La Tristesse Durera Toujours
One night, in late 2003, Joyce Carol Vincent sat down to wrap up some Christmas presents and never got up again. Her flat remained her grave for three years until, in 2006, her corpse was finally discovered by housing officials — who had only called then due to her rent being unpaid. They found her skeleton in the same position she had laid down in, her television was still on and flickering, the pile of wrapped presents dusty and untouched. How, in this day and age, could the disappearance of a bright thirty eight year old woman, who did not use drugs and was not an alcoholic, go entirely unnoticed? Why was this poor soul left to, as one commentator puts it, “melt into the carpet”?
Carol Morley‘s documentary Dreams of a Life does little in the way of answering these questions, instead choosing to focus her film almost entirely on exhuming who Joyce was as a person. Her direction, at times, feels almost obligated in its manner; no doubt trying to right the wrongs of the anonymity Joyce suffered at the hands of the tabloids in the wake of her discovery. It seems all of the newspapers that ran her tragic story had no pictures of her to accompany their articles, and very few personal details were mentioned. Joyce Carol Vincent was just a name caught in the flood of a horrendous story.
Morley’s detailed filling in of the blanks is a noble sentiment on the film’s behalf, but it does mean the trade off is a lack of attention being paid to the wider questions it raises. Instead of looking at the real reasons Joyce, and those like her, fall off the map or, more importantly, why she could have possibly been left so long before being found, we are given endless trivia about her personality. We know, for example, everything from the lack of interest she showed in cleaning the bathroom, to what outfits she loved to wear. While all of this makes Joyce a lot more ‘real’, for want of a better word, this documentary could have been the perfect springboard for the proper examination of larger social problems, why they exist, and how they can be tackled. It feels like some good should come out of such misery.
This illustrative approach in presenting Joyce as a real person, and not just another faceless name in a news story, is contradicted hugely by including artifice in the film, namely its use of dramatisation Morley reconstruct episodes in Joyce’s life, with particular emphasis on her final days, and scenes depicting the forensic investigation of her flat after her body was found. This means most of what we see of Joyce on screen is presented to us via an actress (Zawe Ashton). Considering the fact the documentary is entirely about her, it’s a strange notion that we see the real Joyce only three times in its ninety five minute running time: just two photos and two or three seconds of footage are featured.
These reconstructions are perhaps Dreams of a Life‘s biggest flaw; all of them, without exception, are clumsily produced, unnecessary and only serve as a blockade of fiction in front of the tragic reality. Threaded through the talking-head interviews, one especially awful sequence twists the compliment of “Joyce was a pretty girl who loved life” into a sleazy set of shots showing ‘her’ dancing provocatively with three lecherous men, while other long-winded scenes have nothing but her singing mournfully into a hairbrush.
The interview segments don’t fare much better, and suffer significantly due to the noticeable lack of input from Joyce’s family (all of whom declined to be featured in Dreams of a Life.) Their absence is filled, primarily, by ex-boyfriend Martin Lister — whose accounts of Joyce are the most warm and warranted — but too many of the other interviewees feel like they have been included through necessity, rather than choice. These range from the friends of ex-boyfriends, to temporary work colleagues, to, in one instance, an old schoolmate who had not seen Joyce since they were children. “Maybe she wasn’t good at exams?” hypothesises one of the work colleagues after seeing Joyce’s results for the first time and it is this that sums up Morley’s documentary perfectly: a fundamental lack of detail, leading to an over reliance on unsubstantiated conjecture.
Apart from Martin (and another ex-boyfriend) all of the interviewees are too far into the fringes of Joyce’s life, which means none of them really knew the real woman. Their segments become a little too ‘small talk at a funeral’ to be taken at face value; everything each one says about her is readily contradicted by someone else in a later interview, and their gushing about her being the next Whitney Houston, or how much they loved her, feels horribly forced and only begs the question of where were they during her disappearance.
I carried Joyce’s story around with me after watching Dreams of a Life, and am still haunted by it now. As I watched Zawe Ashton staring blankly into the television in ‘Joyce’s flat, watching the interviewees talking about ‘her’, I couldn’t shake the feeling that she wasn’t Joyce at all; she was just another Joyce Carol Vincent, perhaps sat in the audience with me, waiting to happen. It’s mainly because of this thought that Dreams of a Life feels like a wasted opportunity. Morley has created an arty eulogy for a lonely soul, but the questions and enigmas remain, and her film plays out far too often as just another misery memoir, so much so that such an approach would have been far better suited in the pages of a book rather than up on screen as a film. A more journalistic documentary would have served Joyce, and any others finding themselves falling through the ever increasing cracks of society, far better; I just hope there won’t ever be another lost person that such a film could feature.
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