Five years in the making, Carol Morley’s lyrical documentary is, in effect, the biography of a ghost. The haunting result treads the fine line between memories and dreams, and suggests that a person may ultimately amount to a mere assemblage of conflicting recollections.
In 2006, Joyce Carol Vincent, 38, was discovered in her London bedsit, telly on, surrounded by half-wrapped Christmas presents. Expiration dates on food in her fridge and pantry were all stamped 2003. Her body was “so badly decomposed,” according to a Sun reporter, “that the only way she could be identified was by comparing dental records with a holiday photo of her smiling.”
We don’t see this photo until 20 minutes into Morley’s film, and when we do it is disappointingly pedestrian, not the milk-carton mug shot one might expect, just a face in the crowd. Instead, stunning actress Zawe Ashton plays Joyce in what are neither flashbacks nor reenactments, but subjective, eerie vignettes of Joyce’s life/memory/imagination, shot with canted angles, expressive lighting, and a camera in constant motion as if probing the recesses of an indistinct recollection.
Morley’s personal stake in the idea that was Joyce is palpable. Shots of the director’s research, a seemingly infinite web of Post-It notes, punctuate the interviews and vignettes and indicate a combination of amateur detective work, artistry, and obsession. Meanwhile, Joyce/Zawe tours her own memory in a London taxi plastered “Did you know Joyce Vincent?” Interviews with acquaintances, friends, boyfriends flicker on her snowy TV as she idles in her dismal apartment. Joyce’s memory, that of those who knew her, and Morley’s imagination all bleed together.
Interviewees, circumscribed by shadow, address the camera in front of a tawny map of London, blurred to vaguely resemble viscera—as if searching for Joyce from inside her cellular makeup, and yet still unable to reach her. Their reports often contradict each other, their unreliable testimony perhaps inflated by posthumous aggrandizement. Was she a people magnet or a loner? Was she or was she not a talented singer?
Without footage or photos of Joyce in the flesh, a recording of her voice attains the revered status of a relic, while the music she loved guides the film’s emotional tenor. A heartbreaking musical number in which Zawe as Joyce croons to Caroline Crawford’s “My Smile Is Just a Frown Turned Upside Down” interrupts the film midway, allowing a seemingly interminable pause for reflection. According to Morley, the showstopper is an homage to Agnès Varda’s Cléo from 5 to 7, and indeed, her subject shares a profound appeal and inaccessibility with Cléo.
The few tangible reminders of Joyce are not as evocative as the gaps and absences. Each additional mystery reinforces a sense of her as a simultaneously unique and universal woman; she is everyone and no one—a diva, a domestic violence victim, a dissimulator, an asthmatic. Morley doesn’t dwell on who abused Joyce when, or why her family abandoned her, or she them; instead, her film dances with the conundrum of identity.
Though loved ones halfheartedly suggest Joyce’s memory stand as a wake-up call to those of us in danger of allowing ourselves or someone we love to disappear, such sentiments feel hollow. Though repeated shots of the shopping center adjacent to Joyce’s North London flat evoke an increasingly isolated, materialist global culture, Dreams of a Life is not a social-problem film. Morley is not concerned with giving Joyce a charitable legacy, or even staging a memorial; instead, the film leaves us with a rare and uncanny impression—intimacy with the unknown.