KATE: It’s not meant to be. ALEX: No. Don’t say that. Something must’ve happened.
A decade and a half is not really long enough to commemorate a film’s anniversary—but then again, bogus nostalgia for the immediate past is the main engine of pop culture discourse today. So here’s a wild proposition: what if 2006 was the last great year for adventurous, bigger-budget movies? It’s impossible to answer, of course, but consider these studio releases: Marie-Antoinette, Children of Men, Southland Tales, Clint Eastwood’s Iwo Jima diptych, Inside Man, Miami Vice, Idlewild, Crank, Idiocracy, The Holiday, The Black Dahlia. Millions were spent on bizarre highbrow and/or vanity projects like Michel Gondry’s The Science of Sleep, Soderbergh’s The Good German, Tommy Lee Jones’ (phenomenal) The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, or Ryan Murphy’s (excruciating) Running With Scissors. World Trade Center and United 93 both tried going for the jugular without losing audiences in accusations of poor taste, with scattered and discouraging results. Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly, easily the best in an otherwise risible spate of mid-aughts Phillip K. Dick adaptations, relocated PKD’s hippie colony nightmare to the anonymous corporate exurbs of Orange County. (Linklater’s b-side the same year was his adaptation of Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, a fascinatingly Altmanesque ensemble narrative leadened by its nevertheless understandable “Fuck Bush” tendentiousness.) Even the generic (or malformed) crap of 2006 was more interesting, and perhaps more emblematic of its era, than much of what is called “scripted content” today: Little Children, An Inconvenient Truth, 300, Apocalypto, Lady in the Water, Stranger Than Fiction, Half Nelson, Hollywoodland, Little Miss Sunshine, Silent Hill, The Break-Up, Perfume, The Prestige.
At first glance, 2006—the year Google bought YouTube for $1.6 billion, Enron went on trial, Democrats took back the Senate, and Saddam Hussein was executed—looks innocuous in terms of society’s mass migration onto the internet. But the online was already refracting back onto the movie theater screen in telling, uncanny ways. Snakes on a Plane parlayed a dumb viral joke into a hastily assembled $35 million troll operation, sold exclusively on the promise of Samuel L. Jackson spoofing his own image—a Hollywood object of hyper-postmodernism. Borat came out of nowhere, bolstered by advanced college campus screenings and an outbreak of (pubescent, male) buzz on proto-social media. Randy Hayes and Xavier Nazario’s stoner reedit of the 1992 X-Men cartoon (“I’m the Juggernaut, bitch!”) was conspicuously incorporated into Brett Ratner’s X-Men: The Last Stand, a slapdash and overstuffed sequel seen by many as an early lurch away from the more considered superhero films of the early aughts, further in the direction of today’s die-cast cookie-cutter Marvel/DC/Disney hellscape. (Brian Singer had jumped ship to make Superman Returns for Warners, another mainstream release from 2006 chock full of appalling but inarguably idiosyncratic decisions.) Star Wars had only been buried by its maker a year ago, with no dream of being reexhumed by Disney on the horizon. Comic book heroes had not yet become respawning, Hamlet-like traditional roles against which sundry leading men and ladies tested themselves; a successful superhero film still needed an old-fashioned component, a legit movie star embodying a character from an ancient, two-dimensional medium. Then as now, the powers that be were terrified of nothing more than fanboy backlash imperiling the opening of future markets for expanded cinematic universes.
Parallel to the blossoming lingua franca of toy commercial tentpoles, it was fair to presume a certain internationalization of prestige filmmaking was underway. Composer Gustavo Santaollala’s sinewy guitar ballad “Iguazu“—originally dropped by Michael Mann during Russell Crowe’s nervous breakdown in The Insider—became the leitmotif for what felt like a hundred self-serious Oscar bait trailers, tales of middle-class divorce and corporate corruption shot through with weighty handheld camerawork. The myth of Hollywood’s flirtation with the Mexican film industry that year—epitomized in the sorry spectacle of Alfonso Cuaron, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and Guillermo Del Toro being branded the “three amigos” in trade press around Oscar time—is poignant, yet fascinating, in hindsight. Many of the aforementioned movies were distributed by “indiewood” satellites of major studio conglomerates that had come into some form of maturation: Fox Searchlight, Warner Independent Pictures, Focus Features, Paramount Vantage. Many are shuttered now, or restructured back into their host bodies. If the above smattering of lists tells any one story, it’s this: more money was being spent on smaller, riskier projects by more interesting filmmakers for limited-to-general theatrical release. Would any of them be greenlit in today’s studio economy? Enter The Lake House, directed by Argentinean filmmaker Alejandro Agresti (who had, after years of respected work in his homeland, a minor arthouse hit in 2002’s quirky coming of age tale Valentin.)
Like another 2006 film—future Best Picture winner The Departed—The Lake House is a Hollywood remake of a foreign hit, this time the Korean supernatural melodrama Il Mare. But Agresti’s film is premised on a delectable metatextual hook with no relation to the source: the reunion of Sandra Bullock and Keanu Reeves over a decade since their iconic coupling in Speed. Like that film, The Lake House is about time. The movie is, at first glance, a milquetoast two-hander (this was also the peak time for Nicholas Sparks weepies) with a curious fixation on both the image of the lake house and the repetition of the phrase “lake house”, which is said more than 15 times in the film. Keanu plays Alex Wyler, an existentially frustrated Chicago architect who answers a snail mail correspondence with the next owner of the lake house—a lonely doctor named Kate Forster (Bullock). It’s revealed to the audience—or rather, realized by the two would-be lovers—that Alex is living two years behind Kate. As their back-and-forth picks up pace, the letters take on the urgency of text messages, carrying a sad implication that resonates even more in today’s era of infinite online anonymity: the exchange becomes the most exciting thing in Kate and Alex’s lives, despite neither knowing how to find the other (or even what they look like.) They are able to correspond across that space-time abyss only thanks to the lake house’s magical mailbox, which has a rusty red flag that pops up like an erection with each new letter received.
Speed greased the audience’s wheels on the promised collision of two timelines: that of the police (embodied in Keanu’s studly, compassionate demolition expert) and the thieves (Dennis Hopper’s psychotic bus hijacker). But The Lake House hinges on a disturbing disconnect: the audience wants to see Alex and Kate’s lives converge, but they can’t. This plot device is so fundamental that it can’t be said to beggar belief. Like Joseph Mankiewicz’s The Ghost and Mrs. Muir or William Dieterle’s Portrait of Jennie—both masterpieces, both romances from beyond the grave—The Lake House is premised on a budding relationship unstuck in time, a ludicrous story that needs to be swallowed wholesale if the movie is going to work. Warner Brothers’ marketing pushed a spoiler-esque foreshadowing: the poster (and later, in a different configuration, the DVD case) shows Alex holding Kate from behind, but she’s in color while he’s in greyscale. The theatrical trailer shows each of them reaching out for the other, but they barely share the same frame. It climaxes with Alex planting a tree against the backdrop of a massive, soulless architectural rendering for a future condominium building, set to the chorus of the megahit “Somewhere Only We Know” by the British indie rock group Keane. (In 2010, band member Tim Rice-Oxley told The Mirror the song was about “being able to draw strength from a place or experience you've shared with someone…”)
Why can’t Alex and Kate be together? One begins to suspect something is seriously wrong. In The Lake House, falling in love isn’t a new lease on life, but rather an unavoidable face-to-face with mortality. This melancholia suits the reflecting pool locale: while they piece their predicament together in alternatively yearning and smarmy repartee, Agresti cuts from Alex to Kate and back again, each of them typically (but not always) shown alone inside the lake house. A vision of two immortal stars, cozily seated at kitchen tables and on sofas as they sip coffee and contemplate eternity from behind infinite glass: it would be weirdly spiritual for a Hollywood movie even without the metaphysical hopscotching. Scenes switch from present tense to hazy flashback, dislocating the viewer’s space-time continuum and murkying the narrative waters. Leave aside the corny romance packaging and The Lake House creeps up on evoking Luis Buñuel, Raúl Ruiz, Julio Medem or even David Lynch—except, tendered in something that (unsuccessfully) resembles a mainstream Hollywood vernacular. Bullock plays Kate as someone who still hasn’t found what she’s looking for, perennially underwhelmed by her life, while Keanu—schlubby and bleary-eyed compared to his chiseled turns in The Matrix trilogy and Something’s Gotta Give—is practically sexless. That’s not a bad thing: the attraction trades instead on his innate softness, the vulnerability that made him pin-up confidante to countless queer and female moviegoers and underdog action hero vis-a-vis the more macho leading men of his generation. (This cognitive dissonance would achieve a new signature in the John Wick movies.)
The famous “Sad Keanu” meme (a 2010 paparazzi photo of the star sitting on a public bench, chewing a sandwich while engrossed in thought) takes on darker meaning given the unspeakable trials that marked his life out there in the real world. Aside from Keanu’s famous closeness with the late River Pheonix, his relationship with longtime partner Jennifer Syme was debilitated by the stillborn birth of their daughter in 1999; Syme died in a car accident 18 months later. Almost a decade before a Facebook video detailing these unfathomable hardships blew up on social media, The Lake House had anchored its doomed romance to Keanu, flipping the script on the traditional Dead Wife trope (or the “Lost Lenore”, from Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven) that’s bedrock to so many generic action thrillers. Search “Dead Wife Movie” on Google and you’re practically cruising the aisles at Blockbuster again: Lethal Weapon, The Fugitive, What Dreams May Come, Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain. Aronofsky’s 2006 release gave his then-partner Rachel Weisz a signature turn as the about-to-be-dead wife of Hugh Jackman, racing against time to find a cure for her terminal brain cancer, reiterated in three parallel stories as a Spanish conquistador with a conscience (1500), and a bald zen figure traversing space in an orb resembling an upscale bonsai terrarium in the year 2500. Unloved and ignored upon its Thanksgiving weekend release, The Fountain’s budget at Warners had been slashed after the departure of Brad Pitt, who described the process of backing out as being “like breaking up with a girl.”
Released the same day as The Fountain was Tony Scott’s Deja Vu, wherein a bombing expert (Denzel Washington) travels back in time to foil a terrorist attack on a New Orleans ferryboat (carrying a Navy pageant, no less: the film evokes both 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina in its opening five minutes). Like Scott’s earlier Enemy of the State, Deja Vu features omnipotent video surveillance technology which can map every nook and cranny of the city; by tracing the last movements of a beautiful murder victim, first glimpsed coming out of the shower, (Paula Patton), Denzel’s character uncovers the breadcrumb trail that will lead him to the bomber. He also falls in love with her, and manages to save her life in the process - a reverse through-line harkening back to Blow-Up and Vertigo, but also an early torch song by Patton’s now-canceled ex-husband Robin Thicke: “Lost without you…”
Other than being released in 2006, what do these time-jump sagas have to do with The Lake House? All three films bely the influence of James Cameron’s original Terminator paradox (“no fate but what we make”), but Agresti’s is ostensibly easier to make fun of. The hidden wisdom of The Lake House lies not in a maudlin fairy-tale conceit but rather in the way it threads personal past with emotional future. We discover that Alex’s father (Christopher Plummer) was also an architect, a sneering narcissist whose children came in last place compared to his self-made mythology. (His death forces a reckoning in Alex that culminates in a long, unbroken single take of Keanu ugly-crying late one night in the lake house—again, strong stuff for a midsummer chick flick.) On Kate’s side, she learns that her mother (Willeke Van Ammelrooy)’s true love was not her father, but instead another man who slipped away, prompting the following exchange:
KATE: Did you love him? KATE’S MOTHER: Yeah. KATE: Well, why didn’t you marry him? KATE’S MOTHER: So that you could ask me this question, someday.
Unfortunate epiphanies to be sure, but they remove the blockage separating Alex and Kate. Like It’s A Wonderful Life or the Adam Sandler vehicle Click (again, 2006), The Lake House brings its audience to the brink of tragedy, only to zoom out in the nick of time for a more orthodox happy ending—making the averted catastrophe all the more haunting. The movie’s heart is not the question of Alex’s fate, but instead a chance encounter between him and Kate that happened years before she moved into the lake house. By the time this flashback arrives, the audience is so primed to see Keanu and Bullock together that it’s comparable to the moment in countless serial killer movies where the detective and the murderer accidentally rub elbows in some random public setting. It’s the one point where The Lake House slows to something approximating real time, a narcotic and dreamlike interlude from Agresti’s hazy, mirrorball montages dipping in and out of media res.
Developing towards this essay, collecting The Lake House reminiscences from my fellow millennials, it sounds like nobody saw the film in theaters, but rather during its protracted and surprising afterlife on airplane screens, via DVD rentals and on weekend afternoon TV broadcasts with their parents. That world is gone now—and without once invoking politics or ideology, The Lake House is a classic fable that would resonate even without two decades of averted gazes and forever-wars in the Middle East: that impossible dream of salvaging the future by redoing the past.