The Whale from Darren Aronofsky
The Whale is a truly disgusting film, but it is wonderfully acted.
The director himself looks at his central figure as something foreign, a fact which he tries to cover under the cloak of sentimentality. Instead, it offers us sharply honest dialogue between the characters.
Aronofsky's films are generally difficult to watch. He likes to put viewers' hearts in an emotional vise (Connolly's scenes in Requiem for a dream, Portman's obsession in Black swan, etc.) and while I usually like his directorial eye, coming out of the whale just felt really bad . And not in the sense that I was waiting for purification to come later. No. I continued to feel bad and became angry.
I think that his other films (not all) had a liveliness, something unpredictable, they were a challenge for the viewer, they had a skill and at the same time a spiritual reverence (which I don't confuse with religious). There was no trace of these elements here.
With the camera glued to Fraser he makes us roll into his worsening condition and stay there. We're stuck too. We're supposed to feel sorry for and empathize with the protagonist's physical and psychological torment when, in fact, the feel of the film creates a morbid fascination. Here... he drops the coffee table while trying to get up from the couch. Here he is again… eating “horrendous” amounts of food or dessert while googling “congestive heart failure” and… here he is again… choking on a piece of chicken because he's so gluttonous he barely chews what he eats.
No, Aronofsky does not like or empathize with his protagonist. He observes and judges him, no matter how much he wants to convince us otherwise. And the message that goes through these scenes is "Good thing I, the viewer, haven't reached this point" or "Look, viewer, where you can go."
The play as well as the screenplay is written by Samuel D. Hunter and Aronofksy (I don't know if the play is the same) doesn't seem interested in understanding the actions to which Charlie succumbs. And while we open with a scene clearly shot to provoke as well as embarrass us, with Charlie masturbating while watching porn with gasps that easily cause a heart attack, the film then changes tone and begins to bemoan the torture the protagonist is subjected to. .
Through it all, Fraser manages to convey more warmth and humanity than is (not) present on the script pages. His voice as he talks off-camera to his students is one of the reasons we like Fraser anyway...a voice deep and warm, full of dignity and humor. With his eyes alone he manages to show us a deeper side of Charlie and he does this with a skill and sincerity that makes him the only real reason this film is ultimately "tolerable".
Unfortunately, the script feeds us the slightest emotion we "should" have. In his worst moments, Charlie manages to calm himself down by reading or listening to a favorite student work on Herman Melville's Moby Dick. A task the importance of which we will understand along the way. And as he recites the work walking with heavy steps, assisted by a walker, to the bathroom, we have to "admire" the work that has gone into the suit he wears.
"He thinks his life will be better if he can kill the whale but, in reality, nothing will change," he continues to recite with excruciatingly obvious symbolism. "This book made me think about my own life," he continues, as if we don't see the obvious.
The picture is also relentlessly dark to fully understand Charlie's sadness and depression and the choice of 1.33 aspect ratio of the image makes it even more claustrophobic.
His solitude is interrupted by some visitors. First Hong Chau (the goddess waitress from The Menu) who is his friend and a nurse who loves him but doesn't lift a fly on her sword.
Then comes Sadie Sink as his estranged and rebellious daughter, Ellie. Charlie earlier in life was married to her mother and they had Ellie before he realized he was gay. Their first meeting is full of explanations for the viewers regarding the pain that has been nested within her. They manage to open a peculiar dialogue in the end which is really painful. Sink manages to bring an immediacy to the role of the sullen but brilliant teenager and is also a factor that enhances the film. also, the expressiveness of her gaze matches Fraser's incredibly well.
Suddenly, we have a third visitor, the persistent "missionary" played by Ty Simpkins. His role, unfortunately,it ends up functioning simply as a mechanism to move the plot along. It makes no sense that he's constantly allowed into Charlie's house, even when Charlie tells him he doesn't want to be "rescued." Despite this, the dialogues between Sink and Simpkins give us a little breath of life and truth, but their informal friendship seems completely foreign and not at all interesting.
Aronofksy straddles the line between analgesia and melodrama, centering the (amazing) Fraser as an exhibit analogous to the elephant man of the book of the same name. Except that the elephant man, as a book and as a movie, had soul and love.
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The plot is quite complicated, twisted and somewhat broad, I haven't seen any trailer as long as this and this shows how epic the storyline was. I think you're right, the aspect ratio gives it a very different feeling.