January 04, 2022
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Photography courtesy of Discovery+
At times, watching the documentary felt like tempting fate or touching the void of an unwanted future.
Selma Blair is floating. She’s face down in her backyard pool in a gauzy dress adorned with stars and crescent moons. She calls it “the Merlin dress,” a garment that once belonged to her mother. This is the end of Rachel Fleit’s documentary film, “Introducing, Selma Blair.”
Post viewing, I realize the film doesn’t just chronicle Blair’s visceral experience with multiple sclerosis (MS) and experimental stem cell transplant against the backdrop of a global pandemic. It’s also about her, an actress through and through.
She’s not just the subject of a camera that she allows to follow her and be in her private spaces — she also interacts with the camera, performs for it, and faces it intimately, more than once.
The first time I watched the documentary, I watched it in 20- to 30-minute digestible bites. I watched alone. This wasn’t intentional. My husband and I usually watch something once our sons go to bed, but I was never in the right mood to watch it when he asked two or three nights in a row. Every night, I’d say, “Not in the mood. Let’s do funny.”
Once I started it, I wondered if my subconscious knew I didn’t want to watch it with anyone else. I could only watch for so long before I needed to turn it off. This wasn’t because it isn’t good or because I didn’t like it, but because I’ve never watched a documentary about someone with the very disease that also uses my body as its host. It was unsettling, to say the least.
I realize it isn’t Blair’s obvious disabilities that undoes me, though I feel for her and with her as much as one can from miles away and through an LED screen. What undoes me is my deep discomfort with the possibility of my own disease progressing to a point when I’m unable to think and speak clearly, unable to do things I love, unable to feel like myself.
I’m an empathic person, but I admit, viewing such turmoil through the screen from someone with MS made me hold my breath, clench my jaw, and feel the impulse to stop watching. I do not want to face it.
I recognize that everyone with MS has a different story (everyone, period, has a different story), but this felt too close, like I was tempting fate or touching the void of an unwanted future.
The film opens with a bit of performance art. Blair’s in a dress, one of many throughout the film. She’s also in heels, even though mobility is challenging for her.
One of the first things she says onscreen is, “Where’s a turban when you need one?” The line made me laugh — her words implying there’s more than one turban to be found in Blair’s home.
She comments that she looks unwell and hastily applies makeup in tones that are too dark for her light skin, but you can tell that she likes the camera and is made for the camera.
Moments later, as she discusses her MS in an oversized papasan chair, her voice cuts out, her speech is strained, tears fall down her cheek, and she folds into herself in the fetal position. She is fatigued, and she quips that it — the onset of fatigue and symptoms — can happen this fast.
It’s a jarring transition, and it takes my breath away. I want to turn my head, the first of several times I want to look away, but again, I don’t.
To Blair’s credit, she’s put MS on a much bigger map. Though other big names have come before her, Blair is by far the one with the most star power. On Instagram, she posts vulnerably and often. She doesn’t shy away from sharing the hard stuff, and she’s no different in this film.
Often in tears, often in pain or emotional turmoil, or just plain frustrated and sad, Blair shows it all. She lays it all out for anyone to see, and boy do we see. We see her visiting a beloved horse she cannot ride, endeavoring to mother her child as best as she can, and talking about her childhood and issues with her own mother and the highs and lows of her career.
She shares her relief at receiving a diagnosis after being brushed off by medical professionals for so long. She talks about the sadness she felt after the relief, the sadness of not wanting this new uninvited guest who wants to attack her very body. It’s a feeling anyone with MS knows all too well.
During the filming, Blair undergoes a hematopoietic stem cell transplant (HSCT), which essentially helps reset the immune system. It’s a long, arduous process, and it involves chemo and long stays in the hospital.
Her head is shaved in anticipation of losing her hair. Before the transplant begins, a clergy person prays with her and the nurses and techs in the room before they all lay a hand on the bag of fluid that will be pumped back into Blair.
When she’s in isolation, she looks at and holds photos of her son. Aside from the obvious — the MS that has hurt her, the disappointment of a bad scan, more complications, and slow, tired healing — the most raw and tender moments, to me, centered around Blair’s relationship with her son and her mom.
Blair loves her young son fiercely, it’s clear. She loves to be near him and hates to be away. She loves to play with him when she isn’t totally wiped out. When she says goodbye to him, there are tears — streams of them that smudge mascara down her cheek.
It’s tender, and like most true things, fraught with both deep love and sadness in knowing that, one day, we will all be apart from the ones we love.
You don’t need MS to understand that.
“Introducing, Selma Blair” is available to stream on Discovery+.
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