You start to treat him like you would any other freak. That is, like anyone else: we're all freaks in one way or another. Feelings of discomfort can only persist for so long before you see the common humanity.
THE WHALE ()
Directed by Darren Aronofsky
Starring Brendan Fraser, Sadie Sink and Hong Chau
When I told my wife I was thinking of going to the cinema see The Whale she winced, saying: ‘I really don't want to see another Darren Aronofsky film.’ Maybe it was the scenes of grim desperation in Requiem for a Dream, the bleak paranoia of Pi, the squalid redemption of The Wrestler, or the obsessional unravelling in Black Swan. At some point, she had decided that she'd had enough of Aronofsky's dark universe. Why do we continue to sit through such nauseating films? What good does it do us to confront despair? These are all questions that are answered in Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale.
The opening scene of the film depicts Charlie, played with infinite candour by Brendan Fraser, at his most abject: a morbidly obese, housebound teacher struggling to masturbate to a gay porno. If the obesity wasn't enough, the masturbation lets you know that this guy isn't happy. No matter how empathic you think you are there is physical revulsion to seeing a human being brought so low. Here goes Aronofsky, you think, rubbing our noses in the shit of existence yet again.
But then something magical happens: you get to know Charlie. You see his good qualities: his sensitivity to literature and the encouragement he gives his students. You start to treat him like you would any other freak. That is, like anyone else: we’re all freaks in one way or another. Feelings of discomfort can only persist for so long before you see the common humanity.
Based on a play by Samuel D. Hunter, who also wrote the screenplay, the film is set entirely within Charlie’s first-floor apartment. Most of the time he is spread out on the couch, just about able to use a Zimmer frame to get to the bathroom. From this position, he receives, willingly or unwillingly, various visitors. There’s Thomas (Ty Simpkins), the missionary who interrupts Charlie masturbating and sees him as someone he can save. There’s also Liz (Hong Chau, recently seen as Ralph Fiennes' assistant in The Menu), Charlie's friend and enabler, connected to him through a shared loss. Liz tends to his body, brings him buckets of fried chicken, and distracts him with television. Finally, there’s his estranged 17 year old daughter, Ellie (Sadie Sink), who is angry with everyone in the world to the point of sociopathy. Charlie revels in Ellie's brutal honesty and her ability to say what she feels without getting caught up in social niceties or her discomfort.
Darren Aronofsky's previous film, mother! (2017), was an allegorical horror about what humanity is doing to the planet. The characters were all called Him, Mother, Man, and Woman and represented God, Earth, Adam and Eve. The new film isn’t quite a retelling of Moby Dick, but Ahab's quest to kill the white whale is shown here as a metaphor for all the ways we externalise our demons. Binge eating is depicted here as a form of escapism. The film shows how stuffing your mouth with soft-fatty-sweet slices of pizza brings an overwhelming rush of endorphins that transcends any thoughts of the future.
Despite working closely with an advocacy group, Obesity Action Coalition
, The Whale
has been roundly criticised for its supposed fatphobia
. Roxane Gay, who has written movingly about her own issues with obesity, took against the film
: "It was crystal clear that Mr. Hunter and Mr. Aronofsky considered fatness to be the ultimate human failure, something despicable, to be avoided at all costs."
For me, such accusations lack imaginative empathy. In the film, everyone has their way of escaping from reality. Charlie’s ex-wife numbs her pain with alcohol, Ellie scrolls her smartphone, and Thomas enjoys the smug satisfaction of being a do-gooder missionary. In each case, they are acting against their own best interests in order to hide from the truth. It's all escapism. We all have our different ways. It takes auteurs like Darren Aronofsky to show us the reality we need to see. We are not looking down on Charlie. The tears we shed at the end of The Whale are the tears of empathy for our own failings.