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  • Absence of Being

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    Posted on: 25/06/2015

    Writer Sarinah Masukor analyses how Dreams of a Life investigates deeply human and universal anxieties.

    Carol Morley’s Dreams of a Life (2011) circles around two deep human anxieties: social isolation and unfulfilled potential. These are close to universal experiences. The story of Joyce Vincent, a 38-year-old woman whose dead body lay unnoticed in a council flat for 3 years, represents the horrific endpoint of both fears. Joyce, a woman largely remembered as being well-liked, friendly and fun-loving, disappeared in plain sight. Her death passed by unnoticed by those who’d known her and the film explores the deep sadness of it.  

    Morley first heard of Joyce’s death in 2006 when it was reported in a local newspaper, along with the grimly sensational subheading “Skeleton of Joyce found on sofa with telly still on.” Her remains had been found in a bedsit in North London after thousands of pounds of rent arrears had accrued. She'd been dead since December 2003, her body slowly disintegrating into the carpet, unread mail and unpaid bills piling up behind the front door. Her television was on and had been running non-stop for three years. The image of a television flickering unwatched becomes a poignant motif for the film, as well as a storytelling device. In several scenes, old friends and acquaintances appear on the television speaking about her, their uneasy memories projected into her empty living room.

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    Enticed by way little was known about Joyce beyond the official records of her existence, Morley tracked down people who’d known her and began to give her a second, cinematic life. The result is a documentary of sorts, structured around a series of interviews interwoven with performed scenes that are part reenactment, part imagination, part metaphor. The first section begins with friends talking about their reactions to Joyce’s death and the mysterious lack of information about her. Many of them, all now long out of touch, did not know Joyce was dead. Some had seen her death reported in the news but simply didn’t connect it to the person they remembered. The discomfort with which they acknowledge they’d simply lost contact altogether sets up questions to which the film will keep returning. How are we responsible for the people we know? Do we ever really know another person? And what does it mean to see only what we want to see?

    This disjuncture between how we imagine another’s life and the facts of their reality becomes the point around which the film turns. Throughout the interviews there is a good amount of seeing what one wants to see, even in the face of conflicting evidence. Most of the people interviewed knew Joyce in her twenties or as a child, and describe her as intelligent, warm and full of promise, despite behaviour that pointed to a much darker inner life. Toward the end of the film, when Joyce leaves her last job to disappear, one of Joyce’s colleagues observes that she heard Joyce had left work to go on a holiday with a group of people. “I like to think that’s what she did,” she says. The more likely possibility, that Joyce was trapped in an abusive relationship, or running from one, is too difficult to contemplate. Later, the colleague says, “We just accepted that we never heard from her again, and there’s a part of me that feels a little bit uncomfortable about that.”

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    The people interviewed all take a different approach to this discomfort. Alistair, an ex-boyfriend, says, “Joyce was alone because she wanted to be.” But Martin, Joyce’s early boyfriend and someone she turned to in times of need throughout her life, worries he didn’t do enough the last time he saw her. About a year before her death, Joyce came and asked to stay at his house. She was clearly in some kind of trouble, but wouldn’t tell him what was going on. He wonders if his offers of help felt like pressure. One day when he came home from work, she was gone.

    Morley accentuates Joyce’s slipperiness through her absence – throughout the film we are offered only glimpses of the real Joyce, a short recording of her voice, a brief shot of a photograph. She is described as being without ambition, known interests or belongings. Zawe Ashton plays the adult Joyce in the fictional scenes like a ghost her fragile physical presence skates over the screen, ever on the verge of losing its grip. Her apparent sexual attractiveness drives the narrative, and all the men speak of desiring her. She moved house and jobs frequently and without anything to ground her often became the object of affection of unstable men. A former housemate observes, “Joyce often became the focus of men. And it was hard to get rid of men.” The film suggests it was this part of her life that led to her eventual withdrawal and disappearance, but nothing is certain. Dark events not explored are shown momentarily in shots of a handwritten timeline. The scrawled note, “Locked in apartment by boyfriend” passes by, and later, “1996 Leaves abusive post it notes over her flat (Polish boyfriend)”. Her family declined to be interviewed. This gives Morley’s Joyce an ethereal, not-quite-there quality that ultimately keeps her at a distance.

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    Morley’s film celebrates the surface of what might have been – Joyce’s beauty, her potential and her alluring air of mystery. Consequently, it is really a film about the people who knew Joyce rather than Joyce herself. The flesh and blood bodies onscreen reveal their own anxieties and desires through Joyce’s absent figure – an eerie echo of the unreal desire that likely led to her isolation in the first place.

    - Sarinah Masukor

    Dreams of a Life screens from 29 June and you can see Carol Morley's new film, The Falling, starring Game of Thrones' Maisie Williams.

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