'A Woman Like Me': Film Review

A Woman Like Me Still - H 2015
Courtesy of BAM Cinemafest

A Woman Like Me Still - H 2015

A unique, self-reflexive film 

Alex Sichel and Elizabeth Giamatti's hybrid film blends documentary and fiction to depict Sichel's struggle with terminal breast cancer

When a filmmaker is diagnosed with terminal breast cancer, what else is there to do but make a film about it? That, at least, was the reasoning behind Alex Sichel (All Over Me) and Elizabeth Giamatti's hybrid feature chronicling Sichel's physical and emotional struggles in the face of mortal illness. Unique in its meta-theatrical style, A Woman Like Me movingly depicts both Sichel's real-life plight and her reimagining of it.

Two films in one, the work interweaves its documentary elements with scenes from a movie being directed by Sichel starring Lili Taylor as a sunnier version of herself named Anna Seashell. To make the proceedings even more complicated, it includes footage of Sichel directing the film-within-a-film that would be her last artistic statement.

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The documentary footage reveals the aftereffects of the diagnosis upon Sichel, her husband Erich, her parents and sisters and her daughter Anastasia, just beginning kindergarten. Informed by her doctor that she has an incurable form of the illness, Sichel first resorts to holistic treatments derived from her Buddhist beliefs, prompting her frustrated husband to comment, "It's hard to live with someone who's living in a cult." Eventually she submits to more conventional medical practices including chemotherapy infusions that fail to halt her cancer's progress.

At the same time as she captures her true-life footage, she directs Taylor and other actors including Jonathan Cake as the husband (in traditional movie fashion, the performers are better looking than their real-life counterparts) in a dramatized portrayal of her story. An episode in which a doctor talks with the couple about her condition is later followed by a segment in which she instructs Frank Wood, the actor playing him, how to perform the scene.

Taylor is radiant in the fictional segments, whether engaging in a dialogue with herself, practicing her eventual death in front of her husband and, in a recurring poetic image, joyfully flying on a trapeze. Her bright demeanor is a marked contrast to Sichel, who frequently confesses her fears and anxieties directly to the camera.

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The collision between reality and fiction is underscored by such moments as when Sichel and her husband sit down to dinner, with her giving him instructions as to where to place the food and him wondering if what's happening is real life or a performance.

That we know in advance how A Woman Like Me will end only adds to its poignancy. If at times it feels a bit disorganized in its structure, it's more than understandable considering the highly difficult and emotionally strained conditions under which it was made. It makes a fitting legacy for the filmmaker whose death last year at age 50 is noted just before the end credits.

Production: Under the Rainbow Productions, Touchy Feely Films
Cast: Lili Taylor, Jonathan Cake, Maeve McGrath, Lynn Cohen, Clea Lewis, Frank Wood
Directors: Alex Sichel, Elizabeth Giamatti
Screenwriters: Alex Sichel, Melissa James Gibson
Producer: Elizabeth Giamatti
Executive producers: Alex Sichel, Christine Vachon
Directors of photography: Kirsten Johnson, Michael Simmonds, Reuben Kleiner
Production designer: Maki Takenouchi
Editors: Pola Rapaport, Ramsey Fendall
Costume designer: Malgosia Turzanska
Composer: Cesar Alvarez

Not rated, 79 min.