Kathryn Bigelow is known for her gut-wrenching studies of contemporary warriors and putting modern war tactics on display to the possible peril of her public reputation. Fortunately for her, this venture has proven to be undeniably captivating, in spite of being the subject of massive amounts of controversy. After all the talk, she is recognized for her bravery as a storyteller, which is of course an admirable accomplishment- especially to young female filmmakers toiling over which of their stories might ever be told. Bigelow was the first woman to ever win an Academy Award for Best Director back in 2008. Having set the precedent (which was long overdue), she is a figure to look to when considering the consuming question “what would it take?” Brava. But beyond the commotion of the awards season, it’s true that there are greater blessings as a creator than being awarded and one of them is being able to make the kind of story that sheds light on underserved topics. Not every artist gets a chance to subvert systems on big screens! Bigelow has. Bigelow has directed vampire thrillers, action dramas, and many films with an air of machismo (‘Point Break’, ‘Strange Days’, ‘K-19: The Widowmaker’), but in 2000 she took an equally provocative detour into a story about a more personal kind of conflict with her adaptation of ‘The Weight of Water’.
The story starts with photographer Jean Janes (Catherine McCormack) getting an assignment to shoot the scene of an old murder in Nova Scotia. She brings her husband, Thomas (Sean Penn), along with the pretense that they need a vacation. Things start off on the edge and never back up. The couple is supposed to hitch a ride on his brother Rich’s (Josh Lucas) boat, but he’s brought along his modelesque new girlfriend, Adaline (Elizabeth Hurley). Aside from her beauty, Adaline spends the entire trip in her bikini, sucking on things -ice, crab legs, her fingers…a suspicious amount of slurping- and speaking solely in innuendo. This isn’t just distracting, it’s (purposefully) disturbing…it seems to clash not only with the purpose of their trip, but the haunting memory of the murder she came to report on. Once we understand the helplessness and illness surrounding the second lead, Maren, we connect strands of tension between the two eras the characters in this film live in. There is an undertoe in the atmosphere between the characters, and it is as strong as one beneath their vessel, and the split story deepens the woundedness of the struggle.
The murder: In 1873 on an island in Nova Scotia, two Norwegian women were murdered by an intruder, a German immigrant who had once worked on the island, Louis Wagner (Ciaran Hinds). A third woman, Maren Hontvedt (Sarah Polley), escaped the house where the murders took place and hid until dawn. Hontvedt’s sworn testimony sent Wagner to the gallows, but in truth it was she who killed her elder sister and her husband’s pregnant wife. She gave a written confession to the crime two years after the case was closed and Wagner hanged. Her change in testimony was brushed off, perhaps because a man already died for the crimes, or perhaps the detectives did not take the grieving woman seriously and pitied her. Either way, the story is sad on the surface, but the way it unfolds under Bigelow’s direction makes it abundantly chilling: unforgettable.
Jean Janes’ main focus from the first moment is uncovering details of the crime that was never sufficiently arranged on trial. She seems to understand that the police didn’t have the tools to solve the case, but the questions of whether or not they could’ve convicted a woman and why they refused to accept her confession seem to swell in her mind, causing a kind of daze that keeps her between the past and present. This struggle isn’t meant to link the story of Janes the photojournalist and Hontstedt the murderess, drawing the events closer and closer until they merge- they don’t. And an unperceptive review -of which there were a few- would note that as a misstep, a fault. They’ve missed the point.
The peculiar and (on the surface at least) disjointed treatment of the two female leads owes to the fact that they share a common struggle, one that resonates throughout time an space for women: they both want to be free.
Hontvedt’s entire life from her sexual awakening, which unfortunately occurred with her brother, to the point at which she feels warmth again as a married woman…with her husband’s wife (poor girl just can’t get a break), is defined as deviant. Every feeling she has down to her depths, which are judged barren after 3 years of childless marriage, makes and remakes her a bad woman in the eyes of her very small and unenlightened social sphere. She does not want to feel for the “wrong” people, she just doesn’t have the freedom to find feelings elsewhere from what she was given in her married life. She feels at the beckoning of her nature, asa closed-off but passionate character. When she is first found out, she is forced to leave her homeland and travel to live on a desolate island with a man who uses her as an object, whether or not he means to. Because that is what a wife is to him. When she is found out the second and final time, at which her frozen heart was melted down to a pulsing, yearning mass- she is ready and knows only blood. Her own warm blood, which serves for work -and she knows no lack of it- and, in the most disparate moments, pleasure, and then there is the spilled blood. The people who find her out and whom need to leave her to the cold life they disturbed. It is wrong and deeply sad, but understanding this horrendous humiliation- this force of such a small but powerful world, it may help viewers empathize with Maren Hontvedt. Understand that she was never freer than when she got away with murdering the people who knew her blood.
Then there is what ties Maren to Janes: Janes is free to come and go, free to stay in her marriage, on the boat, on the island, on assignment- or she could leave. But at what cost? And who would she be if she left? Having freedom bears responsibility not only to others involved -that very usual guilt- but to the image of the self we gave to that part of our lives. She is really no more free in love than Maren is in lovelessness, not in her heart, anyway.
The strains of recognition between these women go deeper, still. Maren and Janes both throw themselves into work, eyes glazed over in focus. The things that should bother them: Thomas’ flirtations with fans, Wagner’s unwanted advances toward Maren herself- both are ignored or halted in favor of moving on, with full focus on labor, not emotional stability. The decision of both women seems to be to stay firmly where they must; “must” because of image for Janes (a powerful reason) and due to dependency in Maren’s case. They don’t honor their own life until they are forced into action by, of all things, death.
This is where the comparison gets overwhelmed in the floodwaters- lost in the visuals of crashing waves and blood-spattered nightgowns, even. Maren is provoked by the whole of her nature to kill, while Janes decision to love is brought on by the destruction of natural disaster. When Janes loses Thomas at sea, she’s told him she loves him, but her point was that she was choosing to survive with him, looking beyond the storm into a vision of the future with past hopes and dreams. The sea took him. Maren’s internal storm is what takes her to the point of killing to have a life. She decides that her life has value, a value higher than the perceptions of those who judge her for what relatively harmless feelings she cannot control. Is it not enough that she lives like a ghost? Must she also never have hope of enjoying her corporeal existence, all because she was found to have felt wrongly? She gives herself the kind of justice only nature, without feelings like guilt or hesitation, can give. Brutality to keep the coming peace possible. A terrifying thought, but one which Kathryn Bigelow artfully teases out in this story of two women surviving in different times.