Review essay of M. Night Shyamalan’s “Lady in the Water”

Lady in the Water is the sixth and latest movie written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan [1].  Let me begin by a survey of the reviews of Shyamalan’s Lady in the Water. Something is pretty clear: critics did no like it. The average “rate” by the critics is somewhere between 10% and 15% (if such rates mean anything to you) of positive opinion. The picture is diametrically opposite for the audience: between 70% and 80% of positive rating. Let’s have a look at the negative reviews first:

“A flaky ego trip disguised as a fairy tale.” Scott Von Doviak for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
“It’s a busy made-up universe – with rules, rituals, and a deity-tree that could give the Hindu hierarchy a run for its rupee. And it’s extremely silly.” Steven Rea for the Philadelphia Inquirer.
“Never has the evidence been so clear that a once-promising director has gone completely insane, yet seldom has said proof been so all-fired dull.” Steve Schneider for the Orlando Weekly.
“An act of spectacular (if unwitting) self-immolation.” Lou Lumenick for the New York Post.
“The M. stands for miserable.” The Holywood Reporter.

This is, as far as I know, the worst reviews, but it reflects most of the critics’ reviews. Some of them, however, consider their task to find a certain balance in one’s comment about a movie. Peter Travers, writing for the magazine Rolling Stone says for example “The movie is a muddle, burdened with too many characters and a sorry lack of thrills, flair and coherence.

Yet Shyamalan’s talent is real.” There are even a few positive comments like Desson Thomson of the Washington Post writing: “If the ultimate goal is entertainment, then Lady in the Water enthusiastically rises to the task.” Of course one should ask if Shyamalan’s task, in producing Lady in Water, is mere entertainment. Here, Thomson probably implies that if the movie is meant to convey a “serious” message, then it is a failure. And by implication, the only positive side to this movie is the mere entertainment it gives. Considering the nature of Shyamalan’s other movies, it is almost an insult to assert that his movie is only good at entertaining.

Probably one of the most appreciative review is found in the Boston Globe in which Wesley Morris makes this comment: “It is possible to wrestle yourself from the movie’s hokey ambitions. There is a good chunk of Lady in the Water that is simply too well made and affectingly acted to dismiss as a mere exercise in arrogance.” I think he has a point. A superficial reading, or for a movie “watching,” will leave the critic unsatisfied, and will make his pen lose its temper and write such comments.

The point now is that the very negative criticisms we found all point to the fact that there is something about Lady in the Water that is to be understood. The mere comment that Shyamalan’s movies show an infernal breakdown of quality (and probably, it is implied, of “meaning”), is so vague and partisan that it is difficult to take it seriously. What I propose now is not an interpretation of Lady in the Water. I have found such attempts on the web. There are for example some Christians interpreting Lady in the Water as the story of the journey of the soul to heaven. Everything is allegorically interpreted, even the eagle.

Lady in the Water then becomes a Christian-Platonic story in which Story [the name of the “lady”] is the soul of fallen man, in the process of going back to his Platonic “home” on the wings of an eagle. Another Christian “interpreter” of Shyamalan presents Lady in the Water as follows:

The Story can represent a Soul that has a message to deliver, a vessel (a Self) to awaken for a visionary purpose (and another Self to be saved from despair) that includes it’s being broken (killed) in order to be re-born to a better life (future). The Soul is under attack by malevolent forces whom are nevertheless ruled over by more powerful protective forces. The Soul seeks help inarticulately from wherever she can find it, and does. Events (in fact, an ecclesia or entire church of people) conspire with the Soul to help her succeed in the task. Having process is safely under way. That the photography is often murky, unfocused, and un-centered fits perfectly with the conversion process itself. Having accomplished her mission, the Soul is uplifted and soars to heaven[2].

I want to avoid such a reading for two reasons. First, I don’t think Christian Platonism faithfully reflects the biblical teaching concerning the relation between body and soul, nor the message of salvation. Secondly, it is not taking Shyamalan seriously to impose upon him such an explicit Christian reading. From what I know, Shyamalan himself does not confess the Christian faith and there is consequently no reason to “impose” our Christian faith upon his movies.

This being said, I do not mean we can’t talk about Lady in the Water as Christians. We certainly may! But the perspective is radically different. I will try to read, “see”, it as a movie living by and in itself  and propose my explanation of what is the main important elements of it (and by correlation why Lady in the Water has inflamed the critic’s fury.)[3]

On a negative note…

It is not my intention to criticize the quality of the movie. I am not knowledgeable enough in this area. One comment however. It has been said that the pace of Lady in the Water is too slow and that, in a way, is quite right. As a critic rightly points: Shyamalan tells, and he does not show in this movie [4].  For this critic it is a professional suicide to proceed in such a way. The standard of movie-making requires that the audience is shown something, not told something. However, the point is that Shyamalan is telling a fairy tale here, not showing us a movie. Whether or not it fits the standards of movie making makes no doubt.

Moreover, I have to say that the character played by Shyamalan’s himself does not really fit in the main plot of the movie. Some critics have seen that this was directed against them. But most of the critics, too pleased with themselves, have seen it only as Shyamalan’s ego incarnated in the movie, without realizing that this sub-story was directed against their own profession and supposedly all-powerful judgment. From my point of view, it is difficult to defend the pertinent place of the character played by Shyamalan in the movie even if the motivation for it is quite understandable.

Lastly, Shyamalan’s mixing of “humour” and tension is sometimes disconcerting. For example the almost comical face of Paul Giamatti carrying Bryce Dallas-Howard as he runs toward his house, in his first encounter with the “Scrunt,” makes you almost think: “Is it real?” You can really be perplexed by such a reaction, because it does not seem to express a real terror (which we are expecting.) This is repeated few times in the movie. But does it deeply affect the quality of the movie? I do not think so, and seeing Paul Giamatti playing his part makes me think he was the perfect cast as Cleveland Heep.

Metanarratives

I will begin by pointing to one of the reasons why Lady in the Water has been so despised by the critics. To put it simply I would say that Lady in the Water is presented as a “metanarrative.” Saying this, it is probably necessary to explain in few words what I precisely mean when I use the word “metanarrative.”

A metanarrative can be defined as a global cultural narrative schema which orders and explains knowledge and experience. Given the use of the Greek prefix meta, the etymological meaning of metanarrative is thus “a story about a story.” The characteristics elements of a metanarrative can be summarized as follow: a claim to the truth; as such, it has a pretension to knowledge as well; it is taken to be a true story that encompasses all of human experiences; it has a cosmic scope both in a spatial and temporal sense.

The widespread use of the expression “metanarrative” is due to the influence of postmodernist philosopher Jean-François Lyotard, especially in his well-known book The Postmodern condition: a Report on Knowledge [5].  In this book, Lyotard links the postmodern condition to the theme of metanarrative in the following way: “Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodern as incredulity towards metanarratives.” Therefore, postmodernism and the “belief” in and the acceptance of the existence of metanarratives are diametrically opposed. Some have criticized Lyotard, saying that his own position is itself a metanarrative, and in a way it is. I will not expand on Lyotard’s analysis of relation between postmodernism and metanarratives, but I take Lyotard’s analysis to be legitimate and reflecting, at least in part, the relation that postmodernism entertains with the concept of metanarrative, and by extension, with the notions of meaning and truth.

If I made this digression about the metanarrative and our postmodern condition, it is because I think we can understand the Lady in the Water as being one of these metanarrative. I will try to show that this explains some of the themes of the movie (as well as some features of Shyamalan’s previous movies, notably Unbreakable) as well as the annihilationist attitude of the critics. If we keep in mind what is a metanarrative, then it becomes clear that one of the problem that emerges is the one of meaning. I take one of the responsibility of movie-makers to point to the meaning of society, of our cultural concerns, of human life, nature, and place in the universe etc. [6]

But in a postmodern world, there is no meaning. Or rather, one of the dominant meaning-maker is: “How will the audience receive it?” Of course, I realize that this is an over-simplified statement. In a way it is, but looking at movies it is clear that there is a problem of meaning. This problem of meaning goes together with the individualistic side of postmodernism.

So we actually should say that the only meaning is the meaning one chooses, or better, the meaning one makes up. A movie means something to an individual, not to an audience. There is no more point in asking what a movies means in itself. There is only how a movie rings within myself. If one of the problems is one of meaning, it is not the only one, unfortunately.

Of course, there are great directors in the filmmaking milieu. Some of them have a “gift” to depict the dark side of the human nature as well as the possibility of “redemption” (if I am allowed to use Christian terminology). The recent movies by Clint Eastwood are a good example of that. But none conveys this sense of a true grand story.

Let me make an excursus here to mention another movie by Shyamalan. Some critics have criticized the denouement of Unbreakable, the second movie of Shyamalan, stating that the audience was waiting the truth of David Dunn’s identity. Is he, or is he not the “Unbreakable.” After all, even the identity of the villain is clear, and consequently, the movie could almost be more the story of the identity of Mr. Glass than that of the “Unbreakable.” Of course it is not so. Those critics are waiting for a non-mystery denouement, an end that reveals all and leaves no place for mystery, or imagination, or faerie.

In contemporary movies, there is no more place for an « acceptable impossible. » Someone who is « unbreakable » is commonly thought impossible. This is why those critics are waiting for a clear answer of Shyamalan, and it is assumed that this answer would run like this: “Well, of course, Dunn is not unbreakable. The “Unbreakable” is a character-concept closer to that of myth or fairy stories than that of the scientific world of Reason we live in. Let’s be serious. This is not about a man that really is super-natural, different from you and me. It is but an example of how man –everyone¬– can indeed realize impossible things when he begins to believe in himself, in Man’s natural power.”

This is the triumph of the absolute reason, not of Truth –of course truth is no more– but of man’s reason. Let Mr. Shyamalan unveil the triumph of the non mysterious man and let us know that there is nothing else to be known that man; nothing to count on that man; and nothing to hope in but man. Here as well, it is the death of the “bigger story,” the death of a world outside human life, a story that goes beyond our own individual identities.

This is the annihilation of man’s nature, dreams, of his sense of the impossible happening, the sense of wonder and of awe. Mr. Shyamalan has captured a sense of the supernatural that he does not seem wanting to drop away for a couple of good appraisal in newspapers, and for that we should thank him. But we have to remember that in those criticisms we have the death of all metanarratives.

Lady in the Water as a fairy tale, Unbreakable, as a new superhero concept, bring on screen a common sense of wonder, and of sense of supernatural. They also bring the feeling that we are part of a bigger story. I take Shyamalan to represent the rebirth of metanarratives in the industry of movies. The future will tell if this was a hasty statement or not.

Non-individuality

I have mentioned several times already that one of the main aspects of Shyamalan’s “metanarrative movies” was the sense of being part of a bigger story. What I think is the most enraging for contemporary minds is the implication of that: our individuality is not that important after all. Lady in the Water points more explicitly to this aspect. One could ask why our individual personality is not important. After all, is not each character central and necessary, as I have myself said? Yes. But necessary despite himself. Each one is necessary but not by and in himself, I have pointed to that already.

Therefore, if each character is necessary, it is because he has been chosen, not because of his qualities not because of who he is. In this perspective then, to be part of a bigger story means that the story is more important than our individual lives, than our own stories. And this, no doubt, is certainly very difficult to hear, and to see, for us. We are so accustomed to think of ourselves and what we can do, and by extension, what humankind is an can do. The myth of a powerful humankind dies hard.

Critics have pointed to the absence of a deep treatment of the characters; to the multiplicity of apparent unnecessary characters; of the platitude of them; and for one, “Lady in the Water is filled with characters that have no motivation whatsoever.” [7] Again the analysis is such, because of the expectations of the modern critics. It is unacceptable, to (post)modern minds, to have a movie depicting humans not being in control of the developing story. It is impossible that the motivation of the movie might lie beyond and make abstraction of the motivation of individual characters in the movie. It is impossible to think that the center of the Story might not lie in Man. This is probably why Lady in the Water is a failure to them. The question we have to ask ourselves is: What does Shyamalan want to tell us, in using this unusual depiction of the Story?

For modern / postmodern men and women, to hear that oneself is not the most important thing in the universe, and that there is something “above,” “higher,” “bigger,” far more important than oneself, sounds like pure blasphemy, plain nonsense. There is no “above,” nothing apart from the reality we all determine for ourselves. This is at the opposite spectrum of what Shyamalan proposes in Lady in the Water. And I think this is the reason both for the immeasurable contempt of the critics, and the attraction the movie exerted on the audience. There is an appeal to Lady in the Water, because in spite of our veneration of our own individuality we deeply are attracted by this: we want “to be part of a bigger story.” I have called it the sense of the supernatural. I could have called it the sense of deity as well – to be more theological [8].

So here we are at last, with the main reason for the rejection of the movie by the critics, and the rather good appraisal by the audience. A sense of deity, of supernatural, for if we say “part of a bigger story,” we imply at the same time an “above” to direct the story or an “above” who is the focus of central character of the story.

Change and identity

Another important theme of Shyamalan’s movies, which is found in Lady in the Water as well. It is the theme of change and identity. In Lady in the Water, the “change” is brought forth in two steps. In the first place, we learn, not surprisingly, that the key characters supposed to help Story to return ‘home,’ the Guild, the Interpreter, the Healer and the Guardian (and few others) are not superheroes but ordinary men and women. But there is a real change in our expectation of one’s identity.

We are accustomed, as I have said, to the concept of the anti hero, which was, at the time of its first appearance of a great beneficial new breath (even if it has now replaced the concept of the traditional hero and become itself deconceptualized, that is, it has fallen into commonness, and meaninglessness). We were almost naturally waiting, given Shyamalan previous movies, for such improbable heroes. The identity of the key characters in Lady in the Water are revealed through the change they secretly have to experience.

The best example is of course Paul Giamatti’s character, who cannot find peace nor healing from his past. The Healer in need of healing. The Healer fulfilling his purpose “unconsciously” by being himself healed. Almost a cliché. The Interpreter is, even at first, an improbable character, a cross-words fanatic, played by Jeffrey Wright. But the true Interpreter turns out to be his own son, reading the code on cereal boxes, an Interpreter that still needs his father to ‘interpret’ many event of the world he lives in. In the same manner, the Guild is not determined by what they do, or what they are. The Guild is not, like Faber (Bob Balaban) said, a group of people sharing the same interests and hanging around together all the time.

The Guild does not turn out to be this kind of group. The Guild is not made of persons voluntarily meeting because they share the same interests, but sisters, that is, persons that do not have the choice of belonging together or not (and how, incidentally, might have very different interests). They are the Guild because that’s who they are, they are sisters and it is not up to them to be such. Here again we find the theme of non-individuality interplaying with the themes of change and identity.

In Unbreakable, the two themes of change and identity are closely linked through the quest of David Dunn, played by Bruce Willis, for true identity. In The Village, Shyamalan makes at first the hero of his movie to be the introvert Lucius (Joaquin Phoenix), and we have to acknowledge that the character of Lucius fits perfectly well in the now established anti-hero concept. The one that does not look like a hero, who does not seems fit for the job, who is standing behind, afraid of coming in front, unsure of himself despite his willingness to try the impossible.

Precisely. This is the subversion of Shyamalan. There is, even in the anti-hero concept, a change. I do not mean that we come back to the previous traditional sur-natural hero. Not at all. The concept is itself maintained but turned over once again to make of the most improbable character the final and definitive hero of the movie thus completely opening the door of the possible for his audience. Reality, then, is not just what we see. Identity is not just what we see. The “hidden” is a central theme of Shyamalan movies, as other critics have already said.

Providential fairy?

Another theme that permeates Shyamalan’s movies is the one of providence. I am conscious that it is a theological term, and that it sounds Christian. Of course, it is one of the great concept of the Christian faith, but it is not exclusive to it. Therefore, when I say that the theme of providence is present in Shyamalan’s movies I do not imply that the Christian God is present at the same time. I do not think so. Nevertheless, there is at work in Shyamalan’s worlds, an invisible but palpable presence. This presence takes us from the beginning of the movie, taking us to a place we would not think the movie would take us.

This is the same for what can be theologically called predestination, or to be more fair with what Shyamalan’s is presenting, pre-ordination. Signs, on this point, is the best example. Everything, up to the most abnormal behaviour, apparently irrational attitude (like filling up dozen of glasses of water) turns out to have a special place in the final denouement. In Lady in the Water this can be pushed to an extreme, and I know I am going on a treacherous ground now, and we can look at all the ridiculous events of the movies, especially the personality (often ridiculous-comical) of the different characters involved finally plays an important part in the purpose of the movie. Each and every one of them, especially through their weaknesses, come to have a significant part to play. “The man who has no secret,” though somewhat ridiculed is necessary to the rescue of Story. This again points to the “higher” than one’s own individuality.

Consolation, Recovery, Escape

To close this review essay, I’d like to propose to look at Lady in the Water as it was intended to be: a fairy tale. In modern times, it is probably the English writer and Oxford professor J. R. R. Tolkien who can be considered as the father of fairy-tales, as well as its main theoretician. In his now famous essay “On fairy stories”, he asserts that a true fairy-tale is composed of three elements, consolation, recovery and escape [9].

Escape, not in the sense of an illusory and irrational flight from this world, but as an hope-escape from a world seemingly closed on itself, closed on human self-indulgence and self-adoration [10].  Recovery, in the sense of recovering the lost, regaining what has been compromised and destroyed by modern society and philosophy [11].  Consolation, as the joy of the happy-ending, not as an hollywoodian one tough for, for Tolkien, true consolation was a mixing of deep joy and melancholy, the union he has called eucatastrophe (the good catastrophe).

I would take Lady in the Water as a recovery of the fairy tales and of the supernatural; an escape of the postmodernist condition which can sometimes be felt to be a prison forbidding us to explore the outside world; and an eucatastrophe found in the departure of Story combined to the “joy” of a brighter future.
Lady in the Water as a fairy tale then demands a belief in fairy tales, which (post)modern man has long rejected.

Some of the critics points to the ridiculous situation of characters accepting without any proof this crazy made-up fairy story about a nymph and a weird dog trying to kill her, and accessorily about the end, or the renewing of the world, depending of your point of view. For example, Kirk Honeycutt writing for the Hollywood Reporter, points that  “one very curious thing about all these tenants is that when Cleveland comes to them with his tale of narfs and scrunts, no one looks at him and says he should check into a mental hospital. Not one.”

It is so because Shyamalan here wants us to believe in fairy tales [12].  He tried to regain this long forgotten genre, despised by most official critics, and probably by most of us too. This is precisely what Shyamalan (as I “read” him) is doing in trying to recover fairy tales. Lady in the Water, especially thought its treatment of the sense of the “supernatural,” fits in this category of fairy tale. What is proposed in it is both consolation, escape, and especially recovery. And recovery in this sense is so close to healing that we can wonder if such is not one of the benefits of this latest Shyamalan’s movie.

A last word. The most noticeable element of Lady in the Water, however, is that this faerie story has been written by Mr. Shyamalan himself; it is that Lady in the Water has not been written and directed as a dream but as a true bedtime story, a true fairy tale which regains the sense of the supernatural, for our great benefit.

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Endnotes:

[1] Most people actually know only four of his movies, The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Signs, The Village, and now, Lady in the Water. However, The Sixth Sense is not Shyamalan’s first movie, but the third, Shyamalan having made his debut with Praying with Anger (1992) and Wide Awake (1998).
[2] John Mark Butterworth, available on http://www.speroforum.com. This demonstrates once again that you can find anything on the web, the best and the worst.
[3] This approach then is close to what proposes Robert K. Johnson, commenting on the different approaches Christians use to “interpret” movies: “rather, if viewers will join in community with a film’s storyteller, letting the movie’s images speak with their full integrity, they might be surprised to discover that they are hearing God as well.” in Reel Spirituality: Theology and Film in Dialogue. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000, page 72.
[4] “Forgetting, or forgoing, the Screenwriting 101 advice « show, don’t tell, » the humble auteur has loaded his screenplay with mystical, and mystifying, ramblings about sea nymphs and creatures from a fluvial universe connected to the plumbing of the apartment’s pool.” Steven Rea, for the Philadelphia Inquirer. One could disagree with Rea’s view of the standards of “how” to make a movie. There still are some (and probably more than we expect) for whom storytelling is the main task of the screenwriter and director. Robert Kolker, in Film, Form, and Culture (New York: McGrawth Hill, 2002) for example stresses that movie is for a good part about story telling, which does not eliminate the importance and the skillful use of image! (actually we could say that for him, a movie is the union of image and narrative. Over the years I think we can say that the image has become preeminent, and the balance with narrative partially lost.)  To put in such an antagonist position showing and telling as does S. Rea, reflects this apathy and passivity that modern man adopts when watching a movie. Telling demands an act of reflection from the audience. Mere ‘showing’ demands only one’s presence in his seat.
[5] Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984. Translated by Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi, page xxiv. Of course there are many definitions of postmodernism, and the rejection of “grand narratives” is only one of them. however, it could be argued that many of the characteristics of postmodernism are criticized in Lady in the Water as, for example: the rejection of objective truth, the general (rejected for the particular and for a certain individualism), the rejection of the unity of life (rejected for an emphasis on the diversity of lfie) etc.
[6] Other would say, as Robert Johnson do, that “at their best, movies help viewers to see life more clearly.”, Reel Spirituality, page 64. I agree that it should be the case, and I also agree that at their best, movies do. The point being, we get less and less the best of movies on the screens.
[7]  Michael Clawson, writing for West Valley View.
[8] And maybe could we go as far as calling it a Rumor of Angels, following Peter Berger in the book by the same name (Garden City: Doubleday, 1970). In this book, Berger writes about the supposedly disappearance of the supernatural in our society, and affirms that this might not actually be the case because “[…] both in practice and in theoretical thought, human life gains the greatest part of its richness from the capacity for ecstasy, by which I do not mean the alleged experiences of the mystic, but any experience of stepping outside the taken-for-granted reality of everyday life, any openness to the mystery that surrounds us on all sides.” Rumor of Angels, 75.
[9] John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, “On fairy stories” included both in Tree and Leaf and in the volume I am using, The Monsters and the Critics. London: HarperCollins Publishers,1997.
[10] On this point there was no problem for Tolkien with a desire for escape: “Why should a man be scorned, if, finding himself in prison, he tries, to get out and go home?” The Monsters and the Critics, 148.
[11] It would be too long to explain what this included for Tolkien was, on many points, a Medieval man, lost in the twentieth century with radically different values and expectations. For him, then, recovery was encompassing most of the values of this previous world.
[12] I think this is a more central element to the movie than “saving the world.” Some critics have actually questioned: “where is the jeopardy of the human world?” Well the answer is that Shyamalan is not so much concerned about and endangered world being miraculously saved.