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Meta Terrain 

Lady in the Water is more compelling about stories than it is as a story.

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Apparently M. Night Shyamalan doesn’t like film critics. He puts us explicitly on notice in his latest film, Lady in the Water, with a film-critic character who is held up as 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.


But aren’t film critics merely people who love movies a lot? And hasn’t Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Signs) trained movie lovers, whether we write about those movies or not, to expect the “unexpected”'expecting 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?


Is it too much of a spoiler if I reveal that, refreshingly, Shyamalan does not burden Lady in the Water with anything like that sort of a twist at its ending? And that, even if it did, there would still have been a lot of 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 necessary conventions of storytelling.


That’s not so bad, because the peculiar appeal of Lady is that it is a movie about the concepts and conventions of storytelling. It 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 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, and how apartment-building superintendent Cleveland Heep (Paul Giamatti)'who rescues her (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 is that, even in his less-than-successful films, he finds spirit and mystery in the ordinary, and that is 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. 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.


Yet still, it’s easier to appreciate Lady in the Water than it is to embrace it emotionally. The always-wonderful Giamatti as Cleveland is damned near heartbreaking, but Bryce Dallas Howard as the mysterious Lady is a chilly presence. We may be able to accept her fantastical origins easily enough, but getting caught up in her charisma did not happen for me like it seems to happen 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.


Ultimately, maybe that’s because it feels too self-consciously about how stories are made real, instead of concerning itself with actually making this particular story real. Shyamalan has always cast himself in supporting roles in his films previously, but here he takes on a role far larger than any he’s given himself in his previous films. His meek character serves a particular storytelling purpose that can only be seen, from outside the story, as an act of enormous hubris on his part. I won’t commit the film-critic sin of presuming to guess what Shyamalan was thinking with this choice, but it suggests that he’s more concerned with telling an Important Story than he is with merely telling a story.

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