By now I’m sure we’re all familiar with the story, even if it’s just the broad details of it – young woman dies in her apartment and her body isn’t discovered for a good 3 years, as it lay there putrefying – which actually sounds like it could be a pitch for a fictional narrative, but actually is very real.
Carol Morley’s heartfelt docu-drama Dreams Of A Life begins with a series of questions (How could this have happened to any human being? How did she die? How is it that for 3 straight years absolutely no one learned of her death), and ends in a mystery, with some of those initial questions still left unresolved.
But the film’s intent isn’t necessarily to solve the case as it were; instead, as the title hints, it’s more of a construction of a life from fragments of other peoples’ recollections of her, from her childhood until a year or two before she died.
After I screened the film last week, Zawe Ashton, who plays Joyce Vincent in the film’s reenactment scenes, asked for my thoughts (via Twitter), and I responded stating that one can’t really say that they enjoyed it, given the film’s tragic real-life subject matter. So I’ll instead say that the film does what I think it set out to do – it brings Joyce Vincent back to life, so to speak, and serves as a way to honor her.
There’s that famous line from Sidney Lumet’s 1976 classic film Network spoken by star William Holden that went something like this: “I’m a human being godamnit. My life has value.“
Despite the terribly sad and lonely nature of Joyce Vincent’s life, death, and the years that followed until what was left of her was discovered, Morley’s film underscores that William Holden quote in relation to Vincent’s being.
After having let it sit in me for the last several days, thinking further about it, which I felt I needed to do after the weight of the experience of watching it, I’d add that the film also reminded me of a funeral, as depressing as that might sound. And this is not a negative by the way; Keep in mind that it speaks to what I said earlier about the film serving as a kind of honor of Vincent’s life, affording her a decency that her death and aftermath seemingly lacked.
The film is filled with the faces and recollections of those who knew Joyce best; or at least, who thought that they knew her; and I say that because, as I noted previously, there’s a mystery that pervades the film.
These men and women, friends, lovers, co-workers, and acquaintances of Vincent remember the woman as they knew her, as she presented herself to them all, apparently not being entirely forthcoming about the life she led, dropping hints here and there (whether intentionally or not) that there likely was more to her than what she gave them.
We learn about her and recreate our own images of her using what bits and pieces each person recollects, and for the most part, they all remembered her similarly, even though they didn’t all know each other. And that consistency helps, as there’s already enough confusion surrounding her life and death that varying recollections of her would only stun the mind even more. We’d maybe instead think of her as a kind of con artist – *stealing* her way into the lives of others (and affecting them in the process).
But there was certainly plenty provoking about it all, and you feel a simultaneous sorrow and exasperation; the former for obvious reasons, and the latter because, as I kept thinking to myself while watching the film, why didn’t she say something to someone if she was in any trouble, or was facing any sort of difficulties (it’s suggested that she was in at least one abusive relationship, and one person did wonder if she didn’t die of natural causes and was instead murdered). But any frustration the viewer feels for her is ephemeral. Given the mystery that was her life and death, there’s a persistent proposition that she was under some kind of silent emotional and/or physical strain that may or may not have stemmed from a childhood tragedy (possibly the loss of her mother at an early age, or her father’s indiscretions, or possibly something much worse, like maybe some sort of childhood exploitation). And since none of that is decisively confirmed or negated, we are left, as already noted, in this limbo.
Add to that the fact that Morley, and thus the film don’t necessarily judge Vincent (or any of those who help us remember and honor her), nor does Morley take any *sides* (if there are even any sides to take in this), the viewer doesn’t inevitably walk away with any certainties.
Intercut between those remembrances are reenactments of her scenes from Joyce’s life, with Zawe Ashton as Vincent, providing some visual representation of her, given that there’s actually very little of the real Vincent shown, which intrigued me; a few snapshots early in the film, and scattered sparingly throughout, and a final brief and blurry video glimpse of her at the end. I don’t recall if that was an intentional decision by director Morley or if it was more a matter of what was available for use in the film.
But no matter as Ashton essentially fills in the blanks for us – somewhat, given that she isn’t the real Vincent; but having that moving representation, combined with the still photos of the Vincent, and the recollections of her peers, all contribute to the 3-dimensional portrait of Vincent each of us creates in our heads.
Those reenactments also serve a much more basic aesthetic purpose, and that is to break up the monotony of the numerous talking head sequences which help keep the viewer engaged.
By the end of it all, I suspect most of you will be moved by the experience (although not necessarily all in the same direction); but it will arouse something in you – whether it’s sadness, anger, or some inspiration to self-reflect. It was all of the above for me, and more.
It reminded me of how fleeting life can be; how important maintaining healthy relationships with family and friends are; how essential it is to be not just honest but authentic, both with oneself and with others.
And finally, as selfish as it may sound, it spoke to my long-standing aspiration to make some genuine impact in this world we live in before I’m dead and gone; if only so that I’m not forgotten. Because I think that’s what many of us actually fear – not necessarily dying, but that our deaths will be followed by *nothingness*, almost as if we never existed in the first place.
Dreams Of A Life is an investigation into the life of one Joyce Vincent; but it’s one of those cases that may never be completely solved, leaving the viewer in a positively comtemplative state, which might lead to some further equally healthy action;
The film is, in essence, proof of Joyce’s existence, immortalized potentially forever.
It’ll make its official USA premiere at the SXSW Film Festival next month, so those of you who’ll be there will get to see it for yourselves.
As for its distribution prospects, my crystal ball tells me that this is a work and a life (Vincent’s) that Oprah Winfrey should be considering; maybe a similar kind of release Oprah’s OWN gave to the 2011 Sundance documentary Crime After Crime – a limited theatrical run, followed by a TV debut on the OWN network, anf then on home video/VOD; AND maybe even a narrative film adaptation (Crime After Crime is getting one).
Watch the trailer below: