There is no need to introduce Selma Blair. She has been a unique presence as an outstanding supporting actress for decades, with indelible appearances in “Cruel Intentions,” “Legally Blonde” and “Hellboy” franchises among her many roles in the cinema. There is a certain pleasant sharpness in her character — she is both playful and sparkling, with a seductive androgyny with her sharp and striking features.
And yet, we meet Blair again-and she comes to know and eventually adopt a different version of herself – during the documentary “Presentation, Selma Blair.”By working with director Rachel Fleit, Blair gives us an devoted and unblemished look at her life as she action the debilitating symptoms of multiple sclerosis, a diagnosis she received in 2018. We also follow her as she strives to continue to be the mother of her young son Arthur and travels to Chicago to perform the stem cell transplant she hopes will relieve her.
This is a lot, especially since Blair is making herself more and more vulnerable and offers a window to her pain and fear through the raw video diaries she shoots herself and the unvarnished moments she lets Fleit capture. (The filmmaker suffers from alopecia, an autoimmune ailment that causes hair loss; her sensitivity and sense of humor are evident in her first documentary.) “Presentation, Selma Blair” is often a difficult viewing experience, and it should be. What is the documentary form, if not a mechanism for showing us the truth about how others live? The honesty displayed here is crucial, both for people who have no idea what multiple sclerosis is, and for those who can suffer from the ailment themselves, in which the immune system strikes the protective cover of the nerves.
But every time the film seems to be about to shoot maudlin, Blair changes the tone with a biting wit and self-irony that instantly brightens the mood. His self-confidence and his frequent will to laugh at himself in the saddest situations prevent the tension. When we first see her, she puts on a turban and does her makeup strictly to dress up as Norma Desmond for an interview in her studio city, California. She uses this sense of the dramatic to disarm us while. But what’s really compelling – devastating, in fact-is the transformation she lets us experience while sitting in a red chair resembling a cocoon, describing her condition. A soft mix of white terrier slumbers contentedly on his lap. At first, she jokes about how important it is to walk with an elegant cane, and eloquently talks about how she hopes that her illness will inspire her to become a better person in her after 40s. But the second his comfort dog jumps and walks away, you can practically see the mask fall off. It’s like someone flipped a switch. Suddenly his speech stops and breaks down. She is tense and self-conscious. “Now comes the fatigue,” she tries to articulate. It’s painful for her and for us as viewers, but she wants us to see this, because this is her reality. Finally, a moan: “I have nothing left, ” she concludes.
Equally revealing are the moments she shares with her son, for which she puts all her energy into her body for an impromptu dance evening or a game of balloon hunters. When, at the age of seven, he tells her that he is afraid of what she will look like without hair — because she will have to undergo excruciating chemotherapy to prepare for stem cell treatment – she moves the most inspiring and frightening mother I have ever seen by handing her scissors and scissors and letting her cut them herself. (My child is almost 12 years old and I would not let him get to my head with scissors.) These moments may seem superficially edifying, but they carry an underlying current of melancholy-as is often the matter throughout the film— because they so clearly reflect Blair’s intention to be a completely different mother. She is open about the darkness and anger she believes she inherited from her hypercritical mother, and to learn that she has doubted herself all these years is heartbreaking.
But because Fleit has captured so many powerful and illuminating moments, one wishes she wasn’t relying so heavily on the music to punctuate it. For example, when Blair walks through the corridors of the hospital with a cane, a yellowish air accompanies his strut. Conversely, an inspiring melody swells when Blair comes to a conclusion about what is important in life, or about his new will to make others who are suffering feel less lonely. The emotions conveyed in these scenes must compete with the score, with creates a distraction and drains it of its effect.
Nevertheless, it is impossible to watch “Presentation, Selma Blair” and not feel deeply moved. Whatever comes from here – whether she is working as an actress again, and I hope she will — she has already achieved her goal of using her platform to shine a light on what it is to live with a disability, and she has done it with her style and grace.