The Squid and the Whale (15)

Written and Directed by Noah Baumbach
Screening at FACT from 21st April - 11th May 2006

Reviewed by Hana Leaper

The squid and the whale of the title are the titanic monsters displayed in the New York Museum of Natural History, which have in one way or another dwarfed the lives of the characters in this delicately brutal piece of cinema. Within moments, the tensions and alliances racking a family are revealed through the visual metaphor of a game of doubles tennis; the arrogant, over-competitive patriarch (Jeff Daniels) and his eldest son (Jesse Eisenberg), versus the tight-lipped, long-suffering mother (Laura Linney) and her youngest son (Owen Kline). We soon learn, along with the sons, that their marriage is over and they will soon be separating. So begins an unnervingly discomforting, yet at times hilariously bathetic, exploration of the consequences; squirming, we watch as the sons play out various Oedipal dramas; with guilty glee, we derive morbid satisfaction from the self-destruction of their insufferable father.

Scripted and shot to eliminate any soap opera elements, and grainily true to the eighties setting, makeup is used sparingly, as is dialogue. ‘Don’t be difficult’ is intoned mantra-like by various family members to ward off outbursts of unintellectualised emotional response. The opening two scenes are filmed as though through a camcorder, and for a short amount of time before captivation ensues, the viewer feels uneasily voyeuristic - perhaps wondering if this is being documented by an unseen fifth family member.

The question this film raises - which may be something many of the audience will have had occasion to chastise themselves with - is this: how is it possible to so completely lose your sense of the people you’re closest to?

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