Directed by Noah Baumbach
The Squid and the Whale begins with a family splitting up and taking sides. From the very start, the story is antagonistic, and the family is at odds with itself. Bernard and Joan Berkman (Jeff Daniels, Laura Linney) are on the verge of a divorce, and their two children, Walt and Frank (Jesse Eisenberg, Owen Kline) are the collateral.
The divorce torments both children, but what’s worse is the parents’ selfish behavior, using the kids like weapons to hurt each other. Walt sides with Bernard and Frank sides with Joan. Both parents are writers, and while Joan’s intellectualism has aided her writing career in the recent months, Bernard’s heightened sense of his own intellectualism creates a distance between everyone himself and everyone else around him. The only person who bridges that gap is Walt, whose too young to notice his father’s manipulation of him and too old to not care about the writers Bernard speaks ill about. Walt wants to be like his father because he admires him. He lets his father control what he thinks about art, people and Joan.
Bernard ridicules a certain work by F. Scott Fitzgerald as “minor” and later Walt repeats this same line when talking to a girl, Sophia, who takes an interest in him. It’s entirely clear that Sophia is a nice girl, and Walt’s relationship with her could have worked if not for his father’s tampering. The relationship is both budding and dead before it even gets started. Sophia looks past the obvious ignorance in Walt’s speech when he repeats what his father told him (without forming his own opinions), and she pursues their relationship like an explorer hacking through brush in a rainforest with a machete. She is determined to see through Walt’s faux intellectual, petty exterior, recognizing a tender soul underneath. But Bernard continues to get in the way, like Emperor Palpatine to Walt’s Darth Vader.
Dissatisfied with his own adult and currently single life, Bernard tells Walt to play the field. He adds that while Sophia seems nice, she’s not the type of girl he would go after. So eventually Walt breaks up with Sophia and turns his lust towards a college student in Bernard’s class who has moved in with Bernard when she couldn’t find an apartment. Bernard begins a sleazy relationship with the girl, and when Frank realizes that Walt loves her too, he tells Joan who remarks that they’re finally interested in the same women, seeing it as an inevitability in Walt’s slow transformation into Bernard’s clone.
While both parents seem ill-fitted to be competent adults, Joan’s sins pail in comparison to Bernard’s. Sure she has a few affairs, but they always seem like the results of Bernard’s own shortcomings. Whereas Bernard’s relationship with the 20 year old reeks of desperation and insecurity, Joan’s relationship with Ivan (William Baldwin), Frank’s tennis coach who constantly poses an almost inexplicable threat to Bernard’s ego, it feels like a healthy relationship. Joan and Ivan seem to balance each other out in a way she and Bernard never did.
After the divorce, Joan tries to push forward with her life. She is okay with the children staying with their father on the designated nights because she has a life to live outside of them. Her writing is becoming more recognized, and her relationship with Ivan is a stabilizing force for her. Bernard, on the other hand, pulls his kids in like a sort of power play, hoping it will break down his ex-wife’s defenses.
Joan simply has to put up with her husband. The “squid and the whale” from the film’s title comes from the Museum of Natural History. After the kids’ internal struggles, encouraged by the horrors of their parents’ fighting, manifest themselves in clear ways (Walt’s plagiarism and Frank’s sexual awakening in the library), the parents are forced to take notice. Frank’s affinity for smearing semen (yes, semen) on places that you don’t normally smear semen, forces the teachers to bring the parents in for a little pow wow about problems at home. Then Walt performs a Pink Floyd song at a talent show but claim he wrote it himself. His justification for this lie sounds like something his father would say, basically deciding that he could’ve written the song himself so the fact that it was already written is just a “technicality.”
It’s interesting that of the two kids’ transgressions, Frank’s seems the most peculiar and disturbing and yet Walt is the one who we see in therapy. The therapist asks him about a happy memory, and that’s when Walt tells him about going to the museum with his mom and seeing the squid and the whale exhibit. It’s a depiction of a giant squid and whale fighting to the death. Wale says he could never look at it without covering his eyes, frightened. His mother would try to explain it to him later.
There’s a point soon after, in the film’s climax, in which the family is together in Joan’s home (their old home), and Bernard tries to win her back, though with no sincerity. It seems as though they might all get together, but instead Joan laughs at the absurdity of this proposition, seeing right through Bernard and recognizing his hollow attempt to win her back as his own selfishness. He has been floundering since she left, both in his career and in his personal life.
A moment later he has what looks like a heart attack (possible panic attack), and as he’s carted away in the ambulance, he quotes the end of a Godard film to Joan, commenting on the memory of when they saw it as if it might be his own happy memory.
In the hospital, Bernard tries to get Walt to stick around with him, and it’s very clearly just another attempt to keep someone around so he doesn’t feel so alone. Walt is bothered by this, finally recognizing it as the power play it is and not as a sincere effort to connect with his son. Walt leaves his father behind and runs to the squid and the whale exhibit and stares at it. This final image suggests he sees the truth of his parents’ relationship, finally. He will no longer blame his mother for leaving his father but instead recognize his father’s role in the conflict. It’s safe to assume that going forward, Walt will become a better man than his father and not just a carbon copy of him. He’s not hiding from the violence of his parents’ marriage but instead moving forward. You can look at it as the fifth step of the grieving process, acceptance.
It’s frustrating to see a character like Bernard, a father, who is so full of himself and treats everyone like a supporting character in his own life. He is hyper competitive, whether with Ivan (who doesn’t seem competitive in return) or with his wife or with his two children. He is defined by his intelligence but also his insecurity and his ego. He became smart enough to form a few opinions on literature, and he has become stuck in those opinions. Instead of writing, he repeats these opinions to his son as if his son is his ultimate creation, a character in his newest novel. Walt’s journey, then, is to break free of the restrictions his father has imposed on him.
There’s a movie with Zoe Kazan and Paul Dano called Ruby ______ in which Zoe Kazan’s character appears out of thin air from Paul Dano’s favorite story. She is the girl of his dreams, made completely in his image. She’s perfect, but as the story goes on, she feels the need to break free from him and define herself on her own terms. The same goes for Scarlett Johansson’s AI character in Spike Jonze’s Her.
It’s the same journey Walt must go on in this film, and by the end he finally completes it.
Lastly, this film reminded me a lot of Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums. Both films follow a wealthy, intellectual-ish New York family who live in a similar looking home. Of course, in the Anderson film, the home is comically huge on the inside and the family is much bigger. Both films, though, follow the dissolution of a marriage and the effect of that break up on the children. Ivan, the tennis pro, felt like a hybrid of Richie Tenenbaum and Owen Wilson’s character from The Royal Tenenbaums.
Wes Anderson, as it turns out, is a producer on this film, and he and Noah Baumbach have worked together on a number of films, including The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.
This film would feel a lot different with Anderson’s directorial approach, complete with the character quirks, mannequin quality speech and balanced, colorful mise en scene. It would still be a great film, I’m sure, but also a lot different.
With Baumbach, the film is much more down to earth, and the camera often feels handheld, trembling here and there like you’re watching your own parents go at each other’s throats. It makes the film less comical and occasionally harder to watch. Where a Wes Anderson film creates its own reality, this one lives in the world we’re all familiar with. This makes Bernard’s and Joan’s quirks more painful as you recognize that characters like this exist and have kids even when they probably shouldn’t. Not everyone (in fact, hardly anyone) is prepared for a normal life. This film depicts one such character, Walt, whose life seems easy to predict, considering how much his father is molding him in his own image. We can see the through line between generations and the effect of nature vs. nurture. We don’t exist in a vacuum, in other words, but rather as a collage of a series of influences, experiences, opinions, fears, dreams and failures.