Joan Semmel in the Assisted Living Home review – a sweet portrait of a women who looked – and laughed – at her body

Wandering the paths and winding streets of Washington DC, we find ourselves in a small clapboard house. It is dark, and we see a book, a Dolly Parton cookbook. There’s not a speck of cellulite on the 54-year-old girl by the door.

Joan Semmel is an American documentary-maker whose films examine the relationship between society and the female body. She is profoundly self-conscious of this. But she’s laughing, looking back on her life.

Joan Semmel In the Assisted Living Home is made up of four brief, long-take sequences, each of about a minute. Semmel watches what is happening around her – her life partners, her children, her therapists – and makes snapshots of themselves. We look at Semmel’s body; we look at her friends’ bodies.

Semmel spends a long time at her father’s funeral in Washington DC, sharing a pile of earth with the other family members and gazing at her father’s casket in the silence. The burial scene is played for inspiration. We see David Essig, Semmel’s husband of 50 years, standing over the coffin, head in his hands. According to Semmel, “That’s what my dad could have been; he was not only alive, he was alive in me. The way that he interacted with me was in that grave.”

It’s as if Semmel has taken an unblinking view of her own body. For her, there is “an absolute conflict between the image of the body as muscular and muscularity and the externality of the image of the body”.

A care home is a moment of contemplation. Homemade paper clothes hang on the line. For a few minutes, Semmel asks her doctor (Christopher Morris) if she can hear him in the room. Her lover is sitting nearby, his open eye scanning the bedroom. We don’t see him for long, but we get a whiff of the perfume they wear together.

It is a touching portrait of Semmel as a woman, who is angry but not angry enough, for that matter. There is a tenderness about her relationship with her mother, something a bit more like connection than kinship. She is lost, but not quite lost. She gives a funny one-liner, a neat little gem: “My whole life, I was anti-Estrogen; it’s too big for me.”

Her strongest images are of looking through her fingers, or looking out at people she cares about. At the end of the film, she says: “This is what people are going to ask me the next day.” But those questions will not be so different from what she asked herself in that kitchen-room.

Joan Semmel In the Assisted Living Home, directed by Christopher Morris. Running time: 23 min. Cert: 15. Out now.

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