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