It’s curious that both of this month’s Criterion releases – The Royal Tenenbaums being the other – share so many thematic and narrative similarities. Unsurprising given that Wes Anderson directed the Tenenbaums and produced this effort, both films revolve around dysfunctional, wealthy urban families with troubled patriarchs. But where The Royal Tenenbaums is broadly a warm American fable, Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale tells a far darker and more uneasy story. Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney are both superb as recently-divorced authors Bernard and Joan Berkman, bringing depth and humanity to roles that could so easily be reduced to tyrant and victim.
Daniels in particular is chilling as Bernard, as entitlement and arrogance seep from every pore, his brownstone pretentiousness proving a thin veneer for the wellspring of resentment and control freakery bubbling underneath. He is a truly loathsome creature, made all the more vile not because he is a monster, but because he is a profoundly recognisable character. Perpetually decked out in a brown corduroy blazer and muttering about wasting time on minor Dickens novels, he uses his authority and privelege to alternately harass female college students and poison his sons against their mother.
Linney is nuanced and heartbreaking as Joan, who while hardly perfect herself, is far more sympathetic. Joan has been second priority her whole life as an author, a mother and a wife – witnessing Bernard sleazily try to seduce his students gives an idea of how Joan might have fallen for him in the first place – and has been rewarded with nothing but the scorn of the self-satisfied man children around her. It’s an ironic shame that the script doesn’t do as good a job at servicing Joan as it does the repellent men around her, but Linney’s humanity shines through nonetheless, all maternal love, misplaced affection and untended needs.
While Joan endures Bernard’s condescension she must also witness their older son, Walt (Jesse Eisenberg, prefacing his future bratty role in The Social Network) grow in undeserved resentment towards her, echoing his father’s entitlement when he passes off blatant musical plagiarism by claiming ‘I felt as if I could have written the song. That it already had been was just a technicality’. More disturbing still is the younger Frank (Owen Kline), who deals with the domestic trauma around him by chugging beer and harbouring masturbatory oedipal tendencies.
Framing this all is the film’s mid 1980s period setting, shot in muted New York browns that evoke that great 1979 divorce drama Kramer Vs. Kramer, emphasising the semi-autobiographical aspect of Baumbach’s film. Moreover, the sense of nostalgia chimes with the film’s denouement with Walt finally remembering a love for his mother to see through his father’s entitled chauvinism. Here, The Squid and the Whale finally achieves an emotional catharsis which although a little sentimental, resists falling back on saccharine cliches and neat ends all tied up.
Christopher Machell | @Dr_Machell