Why you should care

The Shape of Water is not the only Oscar-worthy underwater movie out there.

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Shit blows up. Cars crash. Guns fire. Fade to black, credits roll. That’s one way to go. Another way? Hot-topic set pieces with dense dialog and Oscar-caliber acting. And forget the auteur theory: “Most directors in 2018 are as responsible for the final product as grocery clerks are for what you had for dinner,” says Bob Calhoun, film critic and author of Shattering Conventions: Commerce, Cosplay and Conflict on the Expo Floor.

Yeah, cinema is commerce, a matter of how many production dollars get spent vs. ticket sales and distribution deals done. But what it increasingly tends not to be? A product of a person’s singular vision of the world. In other words, art. Which is why when art comes along, love it or hate it, you notice. Precisely why we’ve noticed 35-year-old French filmmaker Manon Le Roy who, from her digs in Amsterdam, has cultivated a curious take on cinema: She films everything underwater.

The absence of underwater signifiers like bubbles, fish or actors visibly holding their breath means it takes a beat, or several, to figure out that what you’re watching is underwater.

“Make no mistake, she’s not storming Hollywood with this,” says Manuel Liebeskind, a Berlin filmmaker and music producer. “But they’ll do what they do best: steal the best parts from her.” Cynical, yes, but considering Hollywood’s horrible track record with water-fueled films — remember Waterworld? — Le Roy seems utterly unfazed.

“The medium is less important to me than what it evokes,” Le Roy says on the phone from her office. “Or rather it’s as important as the fact that most movies are made above water. It doesn’t seem relevant.” Which largely seems to hold true when you watch her movies — where the absence of underwater signifiers like bubbles, fish or actors visibly holding their breath means it takes a beat, or several, to figure out that what you’re watching is underwater.

Born in Normandy but raised in Brittany, France, Le Roy, who typically doesn’t like to talk about her family in connection to her art, is willing to say that her parents gave her freedom to follow her own path. Because of their proximity to the sea, that path involved water. Lots of water. Sort of a prerequisite for digging on swim lessons and then synchronized swimming and then? “I discovered the visual dance pieces of Carolyn Carlson, Trisha Brown and Pina Bausch,” says Le Roy, who was drawn into the intersecting worlds of modern and contemporary dance and experimental cinema.

In 2005, the year she graduated from the University of Haute Bretagne with a degree in Plastic Arts (she also earned a master’s from the Fine Arts College of Rennes), she decided to film underwater using a small camera sealed in a plastic bag (and then in a DIY container she constructed). These preliminary tests played with ways of moving in a space not as constrained by gravity and away from the speed of the surrounding world. And they experimented with swimmers in pools assuming everyday positions like walking or standing still. The end result? Trajectoires, her first video installation.

“It was difficult physically for both the swimmers and me,” Le Roy tells OZY. The water was cold, the actors had to hold very still, they were virtually blind beneath the surface and it was impossible for Le Roy to communicate with them or they with one another. Not to mention the biggest obstacle: “We had takes as long as people could not breathe,” she says.

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A still from Le Roy’s 2013 film Portrait.

Source Photo by Manon Le Roy ©

So even if the filming had to be very quick, the preparation before and the editing after took time — in the case of her first few efforts, nearly a year. From 2008 to 2010, during a postgraduate residency in video and new media at Le Fresnoy in Tourcoing, France, she directed Continuum and Eleven, each roughly from four to 15 minutes long. Debuting to critical descriptors like “dreamlike,” “mysterious” and “unreal,” the films did not escape wider notice. In 2011, Continuum received the first prize at the International Festival of Videodance Il Coreografo Elettronico of Naples and the video dance prize at the Image, Dance and New Media Festival of Barcelona. Since then, while Le Roy completes postgraduate studies in arts education at the Amsterdam University of the Arts, her work has been in steady circulation, from the Cadance Festival at the Hague to a screening in Rome at the Villa Médicis to group exhibitions from Yokohama, Japan, to Quebec, Canada.

But she hasn’t forgotten the girl who loved dancing in the water, an experience that set her down this path, and one she’s now sharing with 8- to 12-year-old kids in Amsterdam. But these workshops, during which she takes the kids into tanks full of water to share her creative process, is not about teaching, Le Roy says. “Kids are creative already, and enthusiastic, and with the space and time to experiment come up with great ideas.”

And, as the director notes, plenty of movies have been made with underwater elements. “Again, I am less interested in this than I am in altering how we value both space and temporal relationships in the context of cinema.” A point driven home when you see that her filmed protagonists are not struggling against the water they’re sunk in, nor are they “acting” like the water doesn’t exist. It’s an altered universe where the water is simply there, like light — another dominant feature of Le Roy’s work — and the performance unfolds in this dialogue-less space.

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A world of water in Continuum.

Source Photo by Manon Le Roy ©

A space that’s thrilling in the short format that she delivers it in, but might there be an aspiration to redefine cinema so that these fleeting glimpses turn into full-length motion pictures? “These are time-consuming and exhausting to make,” says German producer Toby Holzinger. “I can’t see many having the patience to do a two-hour movie like this, much less watch one.”

A critique and concern that Le Roy doesn’t share: “Bigger installations fit much better with the spirit and intent of my work, the creation of which I find liberating just as they are. Liberating and satisfying.”

Diving deep into her dreamy, hypnotic cinema, we’d have to agree.

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