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A Life (short fiction)

Thursday, May 4th, 2023—Film

She feels the cries before she hears them. They seem to live in her now, in her nerves, her very bloodstream. They’re mixed together, she read that somewhere: their DNA entwined. Her child’s cells run through her body, blending past and future. She lifts her chin toward the showerhead and holds her hands to her face. Water spills over and around them. Then she lets go and feels the full force of the shower against her eyelids. It pelts, then slides like tears. She can hear the calls clearly now.

Her infant is safe, she’s fine. She’s with the father. But the mother can’t quell the primal urge to see for herself that her child is okay. It’s inescapable, an unbreakable tie. Still, she tries to stave it off. She needs this break, these moments away. Lather, rinse, repeat. She squeezes her eyes shut in a vain attempt to block out the cries.

She remembers taking baths during pregnancy, the baby churning when the water gets too hot. The movements are mild compared to the piercing protests that arise once the child becomes audible. But not every sound is distressing. The mother bears witness as her daughter discovers her own voice. On the change table, garbling as always, the baby suddenly stops, her face startled. Then she begins again. She realizes that the sound comes from her and that she is in control. “That’s your voice, my darling,” the mother says, in awe, in love. “You have a voice.”

Her daughter is born in water. The mother pulls her from her body, limbs in limbo, and the child emerges from the birthing tub to nestle in her arms, flowing out of and onto the mother, a continuation, until she’s cut free—a separate entity only to the unknowing eye.

She stares at the water pouring down from her, circling the drain, spiralling endlessly, a portal back to a space in time. She steps out of the shower and hastily tugs a towel from its rack, clutches it to her skin. With the water off, the whines and wails are insurmountable. Her child is two years old now. Jesus, does it ever stop? She rubs her hair dry, dry as it can be in seconds, and hurries to dress, to run downstairs. To answer the cry.

When her daughter is born, everything else goes still. Her husband, the midwives, they fade in the stunning presence of new life. She remembers life pre-motherhood, when there is no child to rest in her arms—when she learns to drive a stick shift in her brother’s pickup truck, or sneaks out with her cousins, underage, to hear their favourite band at a bar, or traces a heart with her finger on the frosty car window, just as her father pulls away but not too late for her crush to see it—but all of that slips into the “before” of her consciousness. Time is suspended. The child has left the mother’s body, other than the cells she leaves behind, the nourishment she still takes from the mother’s breast. Yet they remain together in a capsule that includes only them—an extension of the womb, encompassing them both. It feels wholly surreal and also like the only thing that exists.

She tells a friend that in those first hours of her daughter’s life, she has the clear and distinct knowledge that she is revisiting these moments; that they have all happened already and she is simply dropping back in.

Life recalibrates. Her daughter’s every function, every breath, defines her days. The size and scope of her baby become the only truth, so that when she showers and washes her own face, her features feel too big, monstrous compared to the infant’s tiny details. The mother is both gargoyle and goddess, imposing and unseen, the guardian of this exquisite being.

There are wretched moments, too. They last forever. Exhaustion is replaced with inexhaustible tantrums. The child pulls hair, weaponizes her skull, draws blood from lips. The mother enters a span in which bracing for pain is the norm; she discovers that the bodily sacrifice and weeping of fluids doesn’t end at birth. And the loop of repetition: she’s beat down by the sound of her own voice echoing as she struggles to coax her unrelenting child through mealtimes, bath times, bedtimes, until the words lose meaning and begin to sound like someone else’s voice, each word taking her further from what used to feel like her life. She reminds herself over and over not to wish it all away. “They have phases,” a friend tells her. “Everything passes.”

Time builds to a crawl, her tissues mend. She emerges from the capsule, sees it begin to unfold—life before her. Her daughter walks, talks, learns to dress herself. Does well at school, has no anxiety leaving her parents on the first day of kindergarten. Loses part of her tooth on the playground and launches the first of countless accounts of its undertakings: The Chronicles of the Missing Incisor. Comes home excited to finish middle school and start junior high. The mother loses track. Didn’t her child just start Grade 1? But she’s still here in her arms, cooing, nursing, crying, laughing. She hasn’t left. Yet.

No matter how tightly and how long the mother holds on, she can’t escape the fact that her daughter is constantly growing, reaching, pulling away from her.

She realizes the awful power of her influence as her three-year-old sees her compulsively twirl her hair (but when did she become so tense—after college, or marriage, or maybe after abandoning illustration for administration?) and promptly mimics the behaviour, tendrils around springy fingers. The mother feels the full weight of her role and vows to get it right.

“I love you.”

“Be careful.”

“Don’t do that!”

“I’m busy.”

“Let me help.”

“Please don’t go.”

“I miss you.”

Her daughter picks classes at high school, tries out for soccer but ditches it for dance, bangs pots hanging from the kitchen wall after the mother refuses to buy drums, switches schools to focus more on academics (and also, at least in part, to escape a failed relationship). There’s a terrifying near-miss on the road. Thank you. Thank you for sparing her. She mends. Decides to become a doctor and applies to an out-of-town university. The mother watches her board the bus with her girlfriend, after her first Thanksgiving visit home, and cries, and wonders if she will ever hold her child again. Her husband embraces her. Although he doesn’t cry along with her, she understands by now that he feels just as sad, feels just as much, as she does.

Her daughter is a doctor. The mother works, thinks ahead to retirement. Tries to acknowledge the current state of her face, her body, if not accept it. She is keenly critical of the aged reflection in the mirror yet also far removed from it. The looking glass forgets the lustrous hair that suits any length and the buoyancy she never really imagined would sink. She marvels that she’s still surprised to see in her friends the spread of grey hairs, the deepened wrinkles, softening lines. She is long past the point when she should expect to see youthful faces when meeting with her peers. But her head has a mind of its own.

Her first grandchild, a boy, is born. She’s instantly taken back to the times with her own infant, toddler, prickly preteen—all of it. The heart-rending tenderness and crushing devotion. The rage, the urgent pull to escape. She sits with her grandson, happy to offer his parents an evening away. Breastmilk warms in the steamer, the baby roots in her arms, she wants to hug him fiercely but knows to be gentle. Those tiny, spongy ribs. That miniscule space for the abdomen. She watches life pulse in and out and remembers the brief reprieves in her daughter’s earliest days: when putting her down for the night finally feels like something tangible despite knowing that the baby will be up again to feed in a few hours; when the suggestion of a possible, eventual return to normalcy brings great relief to her and her husband, even if true routine seems a lifetime away.

Nestled in her daughter’s plush recliner, drinking up the musky baby-smell of perfect silken skin while her grandson happily takes the bottle, her husband comes to her so clearly. She can almost hear him call out from their side door back home, “Salmon’s ready!” He’s been barbequing in the backyard, the rest of dinner assembled in the kitchen. Their teenage daughter emerges from her room, homework on hold, and they sit to chat and eat and smile. Suddenly she misses her husband with an ache that leaves her winded, wounded. How long has he been gone? Almost five years. Of all the times he infuriates her, makes her long for solitude. That night, she would give anything for a simple evening at home with him. With them—with their girl, still young enough to be held by her mother, drift asleep in her arms. She cradles her grandson and weeps.

When she leaves her home one afternoon, she doesn’t know that it will be for the last time. The cancerous cells are taking over, mixing with the rest of hers. She waits, she wades in and out. She’s in palliative care at the hospital where her daughter works. A nurse wheels her down the hall to see the fiery orange sunset through the curved glass panels of the sunroom. There’s her reflection again, in the frosty window. White wisps of hair, a small woman curled under a knit blanket, she’s clasped in glass, a snow globe within a globe. She wonders at the worries that ravaged her, everything she hurried for, what used to set her spinning in those younger years. Has this version of her, this woman in her chair, known all along that she was headed here? She closes her eyes. Feels the light bursting forth from the bay of windows. There is warmth, a bundle in her lap—the blanket? A child? The sides of her chair are firm. Wheelchair, rocking chair, high chair, or are they arms around her? Something solid, supportive. She’s slipping, coherent thoughts tumbling into dreams, tripping over memories. She may be in the moment she first holds her daughter or still an infant in her own mother’s arms or about to be born or whenever it is that anything really begins.

Her daughter laughs, pours water from a toy tea set, over the mother in the backyard. It’s balmy, summer. The child’s sundress is damp with imagined Earl Grey. So is the mother’s. Her daughter falls into her lap and wriggles and giggles. Light flares over the roof next door and onto their lawn.

The sun is warm. She’s there again, in the sunroom. Or is she there? A hand rests on hers—not the nurse’s but her daughter’s. Are they one and the same? Fingers slipping and clasping lightly. She grasps a single finger and summons all her might to close her fist around it, remembers her own infant’s clutch around her thumb. She feels her grandmother’s hand as she fades. Skin to skin, intertwined. She’s with her. She withers.

There’s a moment, late autumn. She stands on a small wooden footbridge with her young daughter, who tosses lattice-like leaves into the stream below and squeals joyfully as they’re pulled away with the current, enthralled by the voyage, their crumbling particles still buoyant enough to float. She returns to this moment, over and over.

Consciousness closes on itself, one tidy shell around a seed, contained, compressed, forever folding and then reopening. A heaving tide.

There’s a sound. A cry, perhaps. She’s unaware of who makes the sound, of where or what it comes from. It’s simply there, a resounding force, and she is coiled within it. Slowly she begins to open her eyes, not knowing what she’ll see.

Women Talking (feat. editor Christopher Donaldson)

Monday, March 6th, 2023—Film

Women Talking (USA 2022, Drama), Writer/Director: Sarah Polley

When editor Christopher Donaldson graciously agreed to chat with me about his work on Women Talking, I revisited the post I’d written about Take This Waltz, which he also edited for writer/director Sarah Polley. The entry ends with these words: “Polley has a smart, daring voice that gets stronger with every project. It should be heard.”

It strikes me that her following two projects (after the outstanding Stories We Tell), both released in 2022, not only amplify her voice, but serve to give voice to so many others. With Women Talking, the film she wrote and directed based on Miriam Toews’ novel of the same name, Polley expertly adapts the story of the women and girls who were repeatedly drugged and raped by the men in their colony, and are looking for a way forward. With her brilliant book, Run Towards the Danger: Confrontations with a Body of Memory, Polley presents a deeply personal collection of autobiographical essays on trauma and recovery, which draw from her unique life experiences to illuminate far-ranging paths to healing.

It’s hard for me to separate the projects, her book from this film. The topics she explores in Run Towards the Danger—how we remember and interpret the past, and how we let it guide us, now and into the future; the struggle to believe our own stories and memories, without external validation; why women so often stay silent after abuse—are at the core of Women Talking. Not only that, but Polley seems to bring so much of herself and her personal beliefs to this achingly universal tale, in what she chooses to emphasize: the importance of democracy and collective action, and of respectful discourse, even (perhaps especially) among people with differing opinions; the need to examine both systemic issues and individual culpability; the ways in which men, as well as women, are victims of patriarchy, and in which women, as well as men, perpetuate the system; and how gender roles and identities fit into all of that.

Women Talking is inspired by recent events that took place in a remote Mennonite colony in Bolivia. For years, the women and girls were knocked unconscious with an animal anesthetic before being assaulted. When they awoke, displaced in a fog of confusion and pain, they were told that the attacks were the work of ghosts, demons or “wild female imagination.” In 2011, eight men were finally found guilty of the rapes and sentenced to long prison terms. But the attacks continued; in the absence of those eight perpetrators, other men took their place. In Bolivia, the women didn’t leave—nor, as far as we know, did they meet to talk about it.

Toews’ richly layered novel is, in her words, “a reaction through fiction to these true-life events, and an act of female imagination.” The film starts off with a similar statement: that what follows is an act of female imagination. Like the book, the film focuses on lengthy discussions among several women from the colony as they meet in a hayloft to determine whether they can forgive the men, as their faith dictates, and to decide, in the day or two they have while the men are in town posting bail for the attackers, whether to stay and fight, or to leave. But also, the women finally talk about what happened: how they feel about it, and what they need in order to begin processing it. (As one of the characters says in the book, “There’s no plot, we’re only women talking.” That simple; that complex.)

Polley takes the adaptation further from the real-life incidents and into the realm of fable, choosing not to name the women as Mennonite—although costumes and setting clearly place it in a community away from the mainstream, the modern—and filming the story in a muted colour palette that feels both timeless and out of time. All of that helps underscore the fact that this film gives voice to something that has been building for years—for millennia. If the assaults against women and girls were “all waiting to happen, before it happened,” as the narrator tells us, so too was this story, this film always waiting to be created, as part of an ongoing movement toward rebuilding and rebalancing. (I’m reminded of Tori Amos’ song ‘Bells for Her’: Can’t stop what’s coming, can’t stop what is on its way...)

We need Women Talking. As Chris says, it has “the potential to really move people and change minds and initiate discussions and initiate change.”

Last April, when we emailed about the film, he said it was “very different” and one of the best things he’d worked on: “We’re just mixing it now and it feels very, very special.” He’s not alone in that opinion; among many other accolades, Women Talking is nominated for Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay at this Sunday’s Academy Awards. Chris attributes part of its success to Polley’s commitment to ensuring that filmmaking “be an enriching human experience.” On Women Talking, she hired an on-set therapist for anyone who needed to talk. She also arranged reasonable working hours so the cast and crew could see their families in the evenings. “The environment of care and love that Sarah fosters is what ends up onscreen. I think that’s part of the reason that people respond to the film as emotionally as they do.”

Two months after hearing from Chris, I got to hear Sarah Polley speak about her book at the Ottawa International Writers Festival. At the signing, we briefly chatted about Chris and Women Talking. With great enthusiasm, she said something to the effect that he had saved the movie by changing the narrator to a 16-year-old-girl. (Toews’ book is narrated by a man, August Epp, who takes the meeting minutes in the hayloft because girls in the colony aren’t taught to read or write—but also, for the boys and men to take note; to learn, and unlearn.)

Chris shied away from that exuberant praise when I passed it along, saying instead that “Sarah is an extraordinarily generous collaborator” and that the final cut is a result of them finding their way together, with input from others, including producers Dede Gardner (12 Years a Slave, Moonlight) and Frances McDormand (Nomadland, The Tragedy of Macbeth). He came on board partway through the edit, once he’d completed work on David Cronenberg’s Crimes of the Future. Editor Roslyn Kalloo worked with Polley on the initial cuts of the film, and when Chris became available, “there was this idea that I could come in as fresh eyes… as the last piece of the puzzle,” he says. “All involved felt like they needed fresh perspective on where (the film was at).” That includes the studio: “The cliché that you get about studios is that they’re always fighting you, but certainly with MGM we did not have that experience at all. They were so supportive of all the creative work we were doing.”

Chris had been the main editor for the first four seasons of The Handmaid’s Tale; committing to Women Talking meant leaving that gig behind. “It was a very difficult choice (because) I loved working on Handmaid’s, loved the team, felt like I was abandoning them,” he says. (He didn’t need to worry about the abandonment part; everyone on the hit show supported his decision, including its star, executive producer and frequent director, Elisabeth Moss. “Lizzie was doing ADR [automated dialogue replacement] in the same facility where Sarah and I were cutting, so she came by to meet Sarah and say hi to me, and she was so incredibly understanding and generous.”)

But he was also keen to work with Polley again, and on this project in particular. The opportunity, as a man, to play a key creative role on such a groundbreaking film was something he took to heart. “Part of the story is about allyship and what men can do, so it was important (to Sarah) to have a mixed crew. I felt extraordinarily grateful and privileged to be there… My basic feeling in all creative endeavours as an editor is to really listen—to the footage, to the people all around you, to your own brain. It’s a lot of thinking and listening, and then actualizing. But in this instance, it was especially important for me to be listening.”

With that mindset, Chris first watched the cut Polley and Kalloo had worked on, leaving himself open to whatever inspiration spoke to him. He was struck with two main impulses: that the narrator should be changed from August (Ben Whishaw) to Autje (Kate Hallett), the youngest person in the hayloft; and that the film should open with a brief flashback of Ona (Rooney Mara) waking up from one of the attacks—a moment that initially played as part of a longer flashback much later in the film. “When I first talked to Sarah, I said, ‘That’s the opening of the movie,’” says Chris. “‘I don’t know why, but that’s the opening of the movie.’”

It works perfectly as the opening, establishing the context of ancient violence, but also immediately allowing the viewer to wake up with Ona—who becomes pregnant as a result of the rape. When she sits up in bed and says “Again,” it feels implicit in her delivery, and in the scene’s place at the start of the film, that the echo ringing out from those words is this: “No more.”

Moving that moment to the start also allows for the early introduction of a key component of the film’s score, or soundscape. Hildur Guðnadóttir, the wondrous, Academy Award-winning composer (Joker, Tár), added the sound of bells chiming during the flashbacks of women awaking from the assaults. “They’re so unbelievable, so extraordinary,” says Chris, who calls Guðnadóttir a musical genius. “Hildur described the bells as being like doomsday and a call to prayer, both, and so when Sarah was rewriting the narration, that line made its way into the movie itself.” (And I see it coming, and it’s on its way…)

He points to that as an excellent illustration of what it’s like to work with Polley—her emphasis on total collaboration, on welcoming ideas laterally from everyone working on the production. “Sarah’s brilliant at pulling the most incredible work out of her collaborators… That brilliant line of Hildur’s, doomsday and a call to prayer, I don’t think anybody was going to articulate it better than that, that spiritual idea.”

It’s an enchanting line, one of many in the lyrical voiceover Polley wrote for Autje. After Chris suggested her character as narrator, a pitch he calls “purely instinctual,” he learned that Polley and the producers had already considered changing the narrator, possibly to Ona. Polley took Chris’ idea to Gardner, and then decided that Autje’s voiceover should be addressed to Ona’s unborn child.

Having August narrate the book makes perfect sense; he is, after all, documenting the events on behalf of the women. But with film, hearing a male voice speaking over the women had a different effect. “There was something about the character of August as the narrator that changed the perspective whenever we cut to August,” says Chris. “(By instead using) a teenage girl who is on the periphery for most of the conversation, it was my instinct that Autje could maintain the same outsider point of view that August had, yet be able to address the audience in the first person, which was really essential in terms of illuminating or guiding the audience through the story itself.” The switch also places the narrator in the future; rather than telling the story as it unfolds, she re-tells it from a place of strength and survival, a place inherently more hopeful.

“Ben Whishaw’s reading of the voiceover was extraordinary,” says Chris. “There are moments in the film where I can still hear his original voiceover in my head, and it was incredibly moving. But the hardest part of many creative endeavours is realizing when something that is really good isn’t actually working for you.”

With that decision made, Chris and Polley set about re-envisioning the film, a process he calls “sheer joy.” In search of Autje’s voice, Polley wrote a stream of consciousness. “We used certain amounts of the original voiceover as expositional architecture, but we ended up looking at this document that Sarah had written, and pulling out the most important ideas. Then, it was a matter of finding (the narration’s place in the film) and how to represent it visually.”

They incorporated as many single shots of Autje as they could, and reframed scenes so they would be more aligned with her perspective. They also played around with chronology, moving reactions, lines and even scenes from one part of the film to another. (The film’s final shot was pulled from an earlier sequence of images that accompany August’s list of all that is good in the world. It feels fated that the image was available, creating a poetic symmetry with the opening shot; in Chris’ words, “the perfect ending of the story we just told.”)

Hours of footage shot by multiple cameras offered great flexibility. So did the calibre of the cast. “You’re dealing with actors who are all extraordinary performers, and so therefore everything they did had a level of variation that made it slightly new, and yet none of it was bad,” says Chris, who credits Polley and Kalloo with building the performances to where they are now, in terms of take selection.

The film is a marvel of beautiful performances. In addition to Whishaw, Hallett and Mara, the stellar cast includes Claire Foy, Jessie Buckley, Judith Ivey, Sheila McCarthy, Michelle McLeod, Liv McNeil, Frances McDormand, Kira Guloien, Shayla Brown, August Winter and Emily Mitchell. Of course, there are countless exquisite moments from the leads, a group that features some of the best talent working today; Chris recounts the artistic agony of having to cut “extraordinary performance moments” from Buckley, Foy and Mara, in service of the overall picture. (Polley, he says, described Mara’s Ona as “the performance I dreamed of for this character.”) And Hallett is deservedly being lauded for her breakout work as Autje. But Women Talking is filled with incredible work from across the ensemble. To give just one example, as Scarface Janz’s (McDormand) daughter Anna, Guloien’s role, while pivotal, is brief and wordless, yet she conveys a world of emotions through her facial expressions and physicality—and the one, restrained sound she utters is devastating. The supporting performances ring like Guðnadóttir’s bells, with their spare power; they may strike less often, but when they do, they resonate.

Those bells, says Chris, were “completely influential” in setting the tone for a more impressionistic approach to the flashbacks. In the script, they played out as full scenes, before cutting back to the women in the loft. Adding the bells suggested the possibility of a more abstract treatment that featured “glimpses of a shot rather than the whole scene” and was emotionally additive rather than expositive. As a result, the film wound up being around 40 minutes shorter than the first cut Chris saw. “We were looking for opportunities to convey an idea with simply a look, a reaction, to distill (each moment) down to its essence… In some instances, we included (flashbacks) in a much sharper fashion, but where they were scripted. In others, we revisited them where they weren’t necessarily scripted.”

Chris calls out a sequence early in the film, when Autje climbs down from the rafters, where she’d been observing the women talking. In voiceover, she says that “many of us saw ourselves from above” in the aftermath of the assaults. After, they never spoke of it:

 “Where I come from, where your mother comes from, we didn’t talk about our bodies. So, when something like this happened, there was no language for it. Without language for it, there was a gaping silence. And in that gaping silence was the real horror.”

Says Chris, “We knew that that idea was absolutely critical, and so we restructured material (around that).” They pulled from shots of empty kitchens in the colony, originally at the end of the film. “When August was the narrator, and the women left, we had a moment of looking at all the empty kitchens, and then the film ended on August just about to teach the boys—essentially his first inhale and about to speak.” Chris couldn’t ignore the evocative pull of those empty rooms, especially the one that Scarface Janz walks into, where she’s sitting alone until her daughters join her in the kitchen. “All of a sudden, we had this entirely visual sequence that wasn’t scripted and didn’t exist before. It was really thrilling to work like that, because some stuff didn’t work, but when it did, it was pure cinematic invention and that was really exciting.”

That idea of enforced silence resurfaces later in the film, when another character, Mejal (McLeod), speaks up after one of her panic attacks, which she’s had since the rapes: “They made us disbelieve ourselves. That was worse than…” Women Talking is based on true events. But by telling the story through a film, a novel, it becomes bigger than a document of isolated incidents—it becomes a parable, a symbol. (A call to prayer.) The women and girls in this story were literally made unconscious before they were attacked. But not all tranquilizing requires an animal anesthetic. The assaults in that colony reflect the way females are treated worldwide, in all types of communities. Society’s indoctrination has taught them to doubt or obscure their memories, their experiences, what their bodies know to be true.

This calls to mind many parts of Run Towards the Danger: Confrontations with a Body of Memory, but one in particular, from an essay entitled ‘Mad Genius.’ Polley writes:

“So much of coming to terms with hard things from the past seems to be about believing our own accounts, having our memories confirmed by those who were there and honoured by those who weren’t. Why is it so hard for us to believe our own stories or begin to process them without corroborating witnesses appearing from the shadows of the past…?”

Now, that line from Polley’s book takes me back to another striking visual in her film. Near the beginning, as the women watch the men drive off in their buggies to post bail for the attackers, the women stand at the bottom of the frame, with only the tops of their heads visible; their bodies’ shadows stretch out onto the dirt road. Then their shadows fade, as Autje’s voiceover tells us that if the women fail to forgive the men, they will “be denied entry into the kingdom of heaven.” The image suggests a lot: Is the women’s very existence being denied? Will the men rewrite them out of the narrative if they don’t fall in line? Are the shadows of the past being erased, or are they deliberately fading back to make an open space for the future?

I asked Chris how the shadows were diminished—if they’d done it during the edit. “Total fluke,” he says. “They just shot it; they had the shadows, and it was a long shot of all the horses leaving, and it was just a cloudy day. The sun was coming in and out of clouds, and everybody on set was going, ‘Oh my god!’ Just pure luck; you could never have planned for that.”

Fluke or not, where it sits in the film, with that particular line from Autje, the shot is imbued with meaning. It also creates a stark contrast to when we next see the buggies drive off—this time, with the women as fully formed figures, grounded and in their bodies; this time, holding the reins.

Unlike the book, the film doesn’t stay behind with August, who remains in the colony to teach the older boys and men, and impart the wisdom of the minutes. It follows the women and children as they move forward into something unknown. The two endings are parallel, one playing out in the colony even in the absence of the other, both necessary to arrive at a new belief system focused on love rather than dominance.

In the book, gorgeous, powerful and spare in Toews’ words, August is left watching over two older boys as they sleep (“unconscious to be exact”), pleading silently for them to tell the truth.

With this film, we aren’t left; we are led by women, now fully conscious and awake, driving toward a future they will create, one in which they speak and believe their own stories—in which they know the truth.

*          *          *

My thanks to Chris for his time and insights. You can next see his work in David Cronenberg’s new short film, which is part of a Prada exhibition in Milan, and in the limited series Fellow Travelers, airing this autumn on Showtime. He’s also signed on to edit Cronenberg’s upcoming feature, The Shrouds, set to start shooting this spring. Chris’ work on Crimes of the Future is nominated for a Canadian Screen Award, which will be given out on April 16, 2023.

Women Talking is available on demand and still in some theatres—check your local listings. And I highly recommend reading Sarah Polley’s book, Run Towards the Danger: Confrontations with a Body of Memory.

Sarah Polley and Chris Donaldson at the LA premiere of Women Talking

From Tori Amos’ ‘Bells for Her’:

I said you don’t need my voice, girl
You have your own
But you never thought it was enough of
So they went years and years

Like sisters blanket girls
Always there through that and this
There’s nothing we cannot ever fix…
Bells and footfalls and soldiers and dolls
Brothers and lovers she and I were…
Now I speak to you are you in there
You have her face and her eyes
But you are not her…
Can’t stop loving
Can’t stop what is on its way
And I see it coming
And it’s on its way

Sophie and Jack (short fiction)

Friday, April 24th, 2020—Film

[Author’s Note: I finished writing Sophie and Jack on January 24, 2020—exactly two months before the beloved playwright Terrence McNally passed away, on March 24, from COVID-19 complications. Because my story pivots around Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, one of McNally’s best-known plays, I had hoped he might read it one day. Since he can’t, it’s my honour to share it in tribute to him. If you like Sophie and Jack, please consider donating to Broadway Cares or the Actors’ Fund of Canada, in support of theatre workers impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. I dedicate this story to the great Terrence McNally, who inspired so many; to magnificent New York City, which is hurting so badly right now; and to Canada and the world. May we all heal together.]

Those early days in New York City, Sophie was lonely. That might have been why it started.

She kept busy at the acting school where she studied, and there were plenty of classmates eager to be her friend—she was petite and blond and pretty, and accustomed to that sort of attention. (It also helped that she spoke with the trace of a French-Canadian accent, courtesy of her francophone mother and Quebec education, which people found winsome.) Still, none of that filled the hollowness she felt each day, going from voice lessons to dialect classes to movement sessions. She missed her home in Sherbrooke, and much of what she’d left behind before these nine months of study had begun.

That included running. She was nursing an overtraining injury in her hip, which kept her from using her body for the sport she loved most. Fortunately, she was perfectly able to walk, even for hours at a time. And so, she explored. When she wasn’t at school or in her cramped room in the women’s residence, she took solace in the city. There, she was content—more than that: fully alive. The giant buildings aching up to reach clear light, the villages like something from a fable, the magnificence embedded in every neighbourhood. The golden Prometheus at Rockefeller Centre. All those parks with their wrought iron railings and wistful lampposts, their worn-wood or deep-green benches. To Sophie, even the pigeon shit gave them character: splattered marbles from a sepia painting, each abstract imprint a Rorschach test for the denizens. And the city’s musk, like hair gone unwashed too long. Blasts of heat from subway grates, endless throngs and busyness, the near-eternal trumpet of honking cars—these things, she would have disliked anywhere else. In Manhattan, she loved them.

Sophie didn’t know how it all fit on the island, in such tight quarters. It was as if New York existed in a perpetual state of mid-explosion, kinetic and potential energy bumping constantly against one another, absorbing so much air yet still leaving space for her to gasp in wonder.

When Jack showed up in Sophie’s core acting class, it was a few weeks into the fall term. He had ebony hair and the sort of eyes that looked like they’d been naturally adorned with liner and mascara. Even obscured under glasses, his thick lashes and amber orbs made an impression. She was immediately struck. That long, dark overcoat. The air of something heavy hanging over his shoulders—not in his posture; in his manner. The British accent, which made itself known when he introduced himself to Dan, the instructor, excusing himself for starting the term late. (There had been a hold-up with his student Visa and he’d had to delay his departure.)

“Glad you finally made it,” Dan said. “Ladies and gentlemen, Jack joins us fresh from treading the boards in London, England.” He glanced sportingly at his newest pupil, whose reputation evidently preceded him. “Welcome. You’re in time for one of my favourite exercises. Everyone, grab a partner and a chair and let’s begin!”

The students spilled from the bleachers and scattered toward the folding chairs stacked behind black velvet curtains that bordered the room on three sides. Sophie held back, observing how her classmates moved. Some were quite natural, others self-conscious and exaggerated, as if their very walk would reveal whether or not they had acting talent.

“All around the room—spread out, make the space yours,” Dan said, fanning his arms to indicate the studio’s vastness. A tall, slim man, his movements were loose and large; he seemed maximally flexible and double-jointed everywhere.

Sophie wanted to avoid being thrust together with an uncommitted partner—she was serious about her craft and a career as an actor. She surveyed the room to see who was still available, and saw that Dan was striding in her general direction, steering Jack by the shoulders. She positioned herself in their path and made sure to catch Dan’s eye. “Ah!” he said. “Now, this could work.” He spread his arm wide as he made the introduction. “Sophie, Jack just finished a run of Splendor in the Grass.” He glanced at Jack. “Where did you say it played?”

“It’s not important,” Jack said, casting his eyes about the studio.

“Off-off-West End?” Dan said lightly.

“Something like that,” Jack said.

“This is Sophie, from Canada,” Dan said. “French Canada, isn’t it?”

“Sherbrooke, in Quebec,” Sophie said. “It’s near Montreal.”

“Sophie is a wonderful actor,” Dan said. “I think you two will make fine partners for this exercise.”

Jack stepped away from Dan. Especially in contrast to Dan’s easy gestures, he seemed rigid. But he softened somewhat once Dan moved onto the next set of students.

“Pleasure to meet you, Sophie,” Jack said, looking directly at her for the first time. He stared hard, even as he smiled at her, and it brought an uneasy feeling to her stomach. He was much taller than she was.

“Likewise,” Sophie said.

“Your English is perfect. Is French your first language?”

“We grew up with both. My father mostly speaks English.”

“Too bad. French is so much more romantic. Would make a beautiful mother tongue.”

Sophie wasn’t sure why, but her cheeks began to flush.

“So—wonderful, huh?” Jack said. “Hope I can keep up.”

“Oh, I don’t know. I’m just starting out.”

“I’m teasing.” He nudged her arm, and the touch went straight to the centre of her. She caught herself lowering her eyes and forced herself not to; she wanted to be confident. She raised her chin and set back her shoulders. Then she took a breath and hoisted a chair from the stack.

“I’ve got that,” Jack said, taking her chair from her. He held it, along with his own chair, in one hand and carried them to a corner of the room. He and Sophie sat opposite one another.

“Alright!” Dan called out, clapping his hands together in a full-body movement that sent ripples through his straggly, shoulder-length hair. “The exercise is this: Think of someone close to you, someone you love and miss. It could be a person you lost, someone you left behind to come here—whatever hits home for you. Fixate on that person. Recall how they make you feel.” He walked the room as he spoke, weaving around the pairs in their chairs. “And with that in mind, I want you to look deeply into your partner’s eyes and project everything you’re feeling onto them. Study their face and imagine you’re looking at the person dear to you. See their eyes, their limbs, their shape morph into one you’ve looked at countless times. And… begin.”

Sophie picked her sister, Charlotte. Charlotte was much younger and had a way of softening Sophie’s already tender heart to the point that she would do almost anything for her. Memories of their years and hours together—with Sophie doting on her, first as a child and gradually as a friend—flowed through her and out of her, emerging as tears that ran down her smiling cheeks.

As she faced Jack, she wondered for the briefest moment whom he had chosen for the exercise. He looked on her so fiercely, with such intent, that it was hard to believe he was thinking of someone platonic. But she quickly chastised herself for not being present, and pulled herself back to where she needed to be.

The longer they stared at one another, each face a canvas for the other’s emotions, the stronger the association grew, until an invisible connection bound them, like threads spanning between the two. After going through the meditation for what felt like 15 minutes, Dan told the class to rise and greet their partners. Sophie flew at Jack, her head to his chest, arms around his waist. He cradled her and nuzzled her head. Then she looked up, still embracing him, and he took her face in his hands and gazed down at her, and it seemed to her that he poured all his love into the empty spaces within her.

There wasn’t much to consider after that. He asked her to be his scene partner for the class, and she eagerly agreed. He chose a scene from Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune by Terrence McNally—“A classic,” Jack said. Sophie hadn’t read the play. But she was willing to defer to his judgment. At 25, he was a professional actor, with significant experience onstage and in television. Sophie, 18, had come to New York straight out of high school, the only place she’d ever acted.

Still, she was keen to see for herself what the play was all about. She headed promptly to the cramped, fourth-floor theatre bookstore near Times Square that was crammed to overflowing with tragedy and farce, and found the play amid the glut of publications, stacked haphazardly on bookcases and the floor. There, camped out under one of the store’s narrow windows, the glossy paint on its ledge chipping off, she tucked her legs out of the way of other avid actors and dramatists stalking the shelves, and read Frankie and Johnny in one go.

Sophie was mesmerized by the play—its intensity, the raw ferociousness of the characters’ passion, the ping pong of emotion. The underlying hunger driving Frankie and Johnny to salvage love, even as they feared it. As soon as she finished reading, she stumbled onto her pins-and-needles feet, paid for the script and dashed out of the crowded shop. She was already grasping at her phone and dialing Jack’s number as she rode the rickety cage elevator down to ground level.

“I love it,” she said as soon as he answered, her breath quickened in excitement. “I think I’m meant to play her.”

He chuckled. “Let’s see how it goes in the read-through. But I’m sure you’ll make a perfect Frankie.”

They focused on a scene at the end of the play, when Johnny convinces Frankie that their liaison is more than a one-night-stand. There was plenty of drama to play off. The scene was fuelled by naked vulnerability that went beyond the question of whether a lasting relationship would be possible; near the end, Frankie reveals to Johnny that the reason she can’t have children is because of how badly her ex-boyfriend beat her.

Sophie and Jack rehearsed in parks, to a soundtrack of whirring skateboards, and skittering pigeons that arrived in formation to the beat of so many wings flapping, a collective flag in the breeze. And always, to snippets of conversation in a babble of languages. Union Square Park; Washington Square Park; once, during a dreamy, sun-soaked afternoon, in Central Park among the gnarly Ramble trees.

It was sometime between Union Square and Central Park that they first slept together. Sophie was nervous; she’d only ever been with one person, her high school boyfriend. Jack hadn’t been with anyone since he’d left England a few weeks earlier—the last time he’d seen his live-in girlfriend, an economic consultant with an Oxford degree.

“I would never do anything to hurt her,” he had said. “But – oh God, Sophie, I can’t stop thinking about you.”

“Jack…” She tried to keep her feelings down.

“She doesn’t know me the way you do. She doesn’t understand our world.” He cupped the side of her face in his large palm, fingers caressing her jawline. “I could never have left you behind for nine months.”

She fell into him then, her lips melding with his. As they lay together, limbs intertwined, she tried not to think about his other life. Instead, she gave herself over to the moments when they lived for their characters, when Frankie and Johnny overtook them and they stepped into someone else’s story. Between the lines, she breathed in those sun-dappled pauses on park benches, when they appeared to passersby as any other beautiful young couple in love.

There they stand in Gramercy Park, she upright on a bench, he on the ground. She leaning onto his shoulder, stroking his cheek with one hand, shining her gaze down on him. He with his eyes closed in ecstasy. A sprinkler goes off beside them and sends a light mist shivering in their direction, droplets catching the late-afternoon light. Sophie and Jack are aglow.

Or in lower town, on a lawn near the ferry to Staten Island. Him lying in the grass with his head on her lap as she smooths his raven hair, dusk kissing them with the last strokes of sunset, a trailing paintbrush of pink and purple, orange and blue. The only two people in the world.

Around the play’s dramatic dialogue, Jack spoke of how he wanted to one day have children with Sophie. He whispered in her ear as he nudged one bra strap down her shoulder, then the other, “You’re wonderful—the perfect woman.” He traced a finger along her spine before spinning her around to face him and dusting her modest cleavage with kisses. Then, peering intently into her eyes, “I can see my whole life with you.”

The more glowing words he offered, the more she began to feel pressure to tell him what had happened with her high school boyfriend. It was particularly hard to forget about when she was immersing herself in her character—Frankie, with her scars, no longer able to have a baby, afraid of not being who Johnny wanted. But Sophie was reluctant to risk the way Jack looked at her: as angelic, almost; pure.

Eventually, she gave in to the guilt. Because, she reasoned, he told her everything, and she wanted to give him all of her in return.

“We were 16,” she said. “We’d only been together a few times… Jack, we didn’t know what to do. We couldn’t raise a baby!”

“Was it his idea?”

She shook her head. “No.” Tears welled in her eyes. “He let me decide. He was very sweet. But after… I couldn’t sleep for weeks.”

Jack took a tense breath. They were lying in bed and she felt him drawing away. Panic rose up in her but she tried to quell it. She leaned into him and reached her hand over his chest. He clamped his hand on hers—to hold it or to stop it, she didn’t quite know.

“What happened after that?” he asked. “With the boyfriend?”

“I didn’t see him again. It was too hard.”

She felt him relax, and he squeezed her hand—the one resting against him.

“Jack, it was awful. I could never do it again.”

He held her and soothed her, and told her it was all over. Then he kissed her belly and said he wished he could swallow all the fear and hurt she’d ever felt. Sophie let the words be true; she needed them to be.

“What are you? My guardian angel?” she said, borrowing from the play.

“A dark angel.”

He squeezed her tight.

The weekend before they were to present their scene to the acting class, Jack’s girlfriend, Emily, unexpectedly came to visit. Sophie might have asked him to break things off with Emily then, if he hadn’t already explained what a difficult time she was having at home—an ailing relative, to begin with, not to mention a highly stressful final quarter at work. Sophie said she understood; of course she did. After all, she told herself, she was the usurper. But she was wrecked.

Emily seemed to have brought the weather with her from London; it rained the entire weekend. Sophie wandered briefly through Greenwich Village on Saturday morning, trying to avoid the bigger crowds in Chinatown or midtown. By then, she was quite at home navigating the hordes that littered every sidewalk, so many bustling ants, herself a speck among them. But umbrellas in New York is an experience to be avoided. For most of the weekend, she was forced inside.

At least the deluge made it easier to avoid Jack and their mutual friends, all of whom knew about Sophie and Jack—nearly everyone at school did. On Saturday night, though, when the rain held back a bit, she went for a walk through the darkened streets near her residence. As she trudged along, unable to gauge how deep the puddles were and where the potholes lay, she found herself outside the Thai restaurant where she knew the group was dining. She couldn’t stop herself from walking in and looking on. There they were in a booth: several of their classmates, from all over the world, and Jack and Emily at the centre of it, his arm slung over her shoulders the way it should only rest against Sophie’s. Emily was attractive, but Sophie had been prepared for that; at Sophie’s insistence, Jack had shown her a picture. Still, seeing her in person was another thing entirely. Rich, lustrous hair; bangs and a cascading mane down her back. Bright, almond eyes. Full lips that Sophie made the mistake of picturing pressed against Jack—his mouth, his body, his eyelids closed in sleep. And Jack himself: he looked so happy. She swallowed hard to choke down a sob. Their friends were smiling, playing along with the scene of Jack and Emily as the happy couple. What else could she expect? They were all actors.

Jack spotted her. She froze before she thawed, and when she did, she ran out and slumped onto the wet curb, soaking her pants while her sneakers stewed in gutter water. He came to her a few minutes later—far longer than she had hoped. He approached her from behind and squatted at her back, shielding her in his arms. “I’m sorry. So, so sorry.” He kissed her head and she leaned into him. “My Sophie.” Tears forged their way down her cheeks, leaving cold trails behind them in the late-autumn night. He wouldn’t notice, she thought; he would probably mistake them for rain.


“Yes, love?”

She pressed her heel into the ground, flexing her foot before letting it splash back into the pooling water. She watched as the tip of her shoe submerged again. A fresh dose of chill ran through her.

“Did you choose Emily?” she asked. “For that first exercise in Dan’s class? Is that who you were thinking of?”


“For the exercise.”

“Of course not! No.”

“Then who – ”

“No one! A friend. A close friend who moved away.”

He pulled back a bit before pressing his lips against her hair—one final kiss in the foggy evening. “Soph, I wish I could stay with you,” he said. “But you know I have to go back in.” He tightened his arms around her. “It’s just one more day. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Then he rose and returned to the restaurant.

On Sunday, once Emily had left, Jack came straight to see Sophie. He took her back to his cheap sublet—men weren’t allowed in Sophie’s residence—and they had sex twice. They’d planned to rehearse their scene one last time, but he couldn’t bear to stop touching her. “I need you, my Sophie,” he said. “Oh God, I missed you.” He told her over and over that he loved her, and she did her best to believe him. It was important to be in the moment.

On Monday, they walked together to class, hand in hand. They sat in the back row, at the top of the bleachers, and waited for Dan to announce their turn onstage. Sophie looked down at the flat-black studio floor strewn with masking tape Xs indicating marks; makeshift bandages, evidence of wounds from other scenes.

She and Jack had rehearsed well. They knew their characters intimately and had taken the time to prepare. Which made it terribly surprising to her when Jack couldn’t remember his lines. Not a single one. The words seemed to have flown off—back to London, maybe.

He sat on a chair, centre stage. Sophie stood behind, leaning over his shoulders, her chin resting against him. “What do you want from me?” she began, adopting the eastern Pennsylvanian accent she’d worked so hard to perfect for Frankie. At first, Jack said nothing. Then he tried stumbling through. She tried skipping ahead to feed him openings. (“I don’t think we’re looking for the same thing,” she offered.) None of it got them anywhere.

“Let’s try improvising,” Dan interjected. He rose from his perch on the front-row bleacher and gestured broadly with one arm, raising it toward the ceiling. “From the top.”

“I don’t remember any of the lines!” Jack barked.

“Forget the lines,” Dan said, pacing the room. “Play the scenario. Be the character.” His words reached the height of the room, all the way to the track lights that hovered over, witness to so much conflict. “Speak from what you know.”

Sophie took the lead. “What do you want?” she asked, still in Frankie’s accent. “What do you want?!”

“Nothing! Everything, I want everything.” Along with the lines, Jack appeared to have forgotten his American accent.

“You can’t have everything from nothing,” she said. “You have to give me something.”

“I told you I love you. What more do you want?”

“I want all of you. I want to stop being afraid of what will happen when… if – ”

“What?! If what?”

You were the one who wanted this. Why do I have to lay it all out?”

Jack had thudded away from her, standing downstage right. Sophie walked purposefully toward him. For an instant, she was dimly aware of the class, of Dan, focusing every breath on the two of them. Then she let all of that go.

Standing so close behind Jack that she could feel his body heat, she spoke: “Was this only ever about sex for you?”

He swung around and knocked her aside, surprised to find her so close to him. “Fuck you, Sophie – Frankie!”

Sophie sharply drew in her breath. Then she regained her footing.

She crossed the studio floor in pursuit of Jack, who had stormed downstage left, closer to the exit. “I can’t believe you would lay a hand on me. After everything.”

“It was an accident.”

“How would I know that?” He didn’t say a word, so she fed him another line, attempting to steer their improvisation closer to course, if not quite where it should have been: “I thought you were weird, Johnny. I thought you were sad. I didn’t think you were cruel.”

Jack turned abruptly to face her. “Maybe you don’t know me. Maybe we never knew each other.” He was shaking, his shoulders tense, as if he were holding back a punch. “You want to know what this is? It sure as hell isn’t about building a future together.”

“Have you been lying to me all this time, then? All night? These last few weeks?”

“How could there be a future. You can’t have children. I bet you never even wanted that baby.”

“Don’t you talk about my baby!” The words erupted from deep in Sophie’s gut. “You aren’t fit to say the words.”

“You’re nuts.”

Sophie turned from Jack. She swept away tears with her fingers and rubbed her wrist under her moistened nose. She sniffed lightly before speaking. “That’s my line.”

“And: scene,” Dan said. “Okay.” Uncharacteristically, he stayed seated in the bleachers. He cleared his throat. “Well. Why don’t we save the discussion for next time.” A rush of relief seemed to blow through the audience. “Let’s break for today and revisit this on Wednesday. Thanks, everyone.”

The room billowed briefly as Dan and the other actors wordlessly filtered out, trying with varying levels of success not to gawk at Jack and Sophie as they passed them.

“What the hell was that?” Jack said, once they were alone.

“What was what?” She stood centre stage, while he remained downstage left.

“You had to keep throwing lines in my face? Were you trying to humiliate me?”

“That’s not – ”

“It was an improv—you didn’t have to do the accent.”

He wasn’t looking right at her. His eyeline was slightly above or below where it should have been. Sophie would have blamed the bright stage lights, but they weren’t on—only the uniform overhead fluorescents.

“And what was with that baby crack?” Jack said. “I’m not fit to talk about that? I mean, what the fuck.”

“How could you say that to me? You know how I feel about it.”

“I was in character.”

“So was I!”

By that point, there was more than just an eyeline mismatch. Jack no longer faced Sophie. “You know,” he said, “if you got pregnant now… I hope you know what I’d expect.”

Sophie wheezed softly as the breath went out of her. At last, she said, “I guess it really is easier to tell the truth when you’re not looking at someone.”

“The line is: It’s funny how you can talk to people better sometimes when you’re not looking at them.”

Now you remember.”

Jack grabbed his overcoat and exited stage left. Sophie stayed still, in the middle of the studio floor. It felt dark and wide, yawning its jaws around her. She filled her chest with air to see if she remembered how. When her body responded, she tried moving one arm, lifting it to her abdomen. Then she took a step forward. Her joints seemed unsteady, but she found she was able to command them.

Slowly, she gathered her things and walked back to her room in the women’s residence.

Sophie didn’t call Jack. When she didn’t see him on Wednesday morning, she assumed he had transferred to another core acting class. But that afternoon, she overheard some of the students talking about how he had withdrawn from school and returned to London. Her heart did a freefall.

The next couple of days went numb for her. Somehow, though, they managed to unfold onto the weekend, and she clung to Saturday and Sunday for the chance to revisit some of the places she’d shared with Jack—until it occurred to her how she’d spent the previous weekend: mooning about the city, as much as the rain had allowed, thinking only of Jack, and of herself and Jack, and of Emily and Jack.

She left the park bench she’d been sitting on and went west, winding up by the Hudson River. There, she walked out to the shallow wrought iron fence and rested her forearms against the barrier.

Gazing out at the Hudson, Sophie thought back on Dan’s exercise from so many weeks ago. She shuddered under her jacket. Then she began to replay the assignment. But instead of conjuring feelings tied to one person or another, she focused on why she’d come to New York to begin with. And on what she had to embrace, and to let fall away, to become who she wanted.

Something inside her shifted. There was a loosening, a giving. And a reopening; space again for what should have been flowing through.

The wind was picking up. She pulled her hood closer around her face, planted her hands in her pockets, and headed back into the heart of the city.

For the remainder of the term, she made a point of choosing the plays for her scene studies. Many of them featured monologues. After that first session ended in December—and after going home for the holidays—she re-committed fiercely to her craft. She was an intuitive performer with keen instincts and a natural rhythm for dialogue. It didn’t take long for her to stand out among her peers—or for agents to start buzzing around her, tipped off by her instructors.

In the final months at school, she took on as wide a range of roles as possible, gleaning everything she could from her classes. The rest of the time, to clear her mind and seek new inspiration, she continued to get to know the city on foot.

She slowly began running again, and by spring, when her hip had fully healed, she spent many afternoons doing laps around the Reservoir. New York is an extraordinary place to spend April and May, particularly in Central Park, where pink blossoms lend a softer hue to the fields and pathways. After a bleak winter, the city was reborn in cherry and crab-apple. It brought a freshness to the air that did away with some of the dark and dirt, so that Sophie could draw clean breaths for the first time in a while. It felt good to fill her lungs with what she needed to propel herself forward—to be strong again in her body.

Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love

Sunday, August 18th, 2019—Film

Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love (USA 2019, Documentary/Music), Writer/Director: Nick Broomfield

Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love is a documentary about Leonard Cohen that’s framed around his relationship with Marianne Ihlen, a Norwegian woman he met in the 1960s when they were “almost young, deep in the green lilac park” on the Greek island of Hydra. Cohen was a writer on vacation, searching for inspiration; Ihlen was a single mother living there with her young son.

The pair fell in love and Cohen stayed on the island much longer than planned. Ihlen became his muse, the woman behind his songs ‘So Long, Marianne’ and ‘Bird on a Wire,’ among others. They were entangled in a relationship that lasted for years, sometimes together, sometimes apart.

I say that the documentary is framed by their relationship, because in spite of its title, the film ultimately focuses more on Cohen’s career than on Ihlen herself or even their love story. It’s not necessarily a bad thing; director Nick Broomfield shares insights and remarkable archival footage that reveal Cohen’s family life, his professional trajectory from skewered novelist to celebrated songwriter and poet, his internal struggle with becoming a performer, his years at a Buddhist monastery. Watching the film, you learn where certain lyrics originated, getting hints of how Cohen worked and what sparked his flames of genius – like the baskets of food and water Ihlen dropped over the Greek balcony while Leonard wrote, feverishly, fueled by speed and acid, in the drug daze of Hydra.

We do also get insider glimpses at what Cohen and Ihlen shared, and what it meant to him. Broomfield was briefly involved with Ihlen, and he does his research in gathering personal quotes and anecdotes about the famous couple. It’s a privileged perspective to open up to the audience, to the world. For me, it showed that Cohen may have romanticized his time with Ihlen. He continued to mention her at his concerts even after their split, and shows remorse to her through his writing (I have torn everyone who reached out for me. But I swear by this song and by all that I have done wrong, I will make it all up to thee). But was it really Ihlen or more the idea of her that appeared, for decades, to mesmerize him?

By the film’s account, Cohen wasn’t fully satisfied by his life with “Marianne and the child.” He felt the pull to return to Montreal, to live real life and seek new inspiration. (Well you know that I love to live with you, but you make me forget so very much. I forget to pray for the angels and then the angels forget to pray for us.) Gradually, he spent less of each year living with Ihlen, drawn by a need for connection with the transcendent—and other women.

Marianne & Leonard often alludes to Cohen’s many dalliances, including one with Janis Joplin. What he offered women was the ability to make them feel great about themselves, worshipped and adored, while in his presence. What he could never provide was the ability, or perhaps the desire, to make it last.

To hear Cohen’s songs, read his poetry, he seemed keenly aware of his failings, as well as his vulnerability and power:

I heard of a man
who says words so beautifully
that if he only speaks their name
women give themselves to him.

If I am dumb beside your body
while silence blossoms like tumors on our lips
it is because I hear a man climb stairs
and clear his throat outside our door.

But also:

Do not forget old friends
you knew long before I met you
the times I know nothing about
being someone
who lives by himself
and only visits you on a raid

In his film, Broomfield pointedly highlights Cohen’s poem ‘Days of Kindness,’ including a reading by Cohen:

What I loved in my old life
I haven’t forgotten
It lives in my spine
Marianne and the child
The days of kindness
It rises in my spine
and it manifests as tears
I pray that loving memory
exists for them too
the precious ones I overthrew
for an education in the world

It made me wonder: was the sacrifice worth it to Cohen? If he’d had the chance, would he have traded in that worldly education to stand by Ihlen and her son?

Even if he regretted the personal toll inflicted by his career and fame (and his gypsy spirit), was it worth it for the rest of us? For the millions inspired by his exceptional gift of words? I know more people who are deeply touched by his songs and poems than by any other artist. Who could un-wish Cohen’s lyrical legacy?

Finally, I wondered: is it necessary, as the film suggests, for the great poets, filmmakers, singers to have that interpersonal distance—to be free, in their way—if they are to create truly magnificent art?

Marianne & Leonard reflects the sun-baked beauty of life on Hydra, of the countless artists who flocked there to sculpt and write and sketch. It also paints the island as a destructive place from which the human seeds that were sowed later unravelled; the children and spouses of open marriage, free love and rampant drugs found their way to addiction, suicide, mental illness. (Ihlen’s son wound up in an institution.)

For all Cohen’s extraordinary writing, he was, by many accounts, depressive, addictive and unstable. His words are eternal and painfully poignant. He was an otherworldly poet. But, to me, whether intended or not, the film makes a case for the poetry of everyday life: of cherished moments with family and loved ones, particularly the children who were never asking to be born, who deserve loving, reliable homes.

I don’t think Marianne & Leonard offers a fully realized portrait of Cohen. You don’t have to look far to find different interpretations of his personality, his character, his actions, and appraisals of his strengths and weaknesses, from people who knew him well. And, in framing the film around Ihlen’s role in Cohen’s life, Broomfield minimizes the singer’s many other friendships and partnerships, including his long-term relationship with Suzanne Elrod, the mother of his two children. (In fact, Broomfield all but ignores Cohen’s role as their father, and suggests that Elrod deliberately trapped him with their two children, while Ihlen had an abortion when she became pregnant with Cohen’s child, so he could be free. Was that really Ihlen’s motivation? Is that a fair depiction of Suzanne?)

Still, there’s a lot of wonderful material; Judy Collins, for one, provides enlightening accounts. And skewed or not, the intimate moments unveiled in Marianne & Leonard are something special, offering a hidden perspective that is rare to see of any couple, let alone one so mythical. Ihlen and Cohen famously passed on within months of each other, in 2016, both in their early 80s. She died first, of leukemia, and when Cohen learned of her condition, he promptly wrote her a letter. In one of the film’s most moving segments, Broomfield takes us inside her hospital room, showing footage of her reaction as a dear friend reads aloud Cohen’s last words of love to her. It’s an incredible thing to watch.

Whatever the true nature of Cohen and Ihlen’s relationship, their involvement has become legend, having inspired some of the greatest work by one of the greatest poets of all time. That makes Marianne & Leonard worth seeing for any Cohen lover.

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Thanks to Kickass Canadian Lee Demarbre for bringing Words of Love: Marianne & Leonard to the Mayfair. It’s playing there again this week, if you get the chance to see it.

The Wonders (Le meraviglie)

Thursday, July 4th, 2019—Film

The Wonders (Italy/Switzerland/Germany 2014, Drama), Writer/Director: Alice Rohrwacher

“Have you seen The Wonders? It is a wonderful—literally—recent movie by a great young woman director, set in the countryside… I think you will really like it. The director’s name is Alice Rohrwacher. She is one of the very, very few Italian directors who can represent female experience.”

That was the recommendation I got this past spring from Frank Burke, one of my film professors while I was studying at Queen’s University. Now professor emeritus, he was best known then (and maybe still to this day!) for his love of all things Italian, especially Fellini.

When we reconnected in April, the conversation unsurprisingly turned to films, filmmaking and Italy, all of which led to him recommending The Wonders. I took him up on it, and he was right: it is wonderful and I did really like it. I watched it in pieces, as has been my norm since becoming a mamma. And it’s taken until now to get this post up. But I felt moved to finally write something because of how much I enjoyed the film and because of the context around seeing it.

Watching The Wonders took me back to film school. It was “assigned” through a prof, yes. But also, the film itself is that special hybrid of an immersive viewing experience—even in pieces!—that is still worth pondering months later. For me, it reinforced film’s power to tell stories and histories, to reflect on cultures and offer a variety of viewpoints. And it stirred up all sorts of reflections on the great films I studied at Queen’s, seen from hard-backed lecture hall chairs, or from wobbly-backed Film House stools while leaning over DVD viewing stations, headphones locking out the surrounding world and inviting me into another.

This world, the one of The Wonders, is largely concerned with Gelsomina (Maria Alexandra Lungu). She’s the eldest of four daughters to parents Angelica (Alba Rohrwacher, the writer/director’s sister) and Wolfgang (Sam Louwyck), beekeepers nestled in the Tuscan countryside. The family is struggling to sustain their way of life, especially in the face of new European farming codes they can’t afford to meet.

The film’s gentle conflict begins brewing into something stronger when two things happen: Gelsomina stumbles onto the set of a reality TV show called Countryside Wonders and registers her family’s business in hopes of winning the prize money, despite her father’s disapproval; Wolfgang, in turn, hosts Martin (Luis Huilca), a German farmhand from a paid youth-reform program, despite his wife’s concerns.

Through that narrative—but even more so, through Rohrwacher’s sensitive, lyrical direction—what The  Wonders really explores is the claustrophobia and closeness that comes of a loving family living in such small quarters. And the tenderness they show each other, mainly between the sisters and their mother (“When he’s not here we can breathe,” Angelica says of her husband), but also, ultimately, from Wolfgang as well, despite his gruffness.

The Wonders also looks at people and cultures grappling with changing times. While watching the film, as if in a slideshow or on a ride down a sun dappled, tree-lined lane, different films I’d seen at Queen’s flickered through my mind. Bye Bye Brazil for its nod to carnival, showmanship and fading ways of the past. Chocolat (the 1988 French/African film from writer/director Claire Denis, not the Juliette Binoche / Johnny Depp confection) and Daughters of the Dust, even what I remember of Burnt by the Sun, for their portraits of the final clashing strokes of cultural and political shifts, but also for providing a child’s perspective on an adult world. It’s a very different lens through which to interpret events, and it lends a compelling new look.

Other films came to mind, too—ones I’ve seen more recently. Call Me By Your Name, which I adored but didn’t get to writing about here. For its Italian countryside, of course, and also its direction; the lingering gaze, the silences, the way it lets characters and emotions play out in real time, exploding or softly simmering. The Wonders adopts a similar approach, with its languid layers and organic flow, a camera that takes its time without missing a beat, pacing the film so we can look in on a life, on lives, and really sense who the characters are. Rohrwacher spins poetry from everyday routine. And all that outdoor time, the rooms that flow one to the next, never shutting her characters off from their nature.

I also thought of Sleeping Giant: youth at play—particularly in the water, as the girls of The Wonders so often are—discovering themselves, hinting at the many directions life could claim. And Moonrise Kingdom, completely different in tone but still delighting in the way children are, as Rohrwacher frequently does. For example, how the sisters frolic and interact; at one point, Gelsomina instructs Marinella (Agnese Graziani) to “drink” sunbeams.

The Wonders does a lot with light and shadow. The most gorgeous moment comes near the end, after Martin runs off and Gelsomina finds him in the caves across the water (youngsters fleeing, playing hide and seek with the beginnings of romance—another nod to Moonrise Kingdom). Martin never speaks; he only whistles. When Gelsomina discovers his hiding place, she enters his wordless world, and there’s a glorious scene of shadow dancing, their spirits at play on the cave roofs. Then the camera’s wandering eye tilts back down on the two of them sleeping, and you wonder whether the interlude was in their dreams or simply dreamlike.

The Wonders offers a gentle look at growing up, apart, anew, for a culture and a family and a girl. It showcases beautiful direction and imagery, and strong performances from its entire cast, particularly Lungu and Alba Rohrwacher, a celebrated Italian actor. The film was selected to compete for the Palme d’Or at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival and won the Grand Prix. With that, and without hesitation, I’m paying forward the recommendation of The Wonders to you, along with Frank’s other Alice Rohrwacher titles, Corpo Celeste and Happy as Lazarus. I haven’t seen them yet, but I’m pretty sure I’ll love them, too.

Long Lost (feat. writer/director Erik Bloomquist)

Friday, March 22nd, 2019—Film

Long Lost (USA 2019, Drama/Mystery/Thriller), Writer/Director: Erik Bloomquist

When I first started watching Long Lost, the debut feature from writer/director Erik Bloomquist, I was taken aback. I’d seen some of his previous short films, so I wasn’t surprised by how polished and professional his indie feature was. (Thomson Nguyen’s cinematography is especially outstanding.) What I wasn’t expecting from someone as seemingly thoughtful and understanding as Erik, was a rather unappealing trope: the lone female character as temptress, prize, sex object. Fortunately, by the time I finished Long Lost, it became clear that things in its cineverse are not what they appear. “It’s a misdirect,” says Erik.

Long Lost is touted as an erotic thriller. Here’s the official synopsis: “Long Lost stars Adam Weppler as Seth, a young man invited to spend a long weekend at a Connecticut mansion with his long lost millionaire half-brother Richard (Nicholas Tucci), who, along with his enigmatic live-in girlfriend, Abby (Catherine Corcoran), leads Seth down a psychological rabbit hole wherein luxury and temptation are intermingled with treachery and taboo.”

Yet talk to Erik, as I was lucky to be able to, and you get the sense that there’s much more going on—that first impressions don’t reflect reality. “Long Lost is a meditation on loneliness, identity and the roles we play … wrapped up in a pulpy, dark-humoured genre package,” he says. “I hope it leaves people wanting to see it again because it’s a very different experience when you’re watching it a second time.”

He’s achieved that goal, at least for me. Our chat left me eager to take another look at the film’s screener. And it left an even more positive impression on me than the one he first made when I discovered his work nearly four years ago.

In 2015, Erik reached out to request that I review his short film, The Cobblestone Corridor. Since then, he and his production banner, Mainframe Pictures, have expanded the short into a nationally syndicated television series, which won him two 2017 New England Emmy Awards (Outstanding Writer and Outstanding Director), and garnered an Outstanding Actor win for Nick Moss, as well as six other Emmy nominations, including one for Erik as Outstanding Performer. Mainframe has also created and released several other short films, including Intermedium, which is set for this summer’s festival circuit, and has “another couple of features in the works.”

Oh, and among many more achievements, Erik delivered an excellent 2018 TEDx Talk at Saint Andrews School and was named one of Connecticut Magazine’s 40 Under 40: The Class of 2019 (along with the likes of world-renowned journalist Ronan Farrow).

So he’s been busy. “I’m definitely a very long multi-hyphenate,” he says. “Holistic storyteller, content creator, teacher, whatever—I’m lucky to be able to work in this business full-time… I think the fact that I do jump back and forth between roles and mediums only strengthens me when I move on to the next.”

He decided to create his first feature film as an independent production because, as he says, “people aren’t going to ‘let’ you direct a feature unless you’ve directed one. For (the sake of everyone involved), it was something we really wanted to do; we didn’t want to wait for permission or wait for… somebody to airdrop a bunch of money on us.”

Working with whatever private equity they could raise, Erik and his team of longtime collaborators came together, called on favours from fellow cast and crew, and found ways to stretch every dollar so they could make the film “as big (and as thoroughly considered) as it could possibly be without the seams showing,” he says. “I’ve been lucky to work with a lot of the same people over the past five years—super-strong creatives and technicians. I know that’s the only way we were able to make Long Lost, a feature film shot in 10 days. It’s because we have this mental shorthand and this mutual stake in the project.”

The story, which he developed with actor/producer Adam Weppler and writer/producer Carson Bloomquist (his younger brother—although thankfully for their family, Long Lost isn’t at all autobiographical!), came about because “we were attracted to this idea of identity shifting based on who is in the room,” says Erik. “There are three characters in this movie but there are actually seven different relationship dynamics. There’s the group when it’s the three of them together, there’s each pairing of two and then there’s each individual. So even though there are only three people, there are seven different things to explore, and just watching how that shifts based on who walked into or out of a room was very interesting to me. And wrapping it up in this sexy puzzle film, we thought was the best way to do that.”

When a sprawling, isolated Connecticut estate became available, the trio crafted the narrative around the location. “Knowing what those rooms looked like and what we had access to certainly informed the choices we were making,” says Erik. “(We started from) this idea of family and what it means to be someone’s brother or kin if you’ve never met them before, what kind of allegiances that has, what kind of ties bind. Then the house sort of become a fourth character or echo chamber for the increasingly bizarre eccentricities of that relationship.”

Just as the Long Lost characters ultimately delve into questions of identity and intent, Erik hopes that viewers will see his film as an opportunity to reflect on their own lives—their personas, their loneliness, their desires—and to come together, to occupy the same space, whether literally or metaphorically.

“People are in so many different places—they move, they have work, they have whatever. I like creating a piece of art that can magnetize people back to centre… I like making things that are social experiences and that start conversations; things that can feel like thrill rides or awaken people’s imaginations in a way that they normally aren’t.”

*          *          *

Long Lost is slated for a 30-city limited theatrical run beginning March 29, 2019 and an Amazon-exclusive digital release April 10 (National Siblings Day), with more platforms to follow. It has already picked up several awards on the festival circuit, including Audience Choice at the Eastern Oregon Film Festival, Best Feature Film at the Nevermore Film Festival and the Grand Jury Prize at the Laughlin International Film Festival.

You can watch the trailer here.

Vice (feat. production designer Patrice Vermette)

Thursday, January 24th, 2019—Film

Vice (USA 2018, Biography/Comedy/Drama), Writer/Director: Adam McKay

Last month, a few days after the start of what has become the longest government shutdown in U.S. history, Vice hit theatres. Just as writer/director Adam McKay’s The Big Short exposed corruption in the U.S. mortgage market, Vice explores the same beast in politics—American in particular, but also the political machine in general. In this film, though, the beast has a name: Dick Cheney (played magnificently by Christian Bale), widely known as the most powerful Vice-President in American history.

Vice lifts the curtain on Cheney’s role in American politics, starting with his internship under then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell) and ending with his eight years as Vice-President to George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell). It examines the personal motivations that drove Cheney to become a “servant to power” and underscores the tremendous, lasting impact his vice-presidency had on the world, especially regarding the Iraq War, Big Oil and foreign policy.

Sound a little dry? It’s not, because it’s dressed in McKay’s trademark fashion: quirky, comedic asides; intercut footage of actual events; a charismatic narrator along for the ride. Like The Big Short, Vice succeeds in packing a heavy, information-packed punch while also tickling the funny bone. In recognition of that agile feat, the film was recently nominated for eight Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Director and Best Original Screenplay for McKay, Best Actor (Bale), Best Supporting Actress (Amy Adams as Lynne Cheney), Best Supporting Actor (Rockwell), Best Makeup & Hairstyling and Best Film Editing (Hank Corwin).

For any film, success on that level requires an incredible amount of work from a huge team of people. When the film spans five decades, from the 1960s to the early 2000s, and includes more than 200 sets from locations as far flung and diverse as Wyoming, Texas, Italy, Vietnam, Cambodia, Afghanistan, Iraq, the United Nations Headquarters, the White House, the Pentagon and many more, it becomes a Herculean effort. Add to that challenge the fact that Vice was shot in just 54 days and that every scene had to be shot in and around the Los Angeles area, and you’ve got what might seem like an insurmountable task.

Image courtesy of Patrice Vermette

Except that McKay chose his team from among the very best. I had the privilege of talking to one of his key players about exactly how they were able to pull off what they did with Vice: Patrice Vermette, the Canadian Screen Award nominated (Enemy), two-time Academy Award nominated (Arrival, The Young Victoria), Kickass Canadian production designer. Patrice graciously took time to chat with me from Budapest, where he’s currently in pre-production on a new adaptation of Dune (part one of two, due out in 2020). The project reunites him with his frequent collaborators, director Denis Villeneuve and storyboard artist Sam Hudecki. “The family is back together again,” says Patrice.

Patrice first read the script for Vice in the midst of the 2017 Oscar season, when he was nominated for Arrival. Right away, he was floored. Or, more accurately, ceilinged; one of the comedic scenes had him literally jumping for joy on the bed. “The script was really the best script I have read in my life,” he says.

The opportunity to work with McKay was also a major attraction. “I loved The Big Short for multiple reasons,” says Patrice. “First of all, it’s entertaining, but it deals with a very, very serious subject. Adam is so politicized and I think it’s part of his mission right now, after working on comedies, to use the talent he has as a storyteller to (help) people understand complex concepts. The way that he treats (each subject), it’s very unique.”

Patrice himself is always a keen student of whatever subject his current project revolves around. From royalty to aliens to drug cartels, he’s fascinated by learning, as much out of genuine curiosity as by the desire to get every detail right on his films. With Vice, he was eager to learn more about American politics because of how pervasive they are; whether or not you live in the United States, you’re most likely impacted by the country’s political decisions, to some degree.

Image courtesy of Patrice Vermette

But Patrice was also fascinated by the script because of how it shows that politics in general “have been hijacked. I don’t think it’s just the United States; it’s everywhere in the world, at different levels. Now, business techniques like focus groups are extremely useful for governments to sell policies that are unpopular… They use the same techniques as advertising companies and entertainment businesses, and it’s very bizarre; all the interest groups are extremely influential because they put so much money into getting people elected. It’s quite frightening.

“With movies, of course there’s an entertainment aspect to it, but if we can also deal with subjects that make people aware of certain aspects of the world they live in, it’s even better. When I read the script for Vice, I thought it was a perfect example of that; entertainment mixed with important subject matter, not just pure entertainment.”

Image courtesy of Patrice Vermette

Taken as he was by the script, Patrice always tasks himself with the job of “going deeper than just the written words.” As a production designer, he’s after the visual story between the lines on the page—the locations, sets and props that will project the script’s mood onto the screen and reflect it back into our hearts.

For him, the process begins by creating mood boards that capture the feeling he plans to convey on each location. With Vice, everything had to be shot near Los Angeles, as requested by Bale, who wanted to stay near his family throughout production. “No Christian, no Cheney,” says Patrice. “He’s amazing in the role. He’s an awesome guy, as well.”

So, Southern California it was. Patrice, along with McKay, location manager John Panzarella and cinematographer Greig Fraser, set about securing the best spots for each scene. Given the vast list of locations, that meant shooting several scenes on sound stages.

“There were some inevitable sets that had to be shot onstage because we would never find locations for those,” says Patrice. “Obviously everything that takes place in the White House, the UN Headquarters, the Supreme Court—all these things that are well documented are obvious builds because people will know if we try to pretend that we’re at the Supreme Court and we’re not, and we want to be as accurate as we can.”

Image courtesy of Patrice Vermette

To that end, the team decided to create one-wall or sometimes two-wall sets, so they could make each scene as believable as possible within the confines of Sony’s sound stages. “It became a huge Tetris game. It was quite a challenge for my supervising art director, Brad Ricker.” The film’s schedule also dictated that some of the sets be quickly redressed to serve as multiple locations within the same shooting day.

Image courtesy of Patrice Vermette

For other scenes, Patrice and the crew were able to find suitable stand-ins. “In California, the landscape is quite extraordinary,” he says. “We found mountainsides to match Afghanistan. We found a film ranch [Santa Clarita’s Blue Cloud Movie Ranch] in which there were partial sets of Iraq, and we built around that, enhanced it to shoot our scenes… There was a very flat beach around Santa Monica, and at a certain level you don’t see the sea, if the camera is low enough, so one angle works for Saudi Arabia.”

Image courtesy of Patrice Vermette

Still, it was demanding to find locations that met with the team’s high standards. Dressing LA to look like Milan, for example, was particularly difficult. “LA doesn’t look anything like Milan. But we made it work. It was a great challenge but also a fun challenge.”

Beyond the locations, he also took great care to ensure that each set helped further the story. He was thrilled to reteam with set designer Jan Pascale, with whom he collaborated on Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario. “Jan is extraordinary,” says Patrice. “We share the same passion and attention to detail, and I love her dearly.”

That commitment to detail is unwavering. But it doesn’t mean he intends his choices to outshine any other element of the films he works on. “I think production design should be invisible. (With period pieces), I try to match the reality of the era without it being a parody. It needs to be real and discreet and subtle. I think ‘less is more’ is always the right approach.”

He takes that subtlety so far as to incorporate what he calls subliminal storytelling into his production design. For Vice, At McKay’s encouragement, that included visual references to the military, the petroleum industry and “the image of the cowboy and the Great West.”

Patrice also looked for opportunities to add little bits of humour, for those of us who are quick enough to notice. In the scene where Cheney gets the pivotal phone call asking him to consider the vice-presidency, Patrice placed a painting prominently on the wall. It’s an image of two dogs—a big one holding a stick and a smaller one looking up at the bigger dog, pining for the stick. “We made the big dog look a bit like Dick Cheney and the smaller dog like George W. Bush,” says Patrice. (The devil is in the details…) “It’s the fun that I have on every movie; I do things like that.”

With Amy Adams, Christian Bale; Image courtesy of Patrice Vermette

You can be sure that he put just as much attention and devotion into every other part of Vice’s production design—even the parts you won’t see in the final cut. There’s the scene that made him jump up and down on the bed when he first read the script: a musical interlude set in the Capitol Building. And the Nelson Rockefeller side storyline. “Every movie leaves scenes on the cutting room floor. There were some very, very hard choices, but in the end it’s all for the better because it makes a better, tighter movie.” (And there may still be hope that we can see the omitted footage. Says Patrice, “I hear that Adam wants to add some of the cut scenes when they release the Blu Ray and DVD.”)

With Steve Carell; Image courtesy of Patrice Vermette

One sequence that Patrice was particularly sorry to see go was set in the 1950s, when Cheney witnesses his grandfather die of a heart attack. The neighbourhood outside the grandfather’s house features the cookie cutter homes built just after WWII that were “made to realize the dream that everybody could own an affordable house. Back then, the plan actually worked. They created the suburbs and it was relatively affordable, although (the houses) all looked the same.”

He planned the location to mirror similar houses shown later in the film, at a life-altering moment for the narrator, played by Jesse Plemons. “So many years later, those houses that all look the same are all built with crappy materials and are all overpriced, and unfortunately people are now all being sold the dream that everybody can live like a king, in houses that are too expensive for their means,” says Patrice. “It’s another example of how that concept totally derailed into making profits for dream sellers, which (Adam addressed) in The Big Short. It was important for me to include those cookie cutter houses, (because the scene was) in the same era that they were being taken back by banks.”

With such intense focus on every scene in each project, I’m amazed at Patrice’s ability to stay fresh throughout the massive productions he takes on. His current shoot for Dune will run through to August of this year, keeping him away from his family, based in Montreal: his wife, painter Martine Bertrand, and their 17-year-old daughter and 15-year-old son. That, he says, is the hardest part of filmmaking. “But that’s how it’s been even since before the kids. My wife was the one who was travelling all the time in the 90s, working in Europe as a costume designer for stage. Then I started travelling all the time, first working on commercials and then the movies. So, we’re kind of used to that, it’s kind of our family (way), but it’s still hard.”

There’s also the mental exhaustion that must come from continually tapping the creative well to such great depths. “Trying to sleep is sometimes very, very difficult,” he says. “But (the key is to) never forget to take moments for yourself. My thing is, I love food and when I’m away from Montreal I find my little oases, which are restaurants, and I like to go out every night to eat good food. That’s my little treat at the end of the day.” The day of our interview—a Sunday, but he’s working anyway—his dinner plans are to eat at Indigo, “a great Indian restaurant in Budapest.”

Of course, those creature comforts along the way aren’t the only reward for giving so much of himself to his career. He is deeply passionate about working on creative, significant projects that have the capacity to change minds, even lives. To make movies that matter.

“I hope with a movie like Vice, obviously it talks to the already converted. But if there are a few people who realize that’s how (the political system) works—if they stop and say, ‘Wait a minute, is that for real? Is that how it works?”—I think if there’s a few people who realize that or ask that question or become more aware of how things are being played, and not just about the Iraq War but about politics in general, I think the movie will have reached its goal.”

Vice is in theatres now. Good luck to the entire team at next month’s Academy Awards.

*          *          *

A big thank you to Patrice for so generously sharing his time and insights.

And thanks to Isaac for joining me at the movies. I don’t get to the theatres much these days, and getting to go with one of my nephews makes it all the more special!

Every Brilliant Thing

Wednesday, December 20th, 2017—Film

Every Brilliant Thing (USA 2016, Documentary), Writers: Duncan Macmillan, Jonny Donahoe; Directors: Fenton Bailey, Randy Barbato

Babies laughing.

That would be on my list if I kept a list of Every Brilliant Thing worth living for.

That’s what the unnamed central character does in Every Brilliant Thing, a play by Duncan Macmillan, which was filmed over three performances in New York City to produce the HBO documentary of the same name.

The character started the list when he was seven years old, in response to his mother’s first suicide attempt: his own eight-page attempt to remind his mother of Every Brilliant Thing that makes life worth living. At such a tender age, his sweet, innocent, loving list included things like “staying up past your bedtime and being allowed to watch TV.”

Sadly, his mother’s struggle with mental illness continued. When she gave him cause to revisit the list, it matured along with him to include items like “the smell of old books” and “when someone actually reads the book you recommend.” Eventually, the list swelled to more than one million Things.

A one-man play, Every Brilliant Thing is narrated by an adult version of the boy, embodied by British comedian Jonny Donahoe. He recounts his life and the impact his list has had. But as with most great stories, it’s not what he says; it’s how he says it.

The show takes place in a small, bare studio and is performed in the round, with the audience surrounding Donahoe on all sides. Before the show begins, select audience members are given numbered items from the list, and Donahoe calls on them throughout the show to read the items out loud. During the performance, he also chooses audience members to play supporting characters—his first love, his father, the veterinarian who put down his beloved dog.

I happened upon this documentary while feeding my little one—and yes, listening to her laugh. As a new mom, I have much less opportunity to get out to movies, and the few I watch at home are never seen in one viewing.

I also have less time to write about movies, so I hope you’ll join me on this shortcut. Here’s my Top Three list of what I loved most about Every Brilliant Thing:

1. It presents documentary as life. There are no talking heads; it’s just a beautiful, touching story told masterfully by Donahoe and supported by heartfelt, genuine reactions from the audience. Of course, the documentary’s subject is the play itself, so it’s a bit of a cheat—there’s no call for talking heads with Donahoe leading the way. But watching audience members participate and respond provides all the commentary you would ever need. It’s a lovely reflection and telling of the play, and the film doesn’t require anything more. (Wisely, it rarely departs from straightforward footage of Donahoe and his audience, other than to nod its head at a few black and white memories, raise its voice on the soundtrack at key moments, or add a few titles here and there.)

2. The list itself. It’s such a joyous celebration of life. In a world where many people focus too often on their lists of pet peeves, what a thing to celebrate the great (and minute) details that make life on this planet worth living.

3. Audience engagement/participation. It’s a brilliant thing to behold, seeing the emotion come forward as unprepared audience members enact scenes from someone else’s story. It’s an exercise in watching what happens when people really listen to one another.

Theatre can create such a safe, welcoming space for this kind of connection. Every Brilliant Thing brings back many memories for me: of a show I saw at The Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute in New York City, a few months after 9/11, in which audience members were invited to hold hands and join the cast in communal healing; of joining National Arts Centre actors in their group exercises as they got acquainted for the first time before a read-through of Twelfth Night (directed by Kickass Canadian Jillian Keiley).

Most significantly, it reminds me of a play I saw a few years ago, Martin Moran’s The Tricky Part. Another one-man show, it bravely addresses Moran’s real-life experiences of surviving child sexual abuse and, subsequently, attempting suicide. Like Donahoe, Moran interacts with his audience. He started the show chatting with us all, and when he slipped into the scripted narration, it was so organic that I couldn’t say exactly when it happened; I just realized at some point that he had already drawn us in.

If you follow this blog, you’ll know that, in general, I’m drawn more to film than to theatre. It’s what I studied, and I love the intimacy the camera offers, the cinematography, the limitless potential with location, with sound and score. But only live theatre can create a space for real-time interaction, real community and connection, the way Donahoe and Moran do. It’s a remarkable and very special thing to be part of.

Amazingly, Every Brilliant Thing achieves what The Tricky Part also manages: handling intensely difficult subject matter with care and grace, while eliciting much more laughter from its audience than tears (though there are both, to be sure). It feels at once deeply personal and also universal. Unlike The Tricky Part, Every Brilliant Thing isn’t a true story. But it feels like one.

If you get the chance to see the documentary on HBO, I hope you’ll take it.

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For my brilliant baby girl, who tops the list.

A Better Man

Wednesday, August 16th, 2017—Film

A Better Man (Canada 2017, Documentary), Writer/Directors: Lawrence Jackman, Attiya Khan

When my friend TS told me a couple years ago about an upcoming documentary that explores conversations between a woman and her former abuser, I was amazed and excited. I’d never heard of any film like it, and I knew how important it could be.

I studied both film and psychology in university, and wrote my psych thesis on the benefits of reconciliation between survivors and perpetrators (only when the offender is able to take responsibility). I believe we need to adopt a holistic, inclusive approach to address and move away from gender-based violence. For healing to happen, we must find ways of bringing people together and facilitating an inclusive dialogue, not furthering the divide.

That’s exactly what A Better Man does, and very well. The film bravely takes on the challenge of silence, secrecy and shame that enshrouds domestic abuse situations—and then it takes an even bolder step further. By giving voice to the survivor (co-writer/co-director Attiya Khan) as well as her abuser (ex-boyfriend Steve), it reveals how much there is to gain from involving both parties in the healing process.

A Better Man paints a raw yet delicate portrait of a violent relationship. It opens with Attiya and Steve having a starkly honest, respectful conversation in a Toronto coffee shop. Then it goes on to follow them revisiting places where the abuse occurred (their old apartments—as Steve says in the film, “These things only take place where you can get away with it, where it isn’t seen.”), and to listen in on further, therapist-led conversations between the pair.

The film is never heavy-handed, because it doesn’t have to be; there are no dramatic re-enactments or shocked reactions from friends and family. Instead, A Better Man simply presents what happened: the truth. Its subject matter and the subjects themselves bring all the weight that’s needed, and their impact is huge.

Kudos to first-time director Khan for her remarkable work, alongside co-director Lawrence Jackman. I had the privilege of interviewing Khan for my other website, Kickass Canadians; you can read that piece here.

To learn more about the film and where you can see it, please visit

Steve and Attiya discuss their abusive relationship, in “A Better Man”

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Thanks to TS for pointing me toward Khan and A Better Man.

And thank you to both Attiya and Steve for their courage and honesty. The world is better for it.


Friday, November 11th, 2016—Film

Arrival (USA 2016, Drama/Mystery/Sci-Fi), Writer: Eric Heisserer; Director: Denis Villeneuve

I write this piece with such a heavy heart. It has been a dark, difficult week.

It feels sadly fitting that the great, the legendary Leonard Cohen, who left us days ago, named his most recent album You Want It Darker. We have gotten that.

As I read about people celebrating what they see as a “white victory” south of the border, and hear of the planned changes by the upcoming administration to repeal so much progress, to weaken environmental protection (when we’ve already been told by the experts that we hadn’t been doing enough)…

It’s hard to know what to do next. Yet while some of the acts taking place right now are indefensible, there’s another side to all of this. This election, and the climate that made it possible, has illuminated the gaps, the wounds, the divides, and proven the need for better understanding, on all parts. Because we have clearly not been speaking the same language.

In Cohen’s death, we lost one of our most gifted artists. But I take solace in the fact that another talented, highly reflective Canadian artist is still hard at work, revealing elements of our true nature so we ourselves can take a good look and, with hope, do better.

Denis Villeneuve is one of the best directors working today. He has a facility for making films that examine the world around us. Perhaps more importantly, he has the desire to do so.

From Incendies to Enemy, Prisoners to Sicario, Villeneuve’s work has explored current events and social dynamics, and always made the effort to understand the human condition. He eschews gratuitous violence, encourages female empowerment and injects his artistic sensibilities into every film he makes.

And he does all this while delivering gripping entertainment. If his movies continue to be welcomed by the mainstream, we’ll all be the better for it.

Villeneuve’s latest film is so timely and so poignant that it hurts a bit to watch. But sometimes that’s how the truth works. And what a stunning piece of honesty it is.

Arrival is based on Story of Your Life, the brilliant 2000 Nebula Award-winning short story by Ted Chiang about language, love and time. In the film, 12 alien crafts descend from the skies, hovering over various points across the globe. One of those points is Montana, where linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is summoned by Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) to join mathematician Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) in deciphering the alien language and learning to communicate with the craft’s inhabitants, called heptapods. Specifically, Louise is tasked with determining their purpose on Earth.

Nearly from beginning to end, Arrival is fraught with tension. As teams at each of the 12 points race to communicate with the heptapods, concern grows over when the exchanges will grow violent—that is, when governments will unilaterally decide to attack the heptapods. Far from cooperating, nations examining the crafts start shutting each other out, guarding their discoveries like trade secrets.

There is also, of course, the more immediate fear over Louise and Ian’s safety, as they work tirelessly to progress in their communications. Villeneuve and cinematographer Bradford Young (A Most Violent Year) gorgeously capture every one of Louise and Ian’s dimly lit, eerie but exquisite contacts with the heptapods—so evocatively presented by production designer Patrice Vermette (The Young Victoria, Enemy, Prisoners, Sicario). As envisioned by the filmmakers, the creatures are stunning, with spindly bodies looking more like giant, delicate, dexterous seven-fingered hands than any earthly body.

The heptapods’ graceful, fluid movements are mirrored by the flowing fog that pours over the Montana site when Louise and the crew first approach the craft. As they move in closer to the elegant, oblong oval poised above ground, surrounded by misty mountains, it’s impossible not to be affected by the beauty.

That clash, that collision between unknown menace and hypnotic allure, is punctuated by Jóhann Jóhannsson’s enigmatic score. Jóhannsson is the genius behind Sicario’s pulsing soundtrack, and his music plays an equally powerful, defining role in Arrival. His score is spare, spooky and otherworldly, at times melodic, others metallic and almost grinding, but always deeply poetic and affecting, the perfect mouthpiece for Villeneuve, Vermette and Young’s visuals.

Together, these powerhouse artists maintain a tightrope of tension throughout the film. But you’re never alienated from the story’s human heart because Villeneuve and the extraordinary Adams always keep Louise at the forefront.

Louise is haunted by memories of her deceased daughter, and her work with the heptapods frequently triggers words and visions from their time together. As she becomes more familiar with the heptapods’ language, Louise begins to understand that time doesn’t exist for them the way it does for us. Their language, like their physics, is out of this world.

The heptapods use a semasiographic writing system that conveys meaning without reference to speech. It isn’t confined by linearity the way spoken words are. Instead, it relies on complex symbols (brought beautifully to visual life in smoky, ink-link graphics that can be drawn into the air), which require knowing in advance everything you want to say before writing a single symbol. Once you truly learn the language, time will cease to function as it did before; you’ll be able to see the interconnection between past, present and future.

Arrival’s story structure reflects its inventive ideas about language. It weaves through chronology in an unconventional way, asking us to piece it all together at the end. Chiang did this so effectively in his short story, and screenwriter Eric Heisserer does him justice with his adaptation. Heisserer’s screenplay streamlines and consolidates where the medium demands it, but maintains the original story’s power and message. It also makes a stronger case about the need for global unity and the dangers of miscommunication, making the film all the more meaningful today.

At one point in Arrival, Louise explains a linguistic theory about how language shapes the way we think and perceive the world around us. It can enlighten. It can also enclose. In other words: the words we use matter. That’s something we dearly need to remember as we face an increase in the language of hate and divisiveness.

I’d been looking forward to seeing Arrival since last year. I’ll happily see any Denis Villeneuve film, but after reading Story of Your Life, I was even more excited for this one. I had no idea these would be the circumstances under which I’d be watching Arrival—that the film would be so significant on so many fronts. But whether forlorn or uplifting, its relevance only adds to its importance.

See Arrival because it’s a wonderful work of art made by some of the greatest filmmakers of our time. Because it’s intelligent, thought-provoking and gripping. And because it is, ultimately, about the value of life, no matter what the outcome, and the fact that life never really ends as long as we remember it, and that it is still—always—worth looking forward, creating new life and cherishing it for however long we hold it.

In his latest album’s title song, Leonard Cohen sings this:

There’s a lover in the story / But the story’s still the same / There’s a lullaby for suffering / And a paradox to blame / But it’s written in the scriptures / And it’s not some idle claim / You want it darker / We kill the flame

But from earlier records, those that cannot be erased, there’s also this:

Ring the bells that still can ring / Forget your perfect offering / There’s a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in

I’ve seen the nations rise and fall / I’ve heard their stories, heard them all / But love’s the only engine of survival


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Thank you to Paramount for the advance ticket to Arrival.

For more on the great work of Denis Villeneuve, see my Kickass Canadians article.

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