Where Docs Can't Follow

The theorists tell us that stories are how we organize our understanding of our lives, that narrative structure guides us in assigning meaning to the vagaries of existence. As a documentarian, Alex Sichel (All Over Me) is more used than most of us to shaping time and action, life's raw ingredients, into coherence. Now, in the affecting hybrid film A Woman Like Me, she finds that the facts of her own life aren't quite enough to make the story that she needs to tell.

As the movie begins, in 2011, Sichel has recently been diagnosed with breast cancer. As she fights for her life, she keeps a video diary, capturing visits to Sloan Kettering, journeys to Buddhist monasteries, and some of her day-to-day life in Brooklyn with her husband and daughter. (The former bristles a little at the confusing rules of living within a documentary—should he set a place at the table for the camera operator?—while the latter puts on a sweet, silly show, singing songs and counting raindrops.)

Sichel confesses that making a movie about cancer isn't easy, and she notes that Nora Ephron says it's the one thing she would never dare to take on as a subject. So, with Ephron in mind and seeking to find another way to think about herself inside her story, Sichel and co-director Elizabeth Giamatti whip up a movie within the movie, a sunny and fictionalized version of Sichel's struggle—a movie with laughs and a BFF with whom to exchange wry truths over coffee. In Sichel's inspired conceit, the self-reflexive truth-through-fiction ethos of the Iranian New Wave meets a sensitive documentary exploration of trying to live at the ends of life.

The great Lili Taylor gets cast as Anna, the ersatz Sichel. We see Anna looking fetching in scenes that play up the gulf between real life and movie life: Anna stammers a little when she receives her diagnosis, but the scripted encounter with her doctor is crisp and trim, with a stinging moment of comedy and no messy imprecision. Later, that Ephron cleanness seems no longer to be working for Sichel, so Anna's scenes grow wiggier: A chat in the kitchen is ruined by her realization that a bomb is ticking beneath the table. More cheerily, her doctor gives her these encouraging test results: “According to your scan, you're not going to die. Ever.”

That joke works, but it's small balm for the incident that inspired it. In real life, Sichel gets bad news after a routine scan, news that hits when things seem to be on the uptick. The final scenes of A Woman Like Me have no fictionalized counterpoint. Despite her treatments and some experiments with alternative medicine, the tumor in Sichel's breast grows. Her doctors can't treat it, so in the beautiful final moments, Sichel journeys to Greece, visits family, and contemplates reincarnation and the possibility of being the person you want to be. For her, that person is Taylor's Anna.

“What a gift if I can live to die joyfully,” Sichel tells us. Then she takes a walk through a snowfall—and soon after goes where stories and her cameras can't follow. Few who have made that journey have left so beautiful an account of it.

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