The Whale: art or therapy?

(May 2023) – By Jada Sirkin


Like all good films, it is deeply ambiguous.
Christian Ramírez, Podcast Civilcinema #35
(on Old Joy, by Kelly Reichardt)

Why was The Whale so successful? How did a film that caused such a strong feeling of rejection and indifference in me, managed to make me cry by the end?

Charli is a writing teacher who is ashamed about his obesity, his daughter hates him, and he, who knows he is going to die soon, seeks reconciliation. He is depressed because his boyfriend, for whom he left his daughter, died. The daughter, who agrees to see him so that he will help her with an assignment, and give her money, is explicitly very angry. He has some money for her, but deep down she doesn't need money, she needs him. Why doesn't Charli want to go to the hospital? I don't go to hospitals, he says, as if it was a moral principle. Isn't all that love he feels for his daughter enough motivation to at least try to save his life? Is he really so naïve as to believe that those 150 thousand dollars he intends to leave to the girl are more important than the possibility of her having her father alive? Why doesn't he go to the hospital? Is he ashamed of his body to the point of giving up his life for that? We don't know. Although everything in the film has an explanation —and everything is explained, from the beginning and several times through expository dialogues that tell the characters' history—, the reason why the protagonist does not want to go to the hospital is not mentioned; it is a blind spot, an arbitrariness on which the story is articulated, an axiom that the narrative needs so it can work.

If Charli were to go to the hospital, the sense of urgency that justifies the film's unfolding would disappear. The film needs its character to have no hope of salvation, so that, with the pressure generated by the imminence of death, the dramatic tension grows, and redemption and reconciliation have to be rushed. The Whale is a rushed film, in which everything is orchestrated to make the viewer walk the 110-minute shortcut to the final cry. The real problem The Whale faces is not thematic or narrative, it is aesthetic, it is perceptive. The problem is no the effect it causes but how the plot proceeds in the uttermost linear matter; the narrative forces the viewer to walk along in a hyper-narrrow path; the problem is not reconciliation, but the way in which the journey of the characters is simplified so that the goal of reconciliation is reached, gloriously, at the end of the film: the problem is not the daughter's resentment, the problem is that the daughter's character becomes a caricature of resentment, of hardness; a caricature of hardness that is necessary so that, after several turns, we understand that she softens —at the beginning, the excessive and I would say "absurd" demand of the daughter for him to get up from the couch without help and walk towards her, the absurdity of him obeying her and trying, we can say "the childishness" of the situation, all this serves so that at the end the characters, as if they were puppets in a melodrama, can deploy that precise choreography of redemption, reconciliation, ascension.

Brendan Fraser in «The whale»

What is melodrama? Melodrama is a narrative choreography of fixed positions, a hierarchical and manichean structure in which good and evil are clearly defined and separated. Melodrama is a story trapped in a moral vision of the world. Here the camera reinforces and installs melodrama by moving around its immobilized character. The other characters move and the camera moves with them, as if orbiting over Charli, who remains in the middle, thus emphasizing his immobility. The problem is not obesity, the problem is that obesity works as a constraint by a narrator who seems to need his character to be as still as possible, so that the film can perform its choreographic operation, and thus convey his ideas, so that Charli, after being unable to get up, finally, aided by the daughter who softens, succeeds. The actors' expressions inform what the narrator understands and intends to communicate. How do we notice this? It is hard to find expressions that cannot be quickly signified in relation to the story. All the actors' gestures have a clear and easily readable meaning. Why is everything so obvious? Why are the hierarchies between the characters so underlined? Why are there no details, anecdotes or gestures that do not belong to the main narrative framework? Why is it that, although I am willing, I can only find what the film seems to want to give me? Is it a problem of the film, or mine, as a viewer?

When I distance myself from what I understand The Whale is proposing to me, I see nothing, as if there were nothing beyond the film's frame. Later, when I make an effort and open my eyes wider, beyond the limits of the film itself, I find that yes, there is the social context, the cultural phenomenon, Brendan Fraser's return to cinema, that story of Hollywood abuses and cancellations that seems to give an extra value to this rickety film. I say the film is rickety because it lets me see no more than what it needs me to see in order for me to understand the story and be moved by it, at the end. At the end, particularly at the end. I seek to be interested in other things, but I can't find them. There is very little space for the perceptual play of the aesthetic experience. Only the meaningful details are shown, so that the dramatic structure leads us, as if by a shortcut, to the therapeutic relief.

Despite the fact that, when I saw the film, I felt very far from the story, although I did not feel identified with the characters and situations, although I could not at any moment abandon the coldness and the feeling of rejection for an experience that seemed to me too linear and childish, still, when the climatic moment of emotion arrived, namely the majestic ending, yes, I was moved. It was as if something else in me got moved, beyond the fact that my experience was going, at least on the most conscious level, very much the other way. It is as if cinematic emotion were something mechanical: a variation of camera distances (Bonitzer), a series of gestures, two or three lines of data, a musical passage, and the light on a door opening. A formal device, a formula, that extracts the tear from my body. We can call it: aesthetic extractivism. Getting to cry, final relief. Thank you, yes, thank you. I saved myself a few therapy sessions.

(For more on the subject of crying as a formal conquest of the cinematic device, I invite you to listen to episode 1 of my podcast The Unsettled Spectator, in Spanish).

Perhaps, rather than an aesthetic experience, what we have here is mostly a therapeutic process. Are many films, many narrative fictions, used as a therapeutic process? The classical narrative art (let's call it classical, or Aristotelian), more than an art would be a therapy; it seeks to lead the viewer to catharsis, to healing recognition, to stress relief tears. The narrative montage generates a tension, with which the viewer resonates in order to accumulate charge and in the end achieve unloading. We accept to load ourselves because we want to unload. We accept to load ourselves because we are promised the final unloading. Charli's situation is organized so that pressure accumulates and in the end we can release it. It is a mechanical process. As happens in the series Love after love (2023, Juan Pablo Kolodziej), the story matters far less than the standardized way in which the emotion is induced in us.

The Whale only gives me room to be moved as I am supposed to be moved. That is why I say it is a narrow, linear, contrived proposal. It invites us to a single, central effect. Although I try to see other things, I don't succeed. But I have to accept, once again, that the vitality of my experience as a viewer, with this one, as with any work, does not depend only on the work, nor only on me, but on the relationship, on the playspace that we can build in between, between the object, the film, and my gaze, which seems to want something that the film does not seem to provide. If I don't turn off the screen, if I don't leave the theater, which I might as well do, well, then it is my responsibility as unsettled spectator to maneuver in some way to make the experience vital. Complaining is too easy. So I accept the challenge.

Films like this, experiences this narrow, are a great challenge for viewers who like the heterogeneous, the insignificant details, the insignificant gestures, the eccentric acting, boredom, empty moments (actually never empty), the colors of the accident. It is also a personal issue, I wouldn't say a matter of taste, but a matter of sensitivities. Different bodies (different lives) resonate with different approaches. And it is not that it is wrong that we use so-called art to relieve tension, the question is if that is its only function, or if it is the main function.

The coincidence of two light blue colors in two consecutive shots (refrigerator, bar) reminds me of the overly careful use of blue in the film The father (2020, Florian Zeller). In some ways the two films are similar. The narration as a clockwork mechanism that leads us to the final shock, the apartment as an almost exclusive location, the central character taken by a symptom, there memory, here obesity and heart problems, there the difficulty to locate in space-time, here the difficulty to move concretely through space, the problematic relationship with the daughter, the trauma of the past as an explanation of the present obstacle, there the death of the daughter, here the death of the boyfriend. Both films are based on plays. Another film that is based on a play, and also takes place in an apartment, and also portrays relationship problems in a family, is The Humans (2021, Stephen Karam). What is different about The Humans is that the characters are complex, ambiguous, indecipherable; melodrama (that narrative structure of fixed positions) is constantly avoided, the acting expressiveness is not stuck in the need to perform gestures to explain emotions, and the spatial and camera work, far from being at the service of the story, weaves its own plot, allowing the complexity of the gaze.

Andrea Riseborough in «To Leslie»

Another film with which we can compare The Whale is To Leslie (2022, Michael Morris). Here, a mother, not obese but an alcoholic, who abandoned not a daughter but a son, also seeks to reconcile with a redemptive gesture. The two films came out the same year; To Leslie is far more subtle, but The Whale received more attention, more awards. At least here, the relationship between subtlety and impact is inversely proportional. Both leads were nominated for Oscars. Andrea Riseborough, who displays a more ambiguous and complex performance, did not win. While Fraser's performance is fine, perhaps his Oscar was, in part, a symbolic gesture of reparation for the history of abuse that drove him away from Hollywood. Wasn't it obvious that he was going to win? Wasn't his return something important-politically correct? Maybe, but that's not the main reason the film filled so many theaters. There's something about the therapeutic hyper-legibility of that story of reconciliation that seems to be very compelling. Why is it that the most popular films tend to be the least ambiguous?

Films are not only films, cultural phenomena are also political, social and therapeutic events. If The Whale is a social, cultural and therapeutic event, can we say that it is also an artistic event? If therapy has a social function and seeks a central and clear effect, a final certainty that reassures, then what does art seek? What do I, a curious spectator, seek in a film? I do not deny the value of the therapeutic effect of cinema, what I question is that this effect monopolizes the experience, that it takes over everything. I want more, I want other things, but perhaps it is my mission to find them. Perhaps, then, I am writing this text to confess that I have not been able to see this film in an artistic way, that I have been trapped in its therapeutic mechanism. Yes, it may be my responsibility to diversify the effects of the experience, but I wonder: if the director of the film saw a viewer not crying in the final scene, would he not consider that he had failed?


If the article was of interest to you, please share it and consider DONATING HERE so that we can continue our research. Thank you very much!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *