THE LAKE HOUSE (Alejandro Agresti, 2006)

I have now seen Argentinian director Alejandro Agresti’s The Lake House and the 2000 South Korean film on which it is based, Siworae or Il Mare—pick whichever title you prefer—by Lee Hyun-seung, and I have some difficulty following the convoluted, time-challenged plot in either version. (A second viewing of Agresti’s film finds everything a lot easier to navigate.) I understand that David Auburn is a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, but his script for the remake is a bit tricky. Apparently architect Alex Wyler and Chicago City Hospital doctor Kate Forster, both lonely singles, live in the same glassy house on Lake Michigan but at different times, albeit with the same dog. Indeed, “the present” for each occupant of the lake house is a different year: Alex, 2004; Kate, 2006. As romances go, this one therefore has a greater obstacle or inhibition (or should that be prohibition?) than usual besetting the pair, but at least the Twilight Zoney mailbox at the lake house allows them to communicate with one another through letters, and since—don’t ask me how—Alex and Kate each is capable of slipping into the other’s wrinkle of time (or maybe only one of them can do this; I’m not sure), they do share adjacent benches here, a patio there. But perhaps I shouldn’t say “wrinkle,” for, while the Korean couple in the original are young, nobody is really young in Chicago, although my sense is that Alex and Kate are both supposed to be a decade younger than the middle-aged actors who attempt to be spry playing them. I like the movie a lot. It is mostly a pleasure to watch, even if it is almost as much hell to synopsize as must be living in Chicago.

Auburn (a Chicago native), then, is not the principal reason for the film’s success as a piece of entertainment. Agresti is. While I’m not thrilled by the depressed, possibly repressed atmosphere he borrows from Lee’s film, Agresti does a much better job of skirting lugubriousness. Just tolerable in Siworae because, hey, that’s how kids are, by which I mean, self-pitying, their more mature incarnations in The Lake House had better be pluckier and more resourceful—and they are—because they have aging to ward off, after all, while they also try to find a way to finesse their separation along the screwed-up time-space continuum so that they can come together for a final kiss borrowed from Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious (1946), clips of which, lest we miss the point, are shown twice throughout the film. Meanwhile, Sandra Bullock, who plays Kate, keys her very muted performance to the Lee-sy atmosphere, and Keanu Reeves, who plays Alex, is more boisterous and sarcastic—Agresti’s tack for keeping us from being swallowed up by this atmosphere. Still, one cannot help but note that films that Agresti made back home in Argentina—the ones I’ve seen are A Night with Sabrina Love (2000) and Valentín (2002)—are ebullient and more comical.

The material saddles each of the main characters with a problem apart from the Big Problem of Time. Kate’s love life veers between unhappiness and nonexistence. Alex’s father is a cold-blooded bastard. Simon Wyler also is an architect—in fact, the architect of the lake house. Smartly and generously, Kate is able to send Alex a posthumously published coffee-table book by Frank Lloyd Simon that contains proof of the latter’s love for Alex when Alex doesn’t quite know how to respond to his father’s death. For this moment of revelation, Reeves summons charming force as he quietly dissolves into tears. It is an overdetermined moment. Why does Alex break down, after all? Because he has lost his father? Because he is now an orphan? Because his father did love him? Because his father’s death leaves matters unresolved between them? Because of Kate’s incredible kindness in sending him the book? Well, the answer is: all of the above. Reeves’s intensity generates the result that we consider the full range of these possibilities. Moreover, Reeves plays all of his scenes with the actor who plays Alex’s father with remarkable complexity and flexibility. We see glimmers of Alex’s love for Simon behind the stress of dealing with such a difficult, ungiving individual. Alas, after the revelation of Simon’s love for Alex we should also be able to recall glimmers of that love in the performance that Christopher Plummer, who plays Simon, gives. Almost unendurably inept, as usual, Plummer, though, simply bullies his way through the part, shading nothing. Reeves succeeds in pulling up Bullock, who gives her first decent performance in this film, but he apparently can do nothing for Plummer. Neither would Olivier been able to; Plummer is (in movies, at least) impossible. Credit Reeves, then, for how he has helped Bullock. Note how unexpectedly competent Bullock is with him but how wooden and unconvincing she is, how standard-Bullock she is, in Kate’s scenes with her mother.

In a way, the divide between father and son here is also one of time, that is to say, generational time. (It is surely more than coincidental that it is her father’s death that has prompted Kate’s move to Chicago, where her mother lives.) An incapacity to express one’s feelings, even for those one loves, is more likely to reside in someone of Simon’s age than in someone of Alex’s age. However, a far more important figure in the film than Alex’s father, albeit an unseen one, is Alex’s mother, Mary. It is for her, his wife, that Simon long ago designed and built the lake house—a labor of love. But professional success took over the man’s heart, alienating his wife and perhaps even bringing on, shortly after, her illness and death. Given Simon’s coldness, Alex compensated by remaining close to his younger brother, Henry (Ebon Moss-Bachrach, adorable, and rising to the occasion of the film’s most heartbreaking line of dialogue). The two go into business together. Both of Simon’s sons are architects, then, but Alex is the more semi-estranged one and is grappling hardest with Simon’s (and his own) shadow.

What emotionally informs The Lake House, imbuing it with the wonderful sense of a protective mystical presence, is the lost mother, Mary’s spirit hovering about. Agresti directs the camera to swoop in from on high and turn around and about. He probably devised this camera style for this film; it doesn’t exist in either A Night with Sabrina Love or Valentín, where the camera is quiet and discreet. From this latter, autobiographical film of his, moreover, we learned that Agresti’s father’s (and the rest of his father’s family’s) anti-Semitism drove Agresti’s Jewish mother away when he was very young, leaving the boy with incredible heartache for his own absent mother. Agresti has poured his ache for reunion with his lost mother into The Lake House, and the casting of a recognizably Jewish actress in the role of Kate contributes to this feeling, bringing the material to fullness. The divide in year-zones between the meant-to-be romantic partners spiritually embodies Agresti’s sense of loss and his inability to gather up a memory of his mother in his mind; in one fell swoop, their coming together, to whatever degree possible, helps bring Alex and Agresti some of the maternal warmth and consideration each has missed. Sealing the deal are two facts about Kate: she is a medical healer; through the gift of the book, it is she who reconciles Simon and Alex, albeit after Simon’s death.

As best as I can determine, the plot of The Lake House sprouts a good many leaks. It is at times cluttered when it probably should be elemental and spare. (All the movie allusions and echoes—Notorious, Portrait of Jennie, Frequency, etc.—are a pain and a distraction.) Only intermittently does the film touch our hearts directly, such as when Alex plants a tree for Kate in his time-reference that Kate can enjoy in hers. But it’s the indirect stuff pertaining to the Lost Mother that makes the movie sing—that and, of course, Keanu Reeves.

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