'Must Read After My Death': A Real Page-Turner

Charley and Allis i i

War Correspondents: Charley and Allis' recorded letters reveal the battles behind the picture of a perfect marriage. Gigantic Releasing hide caption

itoggle caption Gigantic Releasing
Charley and Allis

War Correspondents: Charley and Allis' recorded letters reveal the battles behind the picture of a perfect marriage.

Gigantic Releasing

Must Read After My Death

  • Director: Morgan Dews
  • Genre: Documentary
  • Running Time: 73 minutes

Not Rated: Adult themes and childhood trauma

'Must Read ...' opens in New York on Feb. 20, when it will also be available for viewing online.

Family Portrait from Must Read After My Death i i

Say 'Cheese': Happy snapshots belie family troubles. Gigantic Releasing hide caption

itoggle caption Gigantic Releasing
Family Portrait from Must Read After My Death

Say 'Cheese': Happy snapshots belie family troubles.

Gigantic Releasing

A tale of '60s adultery, psychotherapy and recrimination washed down with too many martinis, Must Read After My Death could be an Edward Albee play.

Yet it's not fiction. Not to director Mogan Dews, whose grimly compelling film had its genesis when the filmmaker discovered the personal archives of his grandmother, identified here only as Allis. And certainly not to the warring spouses who narrate Dews' documentary from beyond the grave.

Ever the dedicated family librarian, Allis left behind a wealth of home movies and taped diaries, as well as a series of Dictaphone letters between her and husband Charley, who traveled often for business.

Allis is a former dancer who brags about having lived in Europe and speaking four languages. She quickly states her objection to life with Charley, her second husband: "I am not a housewife."

But she is, trapped at home in Hartford, Conn., with a daughter and three sons. Charley complains that Allis is a lousy housekeeper, but he doesn't question her ability to raise their children alone as he visits Australia and Japan.

Charley is a bald, middle-aged insurance executive, but he can dance and charm women. He matter-of-factly reports on his conquests in those Dictaphone letters, one of which even includes the voice of Charley's latest Aussie girlfriend, singing "Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport."

Allis also recounts an infidelity, although in rather different terms: She sees it more as a favor to her lover than an indulgence for herself.

The Dictaphone letters end in the mid-'60s, and are replaced by Allis' tape-recorded diaries. Charley's viewpoint is no longer directly heard, but by then he seems almost to have become a minor character.

The couple's oldest child flees into an early marriage. Another struggles in school, while a third is institutionalized.

According to Allis, the oft-drunken Charley blames her for much of this. Her husband's accusations sting less, however, than those of their psychiatrist, one Dr. Lenn. A good wife, the unsympathetic shrink says, is "a woman with a capital 'W.'" Allis says she knows she's not that.

The battle ends suddenly, 31 years before Allis' death. A brief sequence depicting her in later life, trying out her younger self's ballet moves, suggests that she's happy. She no longer has to pretend to be a housewife.

Dews, whose infancy is documented by the home movies, doesn't attempt to expand the account of Allis and Charley's marriage. Titles occasionally provide bits of supplementary information, but there are no interviews with the grown children, and no more about the movie's off-screen villain, Dr. Lenn.

The filmmaker works only with what his subjects provided, which means that the couple's acrimony is often illustrated by footage of an apparently happy family. Allis and Charley didn't film their fights, so sound and image contrast each other ironically.

Dews uses slo-mo, montage and double exposure to render the home movies as a sort of eerie reverie, but many of the pictures still evoke suburban normality. Only the ghostly voices reveal that Must Read After My Death is the story of a uniquely tormented family.

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