The Velvet Café

A room for thoughts about movies

The most devastating divorce movie I’ve seen

with 18 comments

Life can be a really shitty place and there are different ways to deal with this fact.

Some people ignore it, pretending it didn’t happen, using work, drugs or religion to get relief – real or fake – temporary or lifelong.

Others go to therapy, thinking that the wounds can’t heal properly unless you get help from a professional nurse. It hurts as hell to pick out the grits and some of them are deep into the flesh, but you need to get them out, every one of them, even if it will take you years.

And then there’s the third group, the artists. Those who share their pain in songs, novels, paintings or on stage, not to get rich and famous, but because they have no choice. It’s how they survive.

Their work is easily recognized.  You just know when it’s the real thing and not something invented and adjusted to please an audience or fill a gap in the market. Those stories carry the mark of authenticity; they smell of sweat, bad breath and vulnerability.

A dysfunctional family
The Squid and the Whale is based on the experiences of the writer and director Noah Baumbach, who grew up in a dysfunctional, intellectual family in New York in the mid 80s.

Movies about divorces are rarely uplifting, but this one is the by far most devastating I’ve ever seen.

The father of the family, outstandingly portrayed by Jeff Daniels, is a university professor, who after a promising start has seen his career spiraling downwards. His lack of success has made him equally bitter and arrogant, and this condition doesn’t improve as he sees his wife’s literary career taking off. The story starts just as their relationship is starting to crumble and we follow what happens to them and their children during and after the divorce process. Through conversations we also get some glimpses and an understanding of what the marriage must have been like earlier on.

At 1 hr 20 minutes, this is a very short movie an era when so many productions follow the trend to oversize everything from muffins to novels in the belief that customers want it this way. However length has very little to do with how much of a story a movie can convey, which is proved here.

All the four main characters in the movie are quite messed up, and they all do things that are highly questionable (except for the younger brother, who is too young to be accountable.) But while they’ve got unsympathetic features, they’re not rotten-to-the-core. They are as complex as I suppose real people are. I couldn’t help feeling pity and empathy – not only for the exposed children, but also for the parents – even when they cheated or made inappropriate sexual advances at students.

It’s not easy to watch people rip out each other’s guts on the screen, especially not when it involves children. But for all the heartbreaking content, The Squid and the Whale never becomes unbearable to watch, since it’s not only dark, but also quite funny. It’s like a cross-over between Bergman’s Scenes from a marriage and one of the works of Woody Allen or Philip Roth.

Life can be a shitty place. But it also gives inspiration to some really great movies. Such as this one.

The Squid and the Whale(Noah Baumbach, US, 2005) My rating: 4,5/5

Written by Jessica

September 7, 2011 at 1:00 am

18 Responses

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  1. The Squid and the Whale is minor Baumbach 😉

    Seriously though. I loved Squid and the Whale when it first came out. Coming from a family of divorce, the film spoke to me. But over time my memory of it has gotten a bit more negative. I feel as though the film might have gone a little too far in a lot of respects. Made these people just a bit too messed up. Wallowed a little bit too much in the cruelty and depression. That’s just my memory, though. It’s very likely that re-watching it would get it back on my good side.

    Corey Atad

    September 7, 2011 at 1:52 am

    • As you know, I’ve got mixed feeling about movies that are all way through dark. I want to have some ray of hope or at least a bit of humour to hold on to or it will become unbearable to watch. But I definitely think The Squid and the Whale had that. Actually both. Humour. And a glimpse of hope, that the divorce probably was for the best and that the kids would find a way to deal with it.


      September 7, 2011 at 9:25 am

  2. This is so far, my favorite film from Noah Baumbach of what I’ve seen except for Whirlyball. What I like about it was that it really captured the feeling of what kids are dealing with.

    It also had some humor as well as some creepy moments.

    What was really fucked up for me was that 9 years before the movie is made. Jeff Daniels played Anna Paquin’s dad in Fly Away Home and then years later. She plays his lover. Ew!!!!

    Steven Flores

    September 7, 2011 at 2:40 am

    • Ouch. That definitely sounds creepy. The relationship was creepy enough as it was in the movie. But somewhere he was so pathetic that at least I ended up pitying him rather than blaming him for being an idiot.


      September 7, 2011 at 9:26 am

    • OMG! I remember feeling icky about that exact same thing.

      Corey Atad

      September 7, 2011 at 6:31 pm

  3. Ah yeah, I saw Squid and the Whale a few years ago, I thought it was really good. It was interesting seeing the parents through the childrens’ eyes and it felt good that the older son came around in the end and started to see his dad for who he really was. I have a lot of interest in psychology so I found that aspect particularly interesting, well, I guess that’s why I found the whole movie interesting. Even though the Jeff Daniels character was so flawed, he was by far the most interesting, watching all the little things he did to prop himself up in the eyes of others and to shield himself from coming face to face with himself.


    September 7, 2011 at 10:43 am

    • Yes, that’s what captivated me so much too. I think the fact that it’s based on the writer/directors own experience helped it to feel so believable. It wasn’t just something someone had put together out of imagination. It was real people with real issues. Flawed and yet maybe forgivable.


      September 7, 2011 at 10:57 am

  4. I must admit I haven’t seen this film. I am not the best at divorce movies, or any movies with a breakdown of a relationship. Makes me sad.

    I must get over this as I am missing out on some great movies it would seem. Thanks for this lovely write up Jessica

    Scott Lawlor

    September 7, 2011 at 11:02 am

    • Thank you. I can understand why you avoid them, but in this case – while it’s really sad and depressing, there is an element of humor. I don’t think you’d find it unbearable.

      But I understand where you’re coming from. I avoid watching aggressive sexual violence against women and children. Rape and such. I find it unbearable.


      September 7, 2011 at 5:03 pm

  5. I’m a big fan of The Squid and the Whale and I agree with most of what you said. Very nice review. Jeff Daniels’ character is a great one, what with his smugness and pettiness. One of my favorite comedic characters of the past decade. And the way the oldest son emulates him provides some great moments as well. Him calling a Kafka novel Kafka-esque always makes me smile.

    Noah Baumbach has a great knack for writing really weird and quirky characters where you can still kind of see where they’re coming from, outlandish as they may be. If you haven’t already seen them, I’d recommend some of his other films too, especially Margot at the Wedding and Greenberg.


    September 7, 2011 at 11:28 am

    • Thank you! I’ve never seen anything else by Baumbach, but now that I’ve watched this one, I’m definitely up for more.


      September 7, 2011 at 5:04 pm

  6. […] Blue Valentine well enough, even though I wouldn’t put it at the same level as for instance The Squid and the Whale or Scenes from a marriage. I may be a little bit old fashioned, but I like when people talk in […]

  7. A marvellous film Jessica and a marvellous review. I’m a big fan of Baumbach. He reminds me very much of Wes Anderson, who is a real favourite of mine.

    Mark Walker

    April 21, 2012 at 12:31 pm

    • Thank you Mark! I need to see more of his work. This movie really made it for me. It was so honest and had a fantastic mix of sadness and humor, hit the right tone for me.


      April 22, 2012 at 9:01 am

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