Stories We Tell – Sarah Polley and the intangible truth. (Film Review)

Film-maker Sarah Polley with her father Michael in documentary Stories We Tell

Sarah Polley has said many times, including in Stories We Tell, that she wants to make a film about the nature of memory and the way that narrative is carved from perspective, but what comes through in Stories We Tell, and what makes it such a remarkable film, is its subliminal examination of what we need memory to do for us in the present, and the burdens we place upon it to define and organise our future. Polley creates an aggressive frame around her family, laughingly calling it an ‘interrogation’ when it is exactly that, requesting they tell ‘their version of the story’. What ensues, is a juggling act for Polley as she has to pit a narrative that is wildly different for each person, if not in content, then in the tellers motivation. In this film we have a husband and a lover, each wanting their version of events to dominate the existence of the other, all the while having to deal with a child born at the time, who turns out to be Polley herself.

The Story of Stories We Tell.

At its surface, Stories We Tell is the tale of one Diane Polley, a vivacious, misunderstood woman, who seemed to be wildly out of control, which is very common for intelligent, spritley women of her time. She married young, divorced, lost custody of her children, re-married, had two more children, and then while away on an acting job for six weeks, had an affair when her marriage seemed to be at its lowest. When her husband comes to visit her and the passion is rekindled, she is left with juggling two relationships for a period of time, which according to most of the narratives, might have actually suited her. However, at one point, she discovers she is pregnant, and that the child may be her lovers. She remains married, ends the affair and lives with her husband and her children. But this is where the problems start, because baby Sarah, inconveniently, looks nothing like her father. And then Diane dies of cancer.

The importance of telling.

With typical family cruelty, Sarah is teased by her siblings regularly for her different appearance, until finally she discovers she does have a different father. And this is where the story of Stories We Tell really starts. Sarah, understandably, wants to find her biological father, but is always keenly aware of hurting her ‘dad’, so a lot of the hunt is conducted in subterfuge. But when the biological father wants to tell the story of his affair with Diane, a woman he loved passionately all his life and felt he lost due to circumstance, rather than choice on either part, we start to see that he wants to build a certain sort of narrative that will steal from the existing one. Polley is horrified and immediately wants to protect her dad, and so we discover that she has put together this film, constructed from the perspectives of the men in Diane’s life, her children, friends who acted as witness and Polley herself, to piece together a fable that is obviously filled with great gaps, and yet the way that Polley has constructed the film, we know that Diane’s own story, would merely have muddied the waters further.

But I was being so real.

As if this isn’t all complex and fascinating enough, Polley cleverly underlies the shifting nature of a prospectively skewed memory with footage she has constructed as if the artistic family had been filming themselves, all through the strange life of Diane and Michael and their satellite relationships. These ‘home movies’ are constructed Super 8 acts of nostalgia, at once convincing and yet not at all real. The footage takes over more and more of the film as it progresses, teasing us into becoming swept up in our own version of who Diane really was and who she really loved. Over the top of this again, is the voiceover, Polley’s dad Michael, an actor and writer who could never find a good enough story, starting in his twilight years, with his own. As revelations surface, he is forced to write and re-write his own life. In one particular scene, he sits in a recording studio, reading his story into a mic, and Sarah stops him, and asks him to repeat a line, that he’s ladened with some affectation. He replies, “Aw, really? But I was being so real!” Michael manages to emerge the hero of Stories We Tell, but Polley has cleverly inserted her own need to make him so through the progression of the film, and with her biological father absent more and more, we understand Polley is pointing to her own skewed manipulations.

A film that examines itself.

For the final story to have been told the way it was, there had to be sacrifices, and Polley leaves these in, so we come away with a complete picture of so many incompletions. This is another film you have to remain in your seat for right to the very end, for a neat little twist that adds its own underline to the mysterious story. Stories We Tell ends up being almost smarter than Polley herself, which we know isn’t possible, because its deliberate, but by cleverly allowing the camera to drift past its own frame (there are lovely opening shots with the mic on its boom hovering in frame) she brings her own film into the fluidity of her point. Stories We Tell is one of those very clever films about which one will think for a very long time.