The past decade has seen the commercial and critical success of American Independant cinema releases, ranging from Wes Anderson's The Royal Tenenbaums in 2001, to Marc Webb's (500) Days of Summer last year. One such film maker whose output has been grossly overlooked is Noah Baumbach, who's releases have been consistently outstanding, with the culmination of his career so far being 2005's The Squid and the Whale. With his last several films having autobiographical qualities running throughout, using direct influence from his own life experiences, The Squid and the Whale accounts the separation of his parents and the profound effects this has on himself, and his younger brother.
Set in Brookyln, 1986, the film follows a middle class family and their individual adjustments to the break-up of their household. Jeff Daniels gives an outstanding career-best performance as dad Bernard, a once successful novelist, highly pretentious in his approach to literature, referring to Dickens as one of his predecessors, whilst also claiming that A Tale of Two Cities is a minor work. The tension between his wavering career and his wife's (Laura Linney) recently acclaimed publications come to an almighty head, and their announcement to sons Frank and Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) ignite a series of self destructive events undertaken by the boys as a result of the stress, with each taking opposing sides of the divided family, Walt with his father, encapsulated by his intellect, apeing his speech, viewpoints, and even his arrogant viewpoints, with a total misunderstanding of the subject, announcing that Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis is "Kafkaesque".
The movie deals with the sexuality of the characters, percieving the mother, Joan and Bernard's newly found independance, and exploration of their sexual desires, whilst Walt is thrust into a relationship that soon becomes intimate for his liking, and Frank explores a dark series of masturbatory events, including two incidents in which he smears semen over a bookcase in his school library and a classmate's locker. Joan in particular is seen to be highly promiscuous, a fact which is soon realised by her son Walt, and by which he is terribly affected by, referencing this, is a poster hanging in his room featuring Jean Eustache's The Mother and the Whore. Bernard, whose opinion of Joan's new boyfriend Ivan is that of distaste, has no problem in engaging in his own sordid affair with a student of his, Lili, whom Walt begins to grow feelings for, and which he eventually acts upon, only to be met without compliance.
The main ploy of the film is to adress the self destructive nature of the two boys post-seperation, both struggling to deal with adjustment in polarizing ways, with Walt attempting to cope with his emotions and stress internally, convincing himself, and eventually others that he has written a popular Pink Floyd song, whilst Frank expresses his feelings externally, through his descent into alcoholism and public masturbation. Bernard, whose belligerent attitude throughout the film seemingly encloses him from any emotional damage, shows a moment of heart-breaking dejection, as he announces the torture his wife has put him through, almost eradicating any previous conceptions the viewer may have. As the movie draws to a close, and Walt overturns the long-standing favour of his father, leaving his hospital bedside, and separating himself from that relationship, he runs across New York, (echoing Woody Allen's Manhattan) to the Museum of Natural History, to observe the squid and the whale diorama, two giants beasts fighting in an embracive struggle, perhaps a metaphor for his perception of his parents.
words by danny walker.