stares not just because she was crying but also due to her being in makeup as a Neanderthal woman. I mentioned self-indulgence above, in connection to Take This Waltz, and it's something that's inevitably a suspicion here. The film could possibly be ten or so minutes shorter, but it's an intelligent and stimulating documentary, one in which we are invited to think about our own lives and and those of our families, of the stories we tell about ourselves. One of the films of the year.


Stories We Tell is released by Curzon Film World on both DVD and Blu-ray. It was the former which was supplied for review, and comments below and affiliate links above refer to that edition. (For affiliate links for the Blu-ray, go here.) The DVD is encoded for Region 2 only and is dual-layered.

The DVD transfer is in a ratio of 1.78:1, opened up slightly from the theatrical 1.85:1, and anamorphically enhanced. Stories We Tell was shot, as I say above, in a mixture of HD Video for the interviews and Michael's recording session, and a mixture of real and recreated 8mm home movie footage, and all looks as it should do, the video sharp and colourful, the 8mm more muted and very grainy. There's also some material originated on 35mm, namely an extract from the 1964 film Marriage, Italian Style, starring Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni, used because it's an adaptation of Eduardo Di Filippo's play Filumena, one which Diane and Michael acted together in on stage. It has further resonance in that Mastroianni marries Loren so as to give his child a father, but he does not know which of her four children is his.

The soundtrack comes in two variants, Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby Surround (2.0). Frankly, there's very little to choose between them, as this film comprises interviews and archive material and is pretty much monophonic throughout, with only some of the music on the soundtrack making use of the surrounds, and the subwoofer gets the day off. This is an English-language film and as you would expect, though still regrettably, there are no hard-of-hearing subtitles available. The extracts from Marriage, Italian Style are Italian-language with fixed English subtitles.

The only extra is the theatrical trailer (2:18), which gives a fair account of a film which can't have been an easy sell.

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Last updated: 06/08/2018 21:14:25

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