Venice 2022: Aronofsky's 'The Whale' is a Powerful Story of Love
by Tamara Khodova
September 10, 2022
It was a bold move for director Darren Aronofsky to return to Venice after the cold reception to Mother! at the festival in 2017. Festival crowds can be brutal especially when you are trying to play games with them. Although Mother! is an ingenious, gracefully structured take down on obsessively religious patriarchy, it was widely misunderstood. The Whale brings Aronofsky justice and turns him in the eyes of viewers from angry cynic to a humanist. It seems like there is a lot of caution towards the project after the Mother! controversy but the good news is that The Whale finds Aronofsky at his best with a more reserved directing style which still delivers a profound emotional impact elevated by the spectacular performance by Fraser.
Based on the original play by Samuel D. Hunter, Aronofsky's The Whale tells the story of 600-pound Charlie (Brendan Fraser) who abandoned his wife and young daughter for another man. After his lover's death, Charlie starts to binge eat out of pain and guilt. Years later he now teaches a writing course online, bickers with his angry concerned friend/nurse Liz (Hong Chau) and tries to reconnect with his very angry teenage daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink) when she shows up at his apartment one day.
Since the film is based on a play there was a strong possibility that it might have a very staged feel to it. There are a handful of stage adaptations that manage to escape this destiny and fortunately The Whale is one of them. While the structure of the narrative where lonesome Charlie's life is constantly interrupted by a never-ending line of visitors does feel unnatural, the smart cinematography from Aronofsky's long-time collaborator Matthew Libatique and clever editing help to push the film in the right direction. Although the film takes place solely in Charlie's apartment, it doesn't suffocate in the limited space, and constant interaction between the characters keeps the audience engaged. Charlie's routine of teaching, reading his students' essays and evening pizza is constantly interrupted by Liz threatening to take him to the hospital; a guy from the New Life church who believes that Charlie needs to be saved; and his estranged daughter Ellie who doesn't know why she keeps coming back to her dad's place after 10 years of silence. It feels like Charlie is having a very busy week.
Aronofsky returns to his roots with another story about obsession, redemption and grief leaning closer to his earlier works like Requiem for a Dream, The Wrestler and Black Swan. He betrays the trolling anger of Mother! for old school sentimentality which in this case hits the right spot. Moby Dick references begin early and appear throughout the film. In Herman Melville's iconic book, the whale was a metaphor for the sheer force of nature indifferent to the passions of humanity. In Aronofsky's film, "the whale" metaphor refers to Charlie although it has nothing to do with his weight. As opposed to Melville's great white whale, Charlie is anything but indifferent. He is the gentle creature from the deep, whose endless compassion makes him unfit for the brutal human world. Chased by self-hatred he tries to navigate his life without hurting others but is not up to this impossible task.
It could be argued that Charlie's character is too manipulative in his love for humanity which would make any saint jealous. Yet it is balanced by Fraser's nuanced acting. He completely dissolves into the character bringing Charlie to life with his insufferable optimism and grand physicality. His weight here serves as a metaphor for Aronofsky's favorite topic of obsession. Charlie uses and consumes food to limit his life to a perpetual numbing routine which prevents him from thinking about his past failures. As a result, food, deprived of its materialistic purpose, is perceived more like an anesthetic than a nourishing double meatball sub with extra cheese or crappy pizza.
Fraser's work is complemented by incredible performances by Hong Chau and Sadie Sink. Chau perfectly channels Liz's annoyance at her impotence to help her best friend. Liz's interactions with Charlie are the most tender and funny. Sadie's Ellie on the other hand is a boiling pot of anger and pain, caused by her sense of complete abandonment. All of the characters in the film are the perfect example of our incapability to see the care and love expressed by others, as we are too blinded by our own pain.
The Whale's message is simple but powerful – all our problems are caused by a lack of love. It's no surprise that in Aronofsky's film, this state of lovelessness is caused to a large extent by religion. Similar to Mother!, The Whale has a strong anti-religious message though in this case it is delivered with more respect and care. Despite its depressing appearance, The Whale is hopelessly optimistic and humane. As much as some people might criticize the film for its sentimentality and deliberate naivete, it's hard to deny that Aronofsky managed to create a universal space in which everyone can find their place. It is almost impossible not to sympathize with the characters seeing bits & pieces of yourself in them, and sometimes a dash of honesty is all we need to lift ourselves up.
Tamara's Venice 2022 Rating: 8 out of 10
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