The Brenaissance Reaches New Heights in Aronofsky’s Spiritual Drama The Whale
In the build-up to the release of Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale, there has been a small but vocal public backlash. The crassness of the title, combined with the few promotional stills of Brendan Fraser donned in an Eddie Murphy-style fatsuit, drew perhaps warranted accusations of fatphobia. The film does take a visceral approach to depicting Fraser’s character, depicting his overindulgence and incapacitation as variously horrifying, pathetic and tragic. Rather than condemning the film without seeing it, I would ask the viewer to engage with it on its own terms. What may on the surface seem a callous, moralising depiction of a morbidly obese man contains shades of optimism and empathy that this critic was not expecting.
We meet Charlie at 600 pounds and a blood pressure of 248/134. Simply put, he is undergoing congestive heart failure, and likely won’t make it through the week. As his backstory is slowly revealed, we learn that Charlie’s relationship with food is not a healthy one, but a prolonged suicide attempt. After losing his partner, Alan, to suicide following a bout with anorexia, Charlie turned to food as a coping mechanism. Charlie is to be reviled at the outset of the film – indeed the slow horror-style reveal of his full body reads as borderline cruel on Aronofsky’s part – but his backstory ultimately paints an empathetic portrayal, as do the film’s themes of faith and optimism. It is not my place to say if the film is or isn’t exploitative in its depiction of Charlie’s extreme obesity, but while claims can definitely be laid at the feet of Aronofsky with his leering camera, it is hard to appraise Fraser’s performance as anything but sincere and empathetic.
The Whale is a film that walks a very delicate line between tastelessness and tenderness, between pretension and profundity. Much has been made of the staginess of the film – Charlie is obviously bound to his apartment, and the film revolves around long dialogue scenes, with characters coming and going, exiting stage left. Often has a staged subject clashed garishly with the medium of film, binding characters in an uncanny purgatory space. Aronofsky, however, leans into the staginess of the source material. The isolation Charlie feels in his apartment is thrust onto the audience. The claustrophobia is potent. For a story about someone is Charlie’s position, this choice is only the most obvious one.
There is definitely a lot of the obvious going on in The Whale. The title is an on-the-nose metaphor, the backstory is telegraphed too obviously to be at all surprising, and the melodrama borders on suffocating. Brendan Fraser delivers the kind of loud, full-throated performance that is sure to nab him recognition at the Oscars – a testament to the claim that ‘Best Acting’ is misconstrued as ‘Most Acting’. The whole time there is a feeling that this could all go off the edge. Indeed, it may do so in the first ten minutes – your mileage may vary.
However, there is something alluring about its many flaws, and the interplay they create between hope and fear in the heart of the viewer. Aronofsky’s film is really an elaborate metaphor about the testing of a man’s faith. Ever obsessed with religious allegory, here Aronofsky has to the good sense to insulate his metaphor a little better than the drafty Mother!, which left the viewer with little to hold on to emotionally. Charlie’s daughter Ellie (played by Sadie Sink) is Charlie’s article of faith. She arrives in his life abruptly, looking for him to rewrite an essay for her lest she flunk out of high school. Throughout their interactions, Ellie is comically uncouth, never once offering her father anything positive to take away about her. Yet Charlie is infatuated with her, calling her an amazing person, and encouraging her to write a personal essay for him. This is all tough to watch. One can’t help but ache for Charlie on the one hand, but also be sceptical of Ellie on the other. Her character borders on caricature, risking to sink the entire film in the process.
The film’s final catharsis comes in a way you may not expect. For all the mawkish sentimentality, the film pulls through with a legitimate gut punch of an ending. The film itself is an test of faith for the viewer. They can jump ship at any time, leaving excuses of fatphobia, melodramatic moralising or middlebrow hackery. However, the film’s own messiness is in and of itself a virtue – were it not so relentlessly off-putting, so claustrophobic, so miserable, the film’s main coup would not be so successful. Aronofsky puts the viewer on the edge of disbelief, almost begging them to look towards cop-out solutions, only to offer a moment that, though bogged down in sentiment, transcends it.
The many flaws of The Whale only serve to make its catharsis stronger – probably not the filmmaker’s intention, but one that embodies the very nature of faith as forever dichotomous with doubt. To have ultimate faith is not to have faith at all. To have your faith tested, to have doubts, and to come out faithful – that is the strongest faith. If cinema is a spiritual space, where we suspend disbelief and give in to the fantasy of staged events, visibly manipulated; then surely The Whale offers the viewer a Job-like trial not unlike Charlie’s strained relationships with his daughter, his body, religion, and the outside world.