It can be somewhat upsetting when a film analyses a facet of the human psyche that cuts a little too close to home. Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale is a drama from 2005 that explores the breakdown of a middle-class family’s dichotomy and the fractured relationships that have manifested within the quartet.
Family patriarch Bernard Berkman (Jeff Daniels), a once promising novelist who now spends most of his time teaching, and his wife Joan (Laura Linney), who has just started to receive critical acclaim for her writing, have reached a breaking point in their marriage. Bernard has become arrogant and jealous of his wife’s success, whilst Joan herself has had multiple affairs. Their split leads to their two children Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) and Frank (Owen Kline) taking sides, with Frank preferring to stay close to his mother and Walt lashing out at her and blaming her for leaving his father whose opinions and views he considers gospel.
There’s a running theme throughout The Squid and the Whale of characters critically deconstructing the works of others despite not understanding, or even contemplating, the true merit of their worth. Bernard Berkman is a man who wields his intellect like a sword, an extension of his personality that he uses to attack and deflect the views of those around him. His poisonous approach to the subjectivity of art and life has infected Walt, who doesn’t even go as far as reading the books his father describes as not being “serious”, preferring to imitate his father’s views than ever formulate his own opinion. He parrots his father’s vocabulary to analyse novels he hasn’t even read which leads to him hilariously describing a Franz Kafka novel as “Kafka-esque” when he tries to impress a girl with his literary superiority, something that she points out is a tad redundant. Frank meanwhile rejects his father’s methodology inciting him further by identifying himself as a philistine, quite possibly the most derogatory ideology that Bernard could imagine.
Noah Baumbach is in very comfortable territory here as the son of two writers, and his ability to blend the tragedy of a family breakdown with a sombre comedic tone is highly unique. Less stylised than the work of producer Wes Anderson, but containing a similar approach to dissecting the complex emotional carnage within a family dynamic, Baumbach’s comedy is distressing. The humour is constantly entwined with sadness, creating a bittersweet ode to the eternity of family. Jeff Daniels inhabits the thoroughly despicable Bernard without any sense of ego, his reprehensibility and venomous personality are captured perfectly by Daniels’ performance. Linney also gives a terrific performance as the intellectually oppressed Joan, breaking free of the restricted cerebral prison which Bernard attempts to contain her within. Eisenberg and Kline are both outstanding; Eisenberg’s narcissistic Walt is a repressed ball of fear and loathing whilst Kline’s performance of Frank’s anger and psycho-sexual issues are both humorous and tragic, befitting the film’s tone. The Squid and the Whale is a reminder of the importance of subjectivity within art and the importance of an independent voice. There was a time when I was younger when I would be more dismissive and hyper-critical of things that I simply didn’t want to understand, and The Squid and the Whale tapped into that manifestation of overindulged self-importance with aplomb. There was something warped in the characterisation of Walt that reminded me of aspects of my own personality, though I don’t recall ever ripping off Pink Floyd.
Dir: Noah Baumbach
Scr: Noah Baumbach
Cast: Jeff Daniels, Laura Linney, Jesse Eisenberg, Owen Kline, William Baldwin, Anna Paquin
Prd: Wes Anderson, Charles Corwin, Clara Markowicz, Peter Newman
DOP: Robert D. Yeoman
Music: Britta Phillips, Dean Wareham
Run Time: 81 minutes
The Criterion Collection edition of The Squid and the Whale is released in the UK on the 5th December.