I find myself obliged to begin this review with
an apology and a warning. I take no pleasure in giving away a movie's
secrets, but it is difficult to discuss What Lies Beneath without committing this sin. Although by this point--since the picture has been in
release for several months by already--my revelations will probably come as a
surprise to no one, for any reader who has not seen yet seen What Lies Beneath
and wishes to relishes its pleasures unspoiled--read no further! However, do
remember to come back for a look afterwards....
Amateurs of philosophy can only be amused, I
think, by the coincidence of films bearing the titles What Lies Beneath and
Hollow Man going into release within a few weeks of one another. The appellation of the
first film is virtually a gloss on the ontological category
of substance--"that permanent and unchangeable substratum presumed in some
philosophies to be present in all being" in the words of my elderly edition
of the Columbia Encyclopedia--while that of the second suggests a radical
insufficiency of being.
I first read about The Hollow Man, I had the dire premonition that the
Baudrillardian babble about simulacra was starting to filter down wholesale into
the profane realm of commercial film production after its first tentative debuts
in Matrix. When I discovered that Verhoeven's opus was only going to be
another routine exercise in demonizing science, I almost uttered a sigh of
relief. The interesting question then was going to be: will the plenitude of
What Lies Beneath fill the void of The Hollow Man? Not quite, but the two movies have certain
fascinating points of tangency.
Like Sebastian Caine in The Hollow Man, Norman
Spencer (Harrison Ford) in What Lies Beneath is a prestigious scientific researcher, albeit a
far more credible one. He and his wife Claire (Michelle Pfeiffer) have recently
taken up residence in a beautiful country dwelling in
rural Vermont adjoining a lake, which had previously been the residence of
Norman's formidably renowned mathematician father. But just as in a
traditional ghost story, soon strange occurrences began to take place such as
doors opening by themselves, objects falling on the floor without
cause--occurrences that eventually center upon the upstairs bathroom.
increasingly spooky atmosphere is further intensified by the strange actions of
a couple next door, which lead Claire to suspect foul play. As it turns out, the
neighbors are quite innocent, but the episode is a good deal more than just a
false lead, since Claire's desire to unravel these mysteries ultimately leads to
the discovery that the place is being haunted by the ghost of a girl whom Norman
had murdered after having had an affair with her.
What Lies Beneath picks up on the conflict
between appearance and reality in American life that American Beauty had
profitably exploited last year and transposes it into the context of a horror
story--and it does so quite effectively up to a point. The first half or so of
the film brilliantly conjures up a sense of the uncanny--that beautiful word
whose German equivalent, das Unheimliche, is the title of a
by Sigmund Freud--easily putting to shame the ludicrous hocus-pocus of The Sixth
In fact, the movie's real strength in these sequences lies in holding
back rather than laying on the thrills and chills with a trowel, especially in a
brilliant scene in which Claire first spies on the woman next door and then
tries unsuccessfully to communicate. Here, Zemeckis wisely understands that the
suggestive power of things not shown is far more unnerving than all kinds of gross
shock effects. Unfortunately, however, this valuable insight disappears as the
film moves towards its conclusion.
The themes here are quite estimable ones of crime
and purgation. Regrettably, at the last moment the movie suffers an attack of
constipation. In spite of its multiple
strengths, What Lies Beneath nearly turns into a disaster owing to its shaky
dénouement. To reveal Norman as the villain who has murdered Mary--attentive
viewers will have picked up on some warning signals--is not implausible, but
somehow suggests a disappointing lack of imagination on the part of the writers--the
screenplay is by Clark Gregg, from a story by Gregg and Sarah Kernochan.
Drowning the evil Norman in the nearest bay and
bringing Mary back from the grave don't quite do the
trick. Even worse, Zemeckis had the disastrous inspiration to painstakingly
slow down the pace when he gets ready to pull this rabbit out of his hat. Alfred
Hitchcock may have used the first three-quarters of Vertigo as a prologue to
its dénouement , but it was like a roller coaster getting up to speed--when
he reached that point everything went with the rapidity of a bolt of
lightning suddenly flashing across the sky.
As I indicated above, What Lies Beneath is
dominated by a conflict between social appearance and reality, and it presents
this conflict using a topos that has been classic in the United States since the
days of Nathaniel Hawthorne, the opposition between a seductively deceptive surface and
"what lies beneath" that surface. And who would be more qualified to direct a film
about surfaces than Robert Zemeckis, who juxtaposed flat animated characters
with three dimensional human ones in the dazzling Who
Framed Roger Rabbit?
the one hand, there is the resplendent upper middle class facade of the Spencers' life, exemplified by the tastefully furnished
maison en campagne; on
the other, there is a more than figurative skeleton in the family closet, the
body of the murdered girl which lies decomposing in the adjacent lake. From this
point of view, the lake whose placid surface serves to hide the corpus delicti
that lies beneath it seems to have a function which is as much symbolic as
But what lies beneath is also substance, the
translation via Latin of the Greek hypostasis, as Martin Heidegger explains in
his essay on the origin of the work of art. (Typically, Heidegger decrees that
" The rootlessness of Western thinking begins with this translation.")
In traditional ontology that derived from Aristotle, substance was
intelligible and intangible--the support underlying and upholding the surface of the phenomenal world.
In Spinoza's philosophy, one of the highpoints of metaphysical speculation in
the history of Western thought, everything is a manifestation of the one divine
substance--of God Himself.
But What Lies Beneath's not so divine substance
below, obscene and de trop, like the substance which overflows the toilet when
the drain backs up. And to make things worse, the obstruction causing the back up
is itself a decomposing corpse--whose remains appear on screen in a series of
shots at the film's conclusion. No wonder the movie becomes costive the nearer
it approaches the moment when it must reveal the true cause of the problems with
the Spencers' bathroom facilities.
Before Immanuel Kant denounced the idea of a
"thing in itself" as a metaphysical will-o'-the-wisp in The Critique
of Pure Reason, philosophers often thought of appearance as a resistive surface
that had to be transcended in order to arrive at the realm of truth--as a kind
of hymen that had be penetrated in order to attain what was deemed to be
ultimately real. Kant's efforts notwithstanding, the mirage of an ideal reality
beyond or beneath the seductive exterior of everyday experience still continues
to live a posthumous existence as metaphor. But What Lies Beneath gives this metaphor a turn of
the screw undreamt of by the sophomoric American Beauty.
In Zemeckis' movie,
appearance functions as a dam to keep the obscene substance from erupting into
the daylight word and soiling everything it touches. Although the film does not
attempt to exculpate the guilty Norman, he makes a valid point when he angrily
reproaches Clair at the conclusion for not having left well enough alone and
abandoned her quest for truth, since the truth once discovered sweeps into their
lives like a tide of polluted waters.
In What Lies Beneath, the traces of the American
anal obsessive fixation are just as evident, if not as grossly so, as they are in
Me, Myself & Irene. It hardly seems surprising that a bathroom serves as a
key setting in the film, even if the action focuses on a tub rather than a
toilet. Nor is this merely an instance of displacement. The contamination
which permeates the film's imaginative world changes the tub from a means of
cleansing to a means of destruction through its association with the death of
Mary Elizabeth Frank, not to mention the intended destruction of Claire. The
image of Mary first appears reflected in the water of the tub, and at the end blood dirties the white surface of the tub as if it were the marriage bed
on which some monstrous union had been consummated.
Lest this last assertion sound too off the wall,
it is worth noting that the film weaves a web joining violence, pain, and blood
to sexual passion from early on. When the strange couple next door make love in
the middle of the night, the woman's cries could easily be mistaken for those of
pain, and the picture reinforces this idea by having Claire find a woman's
shoe--an elective object, to be sure--with a conspicuous blood stain on it, a
shoe that she assumes belongs to the neighbor's wife and which leads her to
imagine the wife has been done in by her strangely acting spouse.
Spencer's are depicted as having a "normal," "healthy" sex
life, at a less obvious level the film seems to be implying that what lies
beneath the placid surface of their marriage--or perhaps beneath the surface of
any intense relationship--is a man's desire to derive sexual gratification by
doing violence to his feminine partner.
The film concludes with a powerful shot of Clair
standing next to Mary's grave in a wintry graveyard with snow on the ground.
(The solid job of photography is the work of Don Burgess.) If the
whiteness of the snow symbolizes purity, its frozen state as well as the
funereal setting much more suggests the triumph of a death-like stasis over
life, as if the tainted waters that surge up from What Lies Beneath could never
be cleansed but only turned to ice. If in Greek tragedy purgation through terror
held out some promise of relief to the audience if not the characters, What Lies
Beneath offers no such promise to either its characters or the audience.