In My Life Without Me, Catalan director Isabel Coixet offers the story of a young woman’s diagnosis of terminal cancer. Ann (Polley) spares her family and friends the knowledge of her illness. As she is dying, she experiences a sensual awakening and transforms the lives of those around her.
My Life Without Me, a Spanish film made with Canadian and American actors and filmed in English belongs to a spate of recent films from Spain that have offered representations of angelic mothers. Critics have argued that these films respond to a complex history of representing women in Spain as symbols of the state in which, in the Franco and post-Franco eras, mothers were alternately glorified and punished.1 Currently, a ‘pro-natalist’ discourse has again arisen in Spanish culture that is reacting to the previous generation’s attacks on motherhood by investing in a project of redeeming the family in the service of a new picture of the nation.2
Coixet’s film reclaims motherhood by self-consciously engaging with the classic Hollywood maternal melodrama and its particular modes of addressing gender, culture, and class. Like Pedro Almodóvar, who produced the film, Isabel Coixet finds in melodrama a cinematic form that constructs highly emotionally charged scenarios that speak critically of the social and psychological condition of women under dominant ideologies and offer a fantasy resolution to the problem of their suffering.
At one level, the film presents itself as pointed social commentary, and appears to invite a materialist understanding of the relationship between women’s economic conditions and suffering through its secondary characters and subplots. Filmed in a restricted chromatic palette of blues, whites, and greys under harsh electric lights that evoke a documentary realist style, a cast of female secondary characters who represent the working class are shown to be alienated from their labour, from themselves, and from other human beings, trapped in vicious circles of self-abnegation. The film suggests that they suffer from a range of hysterical afflictions ranging from depression to bulimia to body dysmorphic disorder to transvestism because of this alienation. Through its examination of their condition, the film creates a space for critique of the social abandonment and economic marginalisation of women.
Yet in its primary plot line, the film uses conventions of the melodramatic genre to recast female victimhood as a matter of individual choice. The protagonist Ann (Polley) seems to consider women’s suffering to be a cultural rather than an economic or social problem. Her mother (Harry) tearfully watches weepies like Mildred Pierce (1945) and even narrates Stella Dallas (1937) to her granddaughters as a bedtime story in lieu of Cinderella. For her mother, the maternal melodrama most accurately reflects the cyclical experience of female abjection. Ann, however, is angered by the genre’s depictions of ‘mothers making dumb-assed sacrifices’ and at the prospect of these narratives of martyrdom being passed down to her daughters. She seems to suggest that women’s experience of alienation relates more to a cultural system of myths and ideas coded in and reproduced by genres of women’s stories that interpellate women into subject positions defined by misery. At stake in the film then are two possibilities for understanding women’s lives; the first is that women suffer because of their material conditions while the second is that women suffer because they opt into a myth of their own powerlessness that condemns them to repeat dysfunctional patterns.
On the surface, Ann’s own story reads like pure melodrama. Born into poverty in a broken family, she becomes pregnant at 16. Her husband has not held a job in years and she lives in a trailer in her unhappy mother’s backyard. She develops a fatal disease and experiences her illness alone and in silence. She falls in love with another man, but must leave him for the sake of her family. And she selflessly procures a new mother for her children and wife for her husband before she dies.
And yet, by refusing to suffer, Ann refuses the interpretive lens of melodrama that would frame her life as tragic and resists identifying with a culture of victimhood. Instead, she proceeds to model a mode of feminine resistance based on personal autonomy rather than collective social action, and on the pursuit of pleasure in everyday life. The visual elements of the film that encourage a historical materialist reading of female suffering are harshly lit, monochromatic and thus coded as realist, while those associated with Ann’s more individualistic mode of resistance to suffering are naturally lit and often dreamlike, drawn out in vivid slow-motion sequences that seem to prolong this dying woman’s experience of the richness of the present. Throughout My Life Without Me, Ann and her daughters are associated with bright colours, especially oranges, blues, and pinks. While, in classic melodramas like Douglas Sirk’s technicolored palettes signified entrapment, claustrophobia and hysteria, here they signify aliveness. Adorned with sparkling curtains of pink beads, the trailer’s interior represents a magical place of familial intimacy – a world that Ann has built from nothing – and stands as an emblem of the film’s wish that whatever the terms of their material conditions, individual women can resist becoming subjected to ideology and live a life of emotional wealth if they choose to follow a different cultural script or system of representations.
How different is this script really? The inherent contradictions between the film’s historical-materialist and the cultural-ideological propositions about the causes of gendered suffering are resolved, though perhaps not in a recognizably Marxist or feminist way, by the film’s position on family. The film proposes a certain kind of motherhood as a solution to the social and personal problem of women’s abjection. We can call it ‘new motherhood’ because it is the antithesis of the suffering motherhood that Ann’s own mother offers. In My Life Without Me, being a good mother who lovingly chooses to give and take pleasure is what offers the path towards personal autonomy, the building of community, and the continuity of the family. More importantly, ‘new motherhood’ is also what resolves the challenges of class inequality that the film’s attention to social and economic issues exposes.
Ann’s solution to the film’s titular problem – of her ‘life without me’ – is to provide her family a surrogate ‘new’ mother, a double of herself who is also named Ann (Watling). Yet the substitution is also an improvement; life for the family without Ann will do more than just go on because Ann, the neighbour, is a nurse and thus a healer. Moreover, as a member of a professional class, she is educated and owns a house; the family will move up in the world with her at its head. After Ann (Polley) dies, we see her family going to the beach with Ann the neighbour – something that the dying mother had fantasised about doing before she died but did not manage to do. The scene nostalgically symbolises the bourgeois life of leisure that only the ‘new mother’ can provide.
The resolution of the film demands to be read in the context of the classic maternal melodramas that make Ann’s mother weep and Ann get angry. In Stella Dallas, Stella (Barbara Stanwyck) abandons her daughter to a better – that is an upper-class – mother in order to facilitate her daughter’s marriage to a wealthy boy. Having condemned the melodramatic genre’s construction of mothers’ sacrifices for their children and their suffering because of them, Ann essentially ends up acting out the script of motherhood from Stella Dallas. However, she updates it by excising its motif of suffering. She transforms the genre’s typical presentation of masochistic fantasies, that family is the reward for being a good woman but also its punishment, into a presentation of a different mode of wish fulfilment, suggesting that a special kind of motherhood is equally rewarding for mother and family. That the ‘new mother’ is happy can be seen as transforming the implicit rules of melodrama because female pleasure is a new development in a genre that does not usually allow for such things. Yet that Ann is replaceable and life goes on without her instrumentalises motherhood just as classic melodrama does, rendering it as a narrow slot to be filled in the service of social interests external to women.
Melodrama must be seen as a contradictory nexus in which social, psychical, and artistic determinations are brought together in an aestheticised form, but in which the problems they represent cannot be successfully resolved.3 This is melodrama’s strength as well as its weakness; the genre can expose the contradictions inherent in social life as much as it reinforces structures of gender, culture, and class. My Life Without Me is no different. There are contradictions between its social commentary on the economic conditions and dominant ideologies that women face on the one hand and its seamless presentation of a fantasy ‘new mother’ on the other.
Critics have unanimously perceived the film’s ending as happy, a reading which would seem to embrace the film’s reactionary celebration of the role of the good ‘new mother’ and its attendant instrumentalising understanding of women. It is possible, however, to argue that the contradictory visual motifs of the film – its juxtaposition of the dark palette with harsh light and the bright colours – permit a reading of the film’s nostalgia-imbued ending as unhappy. In this reading, Ann’s story – her refusal to play out a cultural script of victimhood, her disavowal of her own social and material determinants, and her successful elevation of her family’s economic status upon her death – is, in cinematic language, hyperreal, that is to say not real. Compared to the more gritty realistic depictions of the condition of women’s suffering and its many social material determinants, Ann’s life both with and without her can be argued to represent the film’s wishful fantasies about female resistance which only manage to colour over the grim life of women around her.
1. See Andres Zamora, ‘A Vindication of the Spanish Mother: Maternal Images in the Filmic Make-Over of the Nation’, Studies in 20th and 21st Century Literature (ST&TCL), 33: 2, Summer 2009, pp. 354–74.
2. See Barbara Zecchi, ‘All About Mothers: Pronatalist Discourse in Contemporary Spanish Cinema’, College Literature 32: 1, Winter 2005, pp. 146–65.
3. See Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, ‘Minnelli and Melodrama’, Screen 18: 2, 1977, pp. 113–18.
Cast and Crew:
[Country: Spain and Canada. Production Company: El Deseo and Milestone Productions. Director: Isabel Coixet. Producers: Esther García and Gordon McLennan. Screenwriter: Isabel Coixet (based on the story ‘Pretending the Bed is a Raft’ by Nanci Kincaid). Cinematographer: Jean-Claude Larrieu. Art Director: Shelley Bolton. Music: Alfonso Vilallonga. Editor: Lisa Jane Robison. Cast: Sarah Polley (Ann), Leonor Watling (Ann, the neighbour), Deborah Harry (Ann’s mother), Amanda Plummer (Laurie), Scott Speedman (Don), Mark Ruffalo (Lee), Maria de Medeiros (the hairdresser).]
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