Kathryn Bigelow: The Weight of Water (2000) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Kathryn Bigelow: The Weight of Water (2000)

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Five years after the ambitious and flawed Strange Days Kathryn Bigelow returned to the big screen with her first literary adaptation of The Weight of Water.  Kyle and Andrew struggle to find something good to say about this story of unhealthy desires told between people separated by a century.

The titular waterAndrewCommentaryBannerKyle, we've entered a lengthy period between films by Kathryn Bigelow.  Now, you said that you'd seen The Weight of Water before, and I'll be relying on you to pull something, anything, from this movie.  I hardly took any notes during it and looking at the last thing I wrote down, "Time-lapse photography of clouds," I hardly have anything to say other than it seems Bigelow came out of her five-year hiatus to make a slightly better budgeted episode of Masterpiece Theater.

Kyle Commentary BannerTo start, I'll address your first point—it was quite awhile ago when I saw this first, probably 10 years, but I did still remember a few things. For instance, Sean Penn is in it. Elizabeth Hurley, also in the movie. At one point, there is a boat. Also water.

Oddly enough, until the movie started, I did NOT remember that it cut back and forth between two stories in two centuries-apart time periods. When its first scenes opened set in the past, I thought I must have been mistaken and in fact hadn't seen the movie before—it turns out I just didn't remember half of it.

So here's the question that may help us get into why Bigelow would have wanted to make this movie, apparently an adaptation of a novel, where for all I care it could have stayed: Why have the two stories unfolding simultaneously? What is the audience supposed to get out of that, and where does it go wrong?Better off elsewhereNewer Andrew cutout commentary Going back to the genre-jumping that she has shared with Steven Soderbergh, there were times that I felt like she was trying for that kind of moody eroticism that Jane Campion does so well.  Many of the tricks with the film, be it switching to black and white, hitting a freeze frame, going to a high-contrast film stock, are usually correlative to a jump in passion.  I enjoyed that a lot of the eroticism was filtered through the perception of the two female leads, Catherine McCormack in the present and Sarah Polley in the past.

But aside from those tricks, I never really felt the connection.  The whole exercise struck me like something Jean-Luc Godard would do - emotion is higher here, so switch the stock - character gets upset here, so go to black and white.  I liked that neither past nor present desire was entire healthy, or even correct in its various suspicions, but aside from the surface connection to the two main storylines I didn't see much else that was interesting.

The points where it did work for me were where Bigelow was blending the leads' desire with what they perceive is their families or partners.  This is like when McCormack is watching Hurley seductively suck on some ice, watching Hurley rub it all over her body, while the camera none-too-subtly makes it look like Hurley is giving Penn fellatio.  But Penn barely notices and when he finally does see what Hurley is doing, it's more like regarding a dog with a treat than some kind of seductive force.

Tiny Kyle Commentary There's an interesting thing going on between the Penn and McCormack characters in terms of how their respective "responsibility" for their current turbulent relationship is allocated that was interesting too. Oftentimes Penn is aloof and frustrating (partially because his character of the "famous poet" is a bad cliche), but McCormack isn't entirely sympathetic either. We don't get enough of their backstory to really add any depth to the relationship, but later in the movie we get to start seeing a darker side to the McCormack character—those scenes, however ungrounded and improperly developed, were more interesting to me than almost everything that we get in the first act or so.

This is also a point where it seems like the screenplay wants to equate the McCormack character's jealously and anger with Polley's ultimate breaking-point murder spree—we get this explicitly late in the movie when two significant scenes are inter-cut. The problem is that their motives and situations aren't adequately established early on, so while the technical moves are interesting on a scene-by-scene basis, they aren't adding up to anything with cumulative value.That's subtleNewer Andrew cutout commentaryTo go back to your questions, I don't think there is any net gain from stacking the two stories against one another.  What we can pull from the unspoken in the present is portrayed in frequently overblown melodrama in the past.  It's not that it's bad melodrama exactly, but the two stories would have been better served off as different films instead of blowing up the subtleties of one another.

That said, both crews are adequate to the job, though this does further cement that no film featuring both Elizabeth Hurley and a boat is any good (this, Kill Cruise, and Bedazzled aren't a great trio).

It's just that this is the kind of awkward positioning that works better on paper where the memories and words of the present can flow more easily to the past.  Since this was adapted from a novel, perhaps that is the case, but here it just serves as another style that Bigelow hasn't trafficked in quite yet and it at times feels like the frequent changes are designed to keep the film from sputtering to a complete stop.

This well-polished piece of dull melodrama, aside from the slight twisting of whose desire is going where, doesn't really fit that well into the rest of Bigelow's filmography outside of a genre checklist.

Tiny Kyle CommentaryThe melodrama aspect is a key part of why the first act is so terrible for me. There's that scene where the four present-day characters are sitting on the boat having a conversation that I remember at the time seeming like it should be important, though now I have no idea what it was about—there are at least 3 separate moments where dramatic music crashes in right as someone says something "significant" masked as off-handed, and then after a story that culminates in looking down at a bleeding hand Bigelow cuts to a bottle of red wine broken on the deck.

It's a terrible scene, and made all the worse that the film-making behind it is hackneyed and obvious. As the movie moves into the second and third acts, those elements go away and we get much better (and more typical of Bigelow) film-making—but to little improvement.

That said, I don't feel that way about the Polley-Past segments. I feel like those are universally better in terms of quality, but likewise end up as, like you said, "dull melodrama."Fraught with perilNewer Andrew cutout commentarySee, it's those segments that were the most chameleon-esque of Jane Campion to me.  What made them slightly more compelling was the one-two punch of Polley and Katrin Cartlidge playing off one another.  Both work extremely well in a barely-buried nervous madness that comes from what they desire and watching Cartlidge's increasing distress over Polley's maneuvering was delightful.  I got none of that kind of interest from the performances of the present day cast, and was more interested in those visual red-herrings even if, as you mentioned, the didn't go anywhere.

That said, we've watched Sean Penn be overly serious and Hurley act sexy before.  Maybe Bigelow was hoping some strange genre alchemy would work its magic between the gothic past and the soap opera present, but there are no sparks where my eyes can see.

Tiny Kyle CommentaryWe can agree that there is a total sum of none sparks. This has perhaps been the most surprising of the Bigelow outings for me, mostly because it's the only one that flat-out fails. There are the elements of interest that we've both mentioned, but they seem more like Easter eggs in a bad movie than concerted efforts of a really good director. In the other films we've looked at, there have been obvious and significant flaws, but always flaws in an overall ambitious and rewarding product.

This one is an outright failure with some ambitious and rewarding elements. Just not many. Next week, Harrison Ford is a Russian. Indiana Jones—a Russian.

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Next: K-19: The Widowmaker!

Bigelow with text

Posted by Andrew

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