Film Reviews

REVIEW: A Woman Like Me

Hot Docs 2015

USA, 84 min.
Directed by Alex Sichel and Elizabeth Giamatti
International Premiere

“I thought documentary meant you don’t perform?” asks Erich.

“No,” replies Alex, “documentary means many things. One of which is that someone shoots what your life is.”

This exchange in the excellent film A Woman Like Me comes in one of the self-reflexive moments in which the film features a brilliant dialogue about art and life. Director Alex Sichel, who was dying at the time, gives some perspective and direction to her husband Erich Hahn as they sit at their dining room table. She instructs him to eat normally without setting a plate for the camera operator, who was waiting to finish the shot. Erich, confused as to whether this family dinner is a performance or a supposedly candid moment in the non-fiction half of the film that centres on Alex’s life with cancer, asks her to distinguish documentary from drama. As Erich breaks the wall between the camera and its subjects, his outburst reveals how life’s unscripted unpredictability creates a drama of its own.

The element of performance in A Woman Like Me gives a sense of spontaneity and authenticity regardless of whether it’s scripted or real, and the contrast between Erich’s frustration and Alex’s cool-headed direction shows the two different stages of grief in which the spouses find themselves as they prepare for Alex’s death: anger and acceptance. This beautiful film shares Sichel’s final years with artful openness as she invites audiences to embrace life and join her family in exploring what lies ahead.

Alex Sichel has left her mark on the world with the moving and inspiring A Woman Like Me, which she co-directed with Elizabeth Giamatti. Like Nicholas Ray and Win Wenders’ 1980 hybrid doc Lightning Over Water, in which the two filmmakers chronicled Ray’s effort to complete We Can’t Go Home Again while dying from cancer, A Woman Like Me looks death in the face using a mix of documentary and drama. Sichel has combined documentary footage of her own experience with terminal breast cancer with a dramatic interpretation of a fictional woman named Anna Seashell (played with vibrant grace by Lili Taylor) whose turn with cancer draws from Alex’s own life. Alex admits in the film that she can’t quite imagine cancer happening to her since she’s only middle-aged, so she imaginatively identifies with this other woman to whom the diagnosis occurs.

Whereas Lightning Over Water emphasizes death, A Woman Life Me affirms life. Lightning finds jarring poetry in the skeletal vulnerability of Ray and in Wenders’ anxiety with co-opting the director’s seat of his dying friend, but Woman creates hopeful poetry in the solace Alex finds as she confronts her own mortality. There are no gruelling scenes of Alex vomiting and shrieking in agony, nor are there any of Anna. Instead, Sichel finds calmness and clarity by pushing her heart and mind to their limits.

_A Woman Like Me _is one of the most freeing and cathartic experiences a filmmaker could ever make about death. The scenes of Alex’s treatment are frank and open: she shows her vulnerability and doubts as she provides updates of her condition to the camera. She uses the opportunity of directing herself as her own subject to highlight the different realities a woman faces while living with cancer and undergoing chemotherapy.

Both the fictional and real central characters are forced to deal with pills, pain, and dreadful uncertainty. Anna’s anxieties and emotions mirror those of Alex as she, too, worries about what will come next, especially for the husband and daughter she’ll leave behind. Alex dives into Buddhism to ease her mind and to embrace the next stage in her journey while Anna takes a more theatrical approach by staging deathbed scenes and eating to her heart’s content.

Alex reaches beyond the conversations about death and the kooky therapy sessions, in both her and Anna’s lives. The filmmaker finds a brilliant metaphor for the sweet hereafter in which these two women need to believe before departing their families. A Woman Like Me fuses Alex’s Buddhist philosophy with Anna’s dramatic flair using a recurrent image of Anna flying high on a trapeze and blissfully reaching new heights in an aerial dance of freedom. Sichel bathes these whirlwind images in warm white light to create a place of peace and possibility.

Sichel’s intuitive exercise fascinates and stirs as she takes control of her life and finds herself in a unique situation that wouldn’t exist if not for her own imminent death. A Woman Like Me embraces the potential for art’s ability to heal as Alex finds that none of the conventional routes—pills, chemo, etc.—seem to work. As Sichel and Taylor both throw themselves into the rich, raw, and real performances of women treasuring their final days, A Woman Like Me puts documentary in dialogue with drama and creates a universal truth through the parallels in the forms: every life is amazing, no matter how long or how unfairly short it is. A Woman Like Me celebrates life until its very last frame, and the story of these two women is profoundly moving.

Hot Docs 2015 Screenings
Sat, Apr 25 7:30 PM
Scotiabank Theatre 3

Mon, Apr 27 1:00 PM
Isabel Bader Theatre

Sun, May 3 3:15 PM
TIFF Bell Lightbox

Click here for more of POV’s coverage of the 2015 Hot Docs Festival!