Toward the end of Matias Bize’s “The Memory of Water,” an attractive couple unable to cope with the death of their child take to the woods to talk things over. Next to the sylvan chaos of “Antichrist,” these two telenovela-pretty parents have it easy: There are no smashed genitals or talking foxes here to get in the way of a reconciliation, just the enormous guilt of what both parties could have done to prevent the drowning of their 4-year-old son. Bize has a gift for making audiences identify with such emotionally trying situations, though his oh-so-polite fifth feature errs on the side of good taste, and it’s a bit of a yawn by comparison — not only to holy terror Lars von Trier, but to Bize’s previous work as well.
Two years ago, Venice Days attendees voted Bize’s 2011 relationship drama “The Life of Fish” their favorite film of the decade, and though that movie won a Goya and was selected by Chile to compete in the Academy Awards, it has never been released in the United States. Like “Life,” “Memory” also premiered in Venice Days, and though Bize’s characters would be the first to admit that life’s not fair, it’s a shame American audiences have never been in the position to sample this talented director’s work — which is characterized by subtlety and care, rather than brazen tearjerker tactics, even though all of his films are “about crying” (the title of his third feature) in one way or another.
In “The Memory of Water,” a beautiful woman’s eyes well with tears as she fusses with the pool cover behind the house where she, a Spanish translator named Amanda (Elena Anaya, the plastic-surgery patient in Pedro Almodovar’s “The Skin I Live In”), and her architect husband, Javier (Chilean TV star Benjamin Vicuna), were happiest. Now she can hardly stand to look at Javier, whose features remind her of their dead son, Pedro. It’s not immediately stated, but one can infer that the swimming pool played some role in their current predicament — if not from the opening scene, then from the look architect Javier gives a bit later while helping a pair of family friends plan their dream home (when the couple mentions a pool, he tenses up).
Where does love go? Bize wants to know, continuing his career-long exploration of that unanswerable question via a project that boasts a more ambitious scope and better production values than his previous pics (it’s the first to span weeks, rather than unfolding in real time), but also a more contrived underlying concept. After Pedro’s death, Amanda insists upon a separation, reconnecting with an old flame (Nestor Cantillana), rather than trying to work things out with her husband. While Bize clearly feels for Amanda’s character, his focus is disproportionately weighted toward Javier’s pain, devoting long wordless scenes to his wordless suffering. Even the film’s color scheme has been engineered to underscore Javier’s dolorous condition: blue sheets, blue clothes, blue bicycle, blue mood.
Like the couple’s affectionate sheepdog, whose fate becomes another lynchpin in Amanda and Javier’s emotional evolution, young Pedro is little more than a device — in this case, one invented to pry apart a previously happy couple. Although Bize strives to find the most elegant way to communicate their loss (the title card appears at the end of a slow-moving pan up a bedroom wall, where the parents have indicated Pedro’s growth in crayon, the height marks ending at age 4), it all feels a little too calculated, bordering on glib at times.
To show the tragedy outright might have amounted to exploitation, and yet such “tasteful” indirectness undermines the helmer’s trademark sense of naturalism. Despite the everyday settings and just-unstable-enough handheld lensing, we can sense the acting in Anaya and Vicuna’s performances, and as a result, the cathartic scenes ring false — even despite the crutch of Diego Fontecilla’s feel-something score, which supplies the sort of ribcage-vibrating instrumentation that normally makes people go misty.
In the past, Bize and co-writer Julio Rojas managed to convey their characters’ most important sentiments via subtext, relying on glances rather than monologues. Here, we can’t necessarily intuit what Amanda and Javier are thinking, but it’s almost worse when they open their mouths, over-explaining what ought to have been left unsaid (e.g. “No one is innocent, except Pedro”). Still, while so many of his contemporaries cloak themselves in cynicism and irony, Bize admirably proceeds in that most vulnerable of modes — with unabashed sincerity — daring to let his ensemble show frailty, the macho Chilean ideal be damned. While it lacks the spontaneity of a Rainer Werner Fassbinder or John Cassavetes movie (indirect influences on the director, whose style is essentially Chile’s answer to mumblecore), “The Memory of Water” candidly explores how a couple works around whatever scar tissue might be numbing the feelings they once had.