The Squid and the Whale – The divorce in Noah Baumbach’s view

The Squid and the Whale (2005)

*playing table tennis*
Bernard: “He is a philistine.”
Frank: “What’s a philistine ?
Bernard: “ It’s guy that doesn’t care about books or interesting films and things… your mother’s brother Ned is also a philistine.”
Frank: “Then I am a philistine.”
Bernard: “No. You are interested in books and things. You liked The Wild Child when we saw it.”

The Squid and the Whale is a dramedy film from 2005. It is the 4thwork of New York director Noah Baumbach. The picture became its first universally acclaimed piece, gaining a nomination for Best Original Screenplay at the Academy Awards and several awards at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival. The director hasreached a wider audience in the past year thanks to the success of its Netflix-released film Marriage Story, that received 6 nominations at the 92nd Academy Awards.

The movies paints the story of broken marriage and the subsequent divorce of a family of writers in Brooklyn, New York.

The opening scene is a depiction of a tennis doubles played by the family. On one side we have Bernard Berkman (Jeff Daniels), an arrogant writer turned academic, teaming up with his older sonWalt ( Jesse Eisenberg), a 16-year old looking for a path in his life. The opponents are his cheating wife Joan (Laura Linney), writer on the rise, and their younger son Frank (Owen Kline).

On the first shots Baumbach has condensed the whole essence of the picture. In fact, once the family is broken and Bernard has to move outof the family’s house, Walt takes his side on every dispute caused by the divorce. Frank, instead, constantly defends the interests of his mother. The tennis game becomes a metaphor of the relationship dynamics created in the family after the failure of the marriage.

The story is set in Brooklyn, in the neighborhood of Park Slope, where Baumbach grew up. The screenplay was written by Baumbach itself and it is a semi-autobiographical account of the divorce of its own parents and the consequences of it on him and his brother. As recalled by the director in an interview, the script for the movie was the only one he did not show to his parents due to the delicate topic. In the most intimate of his works until the recent Marriage Story (2019), Baumbach creates a tragi-comic tale that engages the viewer with witty dialogues and relatable family dynamics. The story of the tragedy in a cultured and divided family from Brooklynis crafted with a fresh perspective, thanks to the masterful balance between drama and comedy.The multiple betrayals committed by Joan or Bernard’s relationship with a 19-year-old college student are a few of events that resonate in the familiar drama that is painted by Baumbach. These episodes never manage to let the spiral of events turn to a complete tragedy as the director highlights the comic aspects of such events. Like Joan’s romantic involvement with Frank’s tennis coach or Walt’s crush on his father’s young girlfriend.

The Squid and the Whale referred in the title are part of an exhibit at the American Natural Museum of New York. In the movie they represent a topical moment for Walt, the oldest son of the family.

At school he won a song-writing contest but later he gets caught stealing the content. The lyrics were in fact copied from the Pink Floyd’s song Hey You. Walt has been trying to emulate his father, trying to prove his value as a writer and reproducing his arrogant behavior with his new girlfriend. He is sent to the school psychologist whom asks him to recall the best moments from his childhood.That’s when the titular Squid and the Whale appear in the film, a happy childhood memory as a key to unlock present events and understand their meaning. A moment of cathartic release that contributes to the healing process of Jesse Eisenberg’s character.

The Squid and the Whale is about divorce but mostly about family, parents and children. In the case of Walt, the division created by the separation represents the moment when he has to step away from his parents. The divorce provides the opportunity to tell the story of the disillusionment of Walt with his father.

The movie itself could be considered as a device used by its author to reinterpret a tragic experience of his childhood. A tool that allows him once again to overcome the pain and, through comedy, shed some light on a dreadful experience.

Leggi questa recensione in italiano.