Last Night (1998)

When I first started going to the cinema seriously in the 1990s, Canadian films had a particular arthouse cachet, most likely due to Atom Egoyan, whose elegantly interwoven narratives had become quite the hit on the festival circuit. As a result, a number of Canadian films reached cinemas that decade, even ones as far afield as New Zealand, where I was living. I remember trying to pin down then what was distinctively ‘Canadian’ about them — there was something to the wry, dark humour that might be related to being an ex-colonial nation dwarfed by a larger neighbour (or at least, so it seemed to me in New Zealand). Certainly, though, a lot of those 90s films (like earlier films by the veteran director David Cronenberg) shared a dark subject matter — whether, for example, the necrophilia in Kissed (1996), or the deaths of miners in Margaret’s Museum (1995). So, Last Night, with its frank acceptance of the end of the world, seems a natural fit with this morbidity.

Is the way the characters deal with the inevitable end of days ‘Canadian’, for example? There’s anger around the edges, sure, but this is bourgeois, metropolitan Toronto, so there’s also a sort of decency still — Sandra Oh’s character Sandra scours what’s left on the shelves of a supermarket, but assiduously puts back what she doesn’t want. She’s on her way to her husband, but her car is destroyed by the rowdy youths on the streets. This leads her to the apartment of a local resident, Peter (Don McKellar), where she finds herself making (unanswered) phone calls to her husband, increasingly anxious as the end of world is counted down, by now mere hours away. Her husband meanwhile is working late at a gas company, likewise making unanswered calls to his customers (including Peter) to advise them that the gas service will be maintained until the very end.

As befits a script by an actor originally hailing from the theatre, Last Night has a staginess to it; I can easily imagine its small number of interior locations being recreated in that setting. But in some ways, the larger cinematic canvas seems to suit such an insular story: it makes the characters appear that much more alone together. There are several intertwined stories of couples: Peter’s parents who want to stage one last family Christmas (it’s not winter), his sister Jenny (Sarah Polley) and her boyfriend, David Cronenberg’s aforementioned gas company executive and his dedicated female employee Donna, and Peter’s friend Craig (Callum Keith Rennie), more interested in fulfilling his sexual fantasies via a series of transitory hook-ups.

Perhaps it’s this last reaction that’s the most explicable given the apocalyptic framing story — it’s not getting darker, implying some kind of fiery comet strike — but what the stories all share in common is a need for human connection. McKellar uses the end of the world to focus on what’s most important for these people. Maybe this then is what’s most Canadian: an unflinching look at what is most primal in humanity, presented in a largely unadorned manner. Not a great deal happens in the film — it’s made up of a small number of little stories — but cumulatively they are about the connection of each of us to our fellow humans. Even the end of the world cannot sever that, McKellar ultimately suggests.

Last Night film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Don McKellar; Cinematographer Douglas Koch; Starring Don McKellar, Sandra Oh, Callum Keith Rennie, Sarah Polley; Length 95 minutes.
Seen at home (VHS), Wellington, August 2000 (and more recently on DVD at home, London, Saturday 6 July 2013).

Stories We Tell (2012)

There’s a point in this fascinating documentary film directed by Canadian actress Sarah Polley where the voiceover by her father Michael tells of how she didn’t want a significant piece of her life story revealed by a journalist, had not in fact intended to ever reveal this secret. Yet in crafting this film around that very personal story (of which I don’t intend to provide too many details here), she’s managed to deftly hide herself in the overlapping strands of narrative. Veteran Canadian film producer Harry Gulkin avers in an interview that film should always seek to reveal truth, thereby objecting to his place in Polley’s story, for it is perhaps the impossibility of finding truth that’s at the heart of the film, along with Polley’s mother Diane who died from cancer when Sarah was a child.

For if Sarah is an enigmatic figure behind (and sometimes in front of) the camera, Diane is ever more evanescent, glimpsed only in super 8 home video footage which is interspersed through the film. It is the stories told about her by the men who loved her, her friends and her children that make up the bulk of the documentary. They don’t always agree, sometimes even have quite different recollections of her, and by the end the truth of what we’ve seen and heard seems even more precarious thanks to director Sarah’s sleight of hand.

It’s no surprise that Polley should be so cunningly adept with narrative, being not only from a family of actors, but having come to attention herself in films as multi-layered as Atom Egoyan’s Exotica (1994) and The Sweet Hereafter (1997), both corruscating dramas dealing with complicated family histories. But Polley’s parents aren’t abusive and manipulative like those in Egoyan’s films, and despite the seemingly telling detail that Gulkin’s most famous film is entitled Lies My Father Told Me, no one here is exactly lying either.

What we’re left with then is an enigma, a mystery of how to find the truth or represent a person when that is so much predicated on people’s memories and the place the past has in each person’s story of their lives. Although on the surface it feels like Stories We Tell could be a self-indulgent vanity project by a well-known public figure, the final film is far from simply a story about Sarah Polley’s family. I feel unequal to doing the film justice in a review, suffice to say it has many fascinating layers, with plenty to say about history, memory and representation — and does so with humour and wonder both.

Stories We Tell film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Sarah Polley; Cinematographer Iris Ng; Starring Michael Polley, Harry Gulkin, Sarah Polley; Length 109 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Soho, London, Wednesday 3 July 2013.