The Light Between Oceans (2016)

“The Light Between Filmmakers”


In his exploration of the intertextual relationships between different generations of poets, literary critic Harold Bloom forwards an energistic theory—the anxiety of influence—to suggest how artists rebel against their forebears. Watching The Light Between Oceans, filmmaker Derek Cianfrance’s latest visual masterpiece, it struck me that a different emotion might characterize his relationship to his mentor, experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage: love.

Cianfrance learned filmmaking at the University of Colorado at Boulder, taught by the legendary American experimental filmmaker. Common to the academic Left, Brakhage took a simplistic, rigid stance toward Hollywood filmmaking. In his books about film, Brakhage argued that commercial filmmaking had poisoned our vision. He believed that experimental imagery, particularly multiple layers of images of babies opening their eyes for the first time, and dead bodies with their eyes closed in the morgue, could allegorize a new, uncorrupted vision.

Cianfrance is not a filmmaker interested in murdering off the legacy of his mentor, but instead moving beyond it. The Light Between Oceans is a commercial film that Brakhage would never have wanted to make, but more importantly, I think, could not have made. Instead, Cianfrance pays homage to his mentor, folding experimental techniques into his otherwise straightforward, melodramatically-plotted film. And the film is all the better for it.

Adapted from the 2012 Australian historical novel by M.L. Stedman, The Light Between Oceans concerns Tom (Michael Fassbinder), a shell-shocked survivor of World War I who takes a job as a lonely lighthouse keeper at the confluence of the Pacific and Indian Oceans. After suffering two miscarriages, his young wife, Isabel (Alicia Vikander) convinces him to keep and raise a baby they have found in a small rowboat, lost at sea, as their own child. When Tom comes to realize that a local woman, Hannah (Rachel Weisz) is the baby’s biological mother, he is faced with an ethical crisis, caught between doing what is right for the baby’s mother, or for his beloved and traumatized wife.

The cycles of birth and death in The Light Between Oceans allow Cianfrance to convert the melodrama of the novel’s plotting into better visual, cinematic material. Indeed, this is the stuff of Brakhage films, not only an experimental filmmaker, but the most skilled home movie maker in the history of cinema. In both Window Water Baby Moving (1959) and Thigh Line Lyre Triangular (1961), Brakhage films the birth of his children as a Romantic poet might have, editing quick shots of water, body parts, and light through windows to give us an experience of the beautiful chaos of such dizzying moments, expressed through tactile, material images. In both miscarriage scenes in The Light Between Oceans, Cianfrance does not replicate Brakhage’s experimental films; he merely lets them hover as film historical ghosts behind his images.

Similarly, Brakhage’s cinema haunts the confrontations with death in The Light Between Oceans. Whereas Brakhage gives us a half-hour of graphic images of dead bodies in The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes (1971), an autopsy film shot in a Pittsburgh morgue, Cianfrance evades images of the dead babies, ellipsis cutting forward to the moment when Tom must mark their gravesites atop a windy and desolate hill overlooking the swirling oceans. And yet, Brakhage’s obsession with the hidden truths his films reveal by inventing a new way of seeing is the very stuff of the plot of Cianfrance’s film: the exposure of the truth, that which cannot be seen, is what’s at stake in his images of Tom hammering crosses atop the infants’ graves.

Cianfrance begins The Light Between Oceans attending to the abstract art of the natural landscape. In exquisitely beautiful nature photography, he turns the Pacific seaside into abstract cinema, tracking the ripples in the surface of the water, where the moving patterns override the fact that we can’t quite tell whether we are looking at water or sand in the image. Late in the film, Hannah is reunited with her daughter, Grace. Hannah shows her estranged little girl how to make a daisy chain. A flare in the upper right hand corner of the image recalls the flares that Brakhage so exquisitely captured as the camera moved past the window behind his wife Jane in childbirth. Cianfrance’s Hollywood film sublimely converges with Brakhage’s experimental home movies.

But Cianfrance has withheld his most touching homage to his mentor for the film’s last moments. Many years after the events depicted in the film, an elderly Tom sits looking out at the sunset over the ocean. As the end credits roll atop the beautiful images of the seascape, another layer of superimposition emerges out of the clouds in the sky in the background. We see the young Tom and Isabel embracing. Cianfrance has used the multiple layering techniques of which Stan Brakhage was the unequivocal master, in a new, commercial filmmaking register.

This is not the mythological quest of an isolated man overcoming nature, as Brakhage gives us in Dog Star Man, his early 1960s experimental feature in which we see the filmmaker desperately struggle to climb a snowy mountain, the one image trapped within a flurry of up to a dozen filmic layers. Instead, Cianfrance uses his multiple layers to poetically celebrate the love of Tom and Isabel, a triumph over the brutalities of life and time. Because of the stylistic practices of the superimpositions, this is a concluding image that deifies not only the love of the two characters for each another, but also of a film student’s debt to his masterful teacher. There’s precious little anxiety in this influence; these images express an exquisite form of love rarely seen in the cinema, the tenderness one has toward the one who shared the secrets of how to make the world a more beautiful and caring place.

–Walter Metz