A Woman Like Me
Directed by Alex Sichel and Elizabeth Giamatti
Opens October 9 at the Village East
A Woman Like Me, an intimate piece of nonfiction that flows in and out of fictional scenes, makes its hybrid-doc intentions known from the opening shot: a glimpse, lasting just a few seconds, of a behind-the-scenes video monitor on a movie set that’s pitched camp inside a New York brownstone. The movie’s co-director and subject, Alex Sichel, has just been diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer, and one of her first acts of business after receiving the news is to break out the camera, an instrument she hopes will help her face mortality. The practicing Buddhist travels to both alternative-medicine healers and chemo infusions, powers up the steep stone staircase at Fort Greene Park, and watches her daughter ride a bike without training wheels for the first time. Against the dead-serious advice of her elderly parents, Sichel ramps up her work schedule, fast-tracking a fragmentary film about a woman named Anna, facing the same diagnosis with an equanimity that Sichel wishes she could muster, featuring the actress Lili Taylor.
The footage of Sichel interacting with cast and crew is perhaps more revealing about the project as a therapeutic undertaking than the black-comic scenes themselves, which don’t offer much of a coherent picture to an outside viewer. Sichel—who took the indie drama All Over Me to Sundance in 1997 and a few years later co-wrote a segment of If These Walls Could Talk 2—claims that Anna was conceived as the best version of herself, but the character remains firmly in her own world. At one point, she wants both husband and daughter to help her practice her “death scene.” Co-director Elizabeth Giamatti, a producer who took the helm after her collaborator’s 2014 death (a piece of news that the film itself doesn’t directly communicate), has cited William Greaves’s Symbiopsychotaxiplasm and Agnès Varda’s Beaches of Agnes as two not-quite-documentary reference points. In addition to the cutting together of clearly demarcated fiction and nonfiction, A Woman Like Me features an extended sequence in which Sichel and her husband get in a dinner-table fight about the place of “acting” in footage that’s meant to represent real life, while off in the corner their daughter quietly plays with the third-party camerawoman.
The searching form here doesn’t always open up the material, but it nonetheless serves to underscore Sichel’s constant spiritual and medical recalibration in response to her evolving disease; her multiple filmmaking approaches brings to mind her stated desire to avoid being defined by the single word “cancer.” It is the rawer video-diary footage, though, that distinguishes A Woman Like Me—Sichel talks about forgoing the doctor-recommended antidepressants, and whispers to the camera she’s cradling in her hand during a meditation retreat that’s supposed to be strictly silent. The quick-witted Sichel makes for good company under even the most trying of circumstances. She and Giamatti have made an admirable film about the living process of facing death.