DAILY | Venice, Telluride + Toronto 2012 | Sarah Polley’s STORIES WE TELL
“An enthralling, exquisitely layered masterpiece of memoir.”
“Sarah Polley has a secret,” begins Oliver Lyttelton at the Playlist. “It’s a secret that, remarkably, she kept under wraps to all but friends and family until the film screened at [Venice Days on Wednesday] morning. It’s a secret that’s seemingly informed her two directorial efforts to date, Away From Her and Take This Waltz, and is the subject matter of her third film, and first documentary, Stories We Tell. And it’s a secret that’s led to her finest work as a director so far.”
It’s also a secret that we’re not going to be revealing in this entry, even though, as Lyttelton and others are noting, Polley discusses herself it in a post at the National Film Board of Canada’s blog. “Here is the story of how this film came to be,” she writes, “and why I hope people will write about the film itself and not only the story it is based on.” We’ll stop there.
Brian D. Johnson, “one of several journalists who became privy to the secret ages ago but, at Polley’s adamant request, refrained from going public,” spills all, right at the top, in Maclean’s (via Movie City News), so don’t follow that link if you hope to see the film fresh—but let it be noted that he does find Stories We Tell to be “a brilliant film: an enthralling, exquisitely layered masterpiece of memoir.”
It’s “a cine-memoir of Polley’s parents, the British-born actor Michael Polley and Canadian actor and casting director Diane Polley.” The Guardian‘s Peter Bradshaw (in a 5-out-of-5-star review, by the way): “Using Super-8 home-movie footage, faux Super-8 reconstructions, interviews with siblings and, crucially, a memoir written by Michael, Polley has created a portrait of a marriage that is full of enormous richness, tenderness and emotional complexity…. It’s difficult to tell what making this movie must have entailed, and with what diplomacy and skill she must have marshalled its participants—but the result is a great pleasure to watch.”
“In the end, perhaps, it is a modest family story,” writes Screen‘s Mark Adams, “but it is one told with candor and affection.”
Updates, 9/2: “It turns out that there some degree of ‘fabrication’ here, one which for a time this casts doubt upon the veracity of everything else on view,” notes Neil Young in the Hollywood Reporter. “Could the whole project actually be some cruelly elaborate, rug-pulling game with audience expectations and prurient curiosity? Polley’s overall vision and concept, however, ultimately prove sufficiently strong to support the considerable degrees of ambiguity which she riskily deploys.”
“Although it’s never mentioned, the fact that the self-discovery mapped out here by Polley was completed in the gap between her first two features is an intriguing one,” writes Guy Lodge in Variety. “Intentionally or otherwise, it certainly makes Stories a pertinent companion to Take This Waltz, which charted a married woman’s restlessness with equally even-handed candor. Tonally, however, the film perhaps hews closer to Away From Her with Iris Ng’s airy, soft-hued lensing (no-nonsense digital for the interview sequences, elegantly bleached Super 8 for the reconstructions) lending the proceedings a wintry grace. Editor Michael Munn, meanwhile, patiently waits out certain interview sequences, perhaps heeding the Margaret Atwood quote with which Polley opens the film: ‘When you’re in the middle of a story, it isn’t a story at all.’”
And we now have a proper trailer:
Updates, 9/3: “Stories We Tell marks the finest of Polley’s filmmaking skills by blending intimacy and intrigue to remarkable effect,” writes indieWIRE‘s Eric Kohn. “Part of the reason why Stories We Tell works so well is that at first it doesn’t seem like it should…. ‘Who the fuck cares about our family?’ her sister asks, establishing a challenge that Polley cautiously navigates for the first 45 minutes before reaching a point where the allure is self-evident.”
“It’s the biggest happy surprise I’ve had so far in Telluride,” writes Meredith Brody in her Diary at Thompson on Hollywood.
Update, 9/5: “Audiences this weekend at the Toronto Film Festival and, with any luck, when the movie achieves a full release, will tell and retell this touching story,” writes Mary Corliss for Time. “Perhaps those who saw Joaquin Phoenix impersonate a deranged, fictionalized version of himself in Casey Affleck’s ‘documentary’ I’m Still Here, which had its world premiere at Venice two years ago, may be skeptical of another actor’s assertion of truth, especially one that hints at fiction in its very title. For the record, this reviewer believes Polley’s recounting. Moreover, she has transformed the secrets and lies of her own life into glowing artistic truth.”
Updates, 9/9: “Ownership, more than memory, is the subject here,” writes Angelo Muredda in Cinema Scope, “and at its best the film is a candid study of how everyone, including the director, stakes heartbreaking and often dubious personal claims to family baggage. At one point a key player who’s skeptical about the project charges that opening the story up to other people would be a democratic lie. Polley disagrees, and while it’s her method of communal storytelling by crowd-sourcing that’s ultimately privileged, there’s an ambivalent and even steely sort of generosity to how she lets his objection, a critique of her right to even make this film, stand.”
The AV Club‘s Noel Murray finds that “beneath all the overplayed artsiness—and not too far beneath, thankfully—there’s a genuinely affecting film, about how people pursue personal happiness, sometimes at the expense of their families, and sometimes as as way of building something newer and better.”
“If there was any doubt she was the right person to tell this story, a simple glimpse at the depth of emotion she is able to draw out from her subjects is proof enough of her empathetic gifts,” writes Tom Hall at Hammer to Nail.
“What might surprise you is how genuinely funny the film is in many places,” notes NPR’s Linda Holmes. “Polley isn’t afraid to find the funny things about even troubling tales that hit close to home. (Make sure you stay for the little tag on the film, which is both a little painful and genuinely hilarious.)”
Updates, 9/15: “Polley’s real feat lies in creating a winning cinematic version of intra-family story-telling,” writes Nicolas Rapold for Film Comment, “he kind of tale where dinner guests will happily stay well past coffee.”
“The film directly tackles the assumption that Super-8mm celluloid is a valid expression of the past, just as it addresses the notion that one person’s memories of an event could be more valid than an other’s,” writes Anthony Kaufman for Sundance NOW. “Indeed, one of the film’s main tensions revolves around the fact that one family member believes that Polley’s mother’s story is exclusively his own to tell. But the past, Polley suggests, is to be contested, debated and never be taken at face value.”
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