Recalling the documentaries of Errol Morris in its combination of hyper-stylized recreations and talking heads filmed against an abstract background, and, especially, in its attempt to get at an elusive truth via competing narratives, Carol Morley’s Dreams of a Life is a lament for the unknowability of humankind. In particular, it concerns a single mysterious figure, Joyce Carol Vincent, a popular but enigmatic woman who was discovered in her London bedsit—nothing but a skeleton remaining—after being dead for three years.
Morley uses the fact that no one came by to check on her during her lengthy period of decomposition, as well as the lack of personal information provided in the press once the story broke, as a jumping-off point to explore Vincent’s life via interviews with those who knew her. As the various subjects take their turns talking in front of a beige blur of a backdrop, Morley eschews any introductory on-screen titles and withholds all information about them, leaving their identities and relationships with the deceased to emerge gradually. In this, the director puts the viewer in a similar position to both herself and her subjects as they all try to take various fragments of information and fit them into a coherent picture of a life.
Dreams of a Life succeeds in making its point about the unkowability of the people in our lives, but there isn’t quite enough substance here to fully sustain the film. Various voices—coupled with speculative reenactments that add to the somewhat surreal quality of the life being stitched together—reflect on the Joyce they knew, and the result is both contradictory and elusive, but always fragmentary and incomplete. A vivacious, life-loving young woman who aspired to become a singer, Vincent remained mysterious even to those who knew her best. She would change flats frequently, disappear for long stretches of time, and completely absorb herself in the circles of friends of those she met, so that no one knew anything about her outside life.
With such sketchy information available about the film’s central subject, Dreams of Life becomes less a portrait of a woman than a portrait of an absence. Rather than leaving us with the sense of a person who existed for a time and then was heard from no more, Morley concludes with a few perfunctory reflections (via her talking heads) about the distance that separates people living together in contemporary urban life. Fair enough, but a few tossed-off bromides and a whole lot of mystery can’t quite make up for a too-elusive central subject. In the end, we only know as much about Vincent as do the people who testify to her memory on screen, which is to say not very much. All of which is quite obviously the idea, but it makes for a film that’s as cumulatively frustrating as it is momentarily fascinating.