Floundering in the Deep End
M. Night Shyamalan doesn’t like film critics. That hardly comes as shocking news — what filmmaker does like critics? — but he puts us explicitly on notice in Lady in the Water with a character who is, indeed, a film critic… and the object of some derision for his “presumption” that he can always see through a movie’s plot and know what the filmmaker was thinking.
That is, perhaps, a fair enough complaint. But aren’t film critics merely people who love movies a whole bunch? (Okay, I’ll concede that a major problem with the state of film criticism today is that many critics don’t, in fact, seem to enjoy actually movies.) And hasn’t Shyamalan trained movie lovers, whether we subsequently write about the movies we see or not, to expect the “unexpected,” expect the twist ending to the point where with his last film, The Village, the twist was all the film had to offer, even if it was shockingly banal?
The notice Shyamalan has given us critics is this (if I may presume to guess what he way thinking): Anything we say about Lady that can be construed as negative may well be interpreted — by the filmmaker, by “regular” moviegoers — as sour grapes, as getting even. Of course that won’t be true, and the critics-only crowd I saw the film with laughed harder at the revelation of this particular character’s profession than any “regular” audience will. We get it: we presume. And we had our smug presumptions about Lady, too.
But so will everyone.
So, is it too much of a spoiler if I put one of those presumptions to rest and reveal that, refreshingly, Lady in the Water does not have anything like a twist at its ending, and that, even if it did, there would still have been stuff to enjoy on the journey to that ending? Not that there aren’t little twists along the way — though they are, alas, pretty foreseeable if you are in fact a presumptuous film critic or even merely a halfway serious moviegoer who is familiar with the neccesary conventions of storytelling.
That’s not so bad, because the peculiar and oddly cerebral beauty of Lady is that it is a movie about the concepts and conventions of storytelling, one that spirals self-referentially in on itself and is consciously constructed in rich layers to approach the idea of what stories are and what purposes they serve from multiple angles. (The prehistoric pictograms that introduce us at the film’s opening to the ancient tale the film would like us to believe it is telling are an overt connection between the visual medium of the distant past and that of film.) The Lady’s name is, perhaps almost too pointedly, Story, and she is a kind of sea nymph and a kind of muse… But I won’t tell you much more than that, because much of the pleasure and the suspense of the film comes from how her story unfolds; how apartment-building superintendent Cleveland Heep, who rescues her (um, sort of) from the complex’s swimming pool one night, learns her story, and how his story unfolds.
One of Shyamalan’s great talents as a visual storyteller — and why he is often likened to Steven Spielberg — is that, even in his less-than-successful films, he finds spirit and mystery in the ordinary, and that is certainly the case here. He creates a palpable bubble of fantasy around The Cove, the apartment complex, partly by dispensing with the disbelief of characters as they are introduced to the strangeness of the situation they find themselves in. Shyamalan lets us presume — there’s that word again — that some characters here may scoff at the fact that there’s a sea nymph living in their pool, but he lets the explanations and the convincing and the coming around to acceptance happen offscreen; these are storytelling conventions we all know and don’t need repeated again, and the easy belief of the characters creates an atmosphere of conviction that we easily buy into. Part of the bubble is a result of Shyamalan (who wrote and directed, as usual) actually limiting himself to this one location — the movie never leaves The Cove, and there is something almost thrilling in a big-budget Hollywood film that thinks big and acts small, instead of the other way around.
And still… it’s easier to appreciate Lady in the Water than it is to embrace it emotionally. The always wonderful Paul Giamatti (Cinderella Man, Sideways) as Cleveland is damn near heartbreaking, but Bryce Dallas Howard (The Village) as the Lady is a chilly presence — we may be able to easily accept her fantastical origins, but getting caught up in her charisma does not happen for us like it does for the denizens of The Cove. Lady wants us to be sad and hopeful and in awe about a lot of things, but it didn’t make me actually feel much of anything. It is, perhaps, too self-consciously about how a story is made real instead of just actually making a story real. Shyamalan casts himself here, in a role far larger than any he’s given himself in his previous films, as a rather meek character, but because of the particular storytelling purpose that character serves, Shyamalan’s putting himself in this character’s shoes can only be seen, from our perspective as presumptuous observers outside the story, as an act of enormous hubris on his part. I won’t presume to guess what Shyamalan was thinking, but it suggests that he’s more concerned with telling an “important” story than he is with telling a satisifying one.