The Whale | A kammerspiel of modern times
The Whale is the latest work by Darren Aronofsky, the American director, writer, and producer best known for movies such as Requiem for a Dream, The Wrestler, and Black Swan. Having directed his last movie, mother!, in 2017, Aronofsky comes to the 79th Venice International Film Festival to present The Whale.
While Aronofsky’s name is sufficient reason to fuel up expectations, The Whale has made a mark for another reason: the unexpected and already acclaimed comeback of Brendan Fraser. The actor, who appeared on countless movie posters from the ’90s and early 2000s, for titles like The Mummy and George of the Jungle, flew under the radar until very recently, due to unfortunate work and personal circumstances. Before The Whale, he reappeared in some TV shows, like The Affair and Trust, but hadn’t yet obtained a significant role such as this.
The prison of the body
Charlie (Brendan Fraser) is an English teacher who works via the internet from his second-floor apartment in Idaho. He pretends his webcam doesn’t work, but the truth is different: he doesn’t want to be seen. He is obese to the point he is almost unable to stand and sit, and the first time the audience sees him is while he masturbates to gay porn, right before suffering a near-deadly heart attack.
Around Charlie and his tiny apartment rotate the other characters of what was originally a play. One is Liz (Hong Chau), the nurse who takes care of Charlie and insists that he gets hospitalized. But Charlie doesn’t want to spend money on health insurance and medications, and due to the heart attack, he remains with maybe a week to live.
That’s when he decides to call his 17-year-old daughter, Ellie (Sadie Sink), to try reconnecting with her. But contrary to Charlie’s optimistic and loving spirit, Ellie is cynical, if not outright evil. The last central character in the picture is Thomas (Ty Simpkins), a missionary who happens to walk in right during Charlie’s heart attack, and from that moment is convinced that God wants him to save this man through faith and religion.
In and out of the scene
The Whale is a sort of kammerspiel – from the German for chamber acting, as it’s called – and is a story that takes place in the enclosed space of Charlie’s apartment and where each character enters and leaves as if from a stage. Aronofsky frames the events in a claustrophobic aspect ratio of 4:3, but does not move the camera too much, nor does he use any stylistic device. Despite the many similarities with some of his previous movies, like the father and daughter relationship of The Wrestler, The Whale is, therefore, much less experimental than Aronofsky’s cinema usually is. The only visually striking element is Charlie’s colossal body.
And this is good since Fraser’s performance is at the core of the production, which aims at winning some Oscars. The movie discusses obesity, homosexual relationships, and other critical contemporary issues, maybe even too many not to notice. Despite this, Brendan Fraser’s presence is genuinely excellent and would justify any award to his name, as well as a bigger return in the years to come.
I’ve had such variety, a lot of high highs and low lows, so what I’m keen for, in the second half of my time doing this, is to feel like I’m contributing to the craft and I’m learning from it. This is a prime opportunity. I wanted to disappear into it. My hope was that I would become unrecognizable.Brendan Fraser on his role in Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale, in an interview for Vanity Fair
Fraser did become unrecognizable, but only to be recognized again by the public, who has never forgotten him. The appreciation that the audience showed at the end of The Whale‘s premiere in Venice demonstrates that Brendan Fraser is indeed still in many hearts.