Venice Film Festival 2022: The Whale, The Ghost of Richard Harris, Don’t Worry Darling

ytsfreeSeptember 5, 2022

Early in “The Whale,” the new film directed by Darren Aronofsky from a script by Samuel D. Hunter (adapting his stage play), Liz (Hong Chau), a nurse who voluntarily looks after her friend Charlie (Brendan Frasier) notes that Charlie, who’s having an episode that convulses the entirety of his 600-pound body, is showing a blood pressure reading of 238 over 134. Aside from being an unconscionably high number, it’s also an indicator of congestive heart failure.

Because Brendan Fraser is not himself 600 pounds, he wears a good deal of prosthetic makeup in his heartbreaking portrayal of Charlie, whose story is not the only one “The Whale” tells. A few hours ago, my British colleague Robbie Collins tweeted that he overheard a fellow attendee of the Venice Biennale state that Fraser’s choice was akin to an actor appearing in blackface. Collins was exasperated by this statement, and there are many ways it fails to convince: logically, with respect to cultural history, and more. But let’s look for a moment at the alternatives for a cinematic artist who wants to make a film centered around a 600-pound man. Does one actually hire an individual who has blood pressure in the vicinity of 238 over 134? And if that person passes the insurance physical, what if they die on set? Who’s the understudy?

I was emotionally devastated by “The Whale” which is not just about Charlie but very specifically about how he reached the state the movie finds him in as it chronicles a Monday-through-Friday period in his life. It is maybe the most conventional narrative that Aronofsky has handled in his entire career; much of it feels like a play—arguably not in a bad way. But it’s apparent early on that this movie, unlike some other Aronofsky pictures, intends to take you plainly from point A to B to C and beyond. (Although several critics have noted Hunter’s script is, among other things, overwritten, which is arguably true, but which didn’t register as powerfully with me on my first viewing as it might have.)

The subject matter is unusual on the surface, but the story is one of different levels of heartbreak and human misunderstanding. There’s Liz’s relation to Charlie; there’s the odd tale of the young missionary (Ty Simkins) who shows up at Charlie’s door during his episode and possibly saves his life; there’s Charlie’s ferociously angry and possibly vicious teenage daughter (Sadie Sink), fuming at perceived abandonment. Charlie’s ex-wife (Samantha Morton) arrives late, with a metaphorical suitcase full of issues.

To all of them, Charlie, who extreme-comfort-ate himself into this state after a life loss, says “I’m sorry” over and over again. And a lot more than that. His performance is a physical wonder, a weird inverse bookend to his object/subject of desire in “Gods and Monsters.” Does he have a right to this role? Charlie notes that in his past, he was always a “big guy” and Fraser himself, after experiencing some life trauma, became substantially bigger than he was in his “Gods and Monsters” and “Mummy” days. These days everyone is encouraged to speak their truth. Here’s some of my own: At age 20 I stood six foot three and weighed 190 pounds. At age 49 I stood a little over six foot two and weighed three hundred pounds. The state was uncomfortable both physically and existentially, and medically dangerous. This has led me to look with no small skepticism at contemporary “body positivity.” That said, I also believe in individual freedom, even the individual freedom to proclaim a state that is manifestly not healthy as being healthy. I also believe in artistic freedom. And in Fraser’s freedom to take an imaginative and physical leap into a state that is beyond his own, but not entirely apart from it. With “The Whale,” Aronofsky and Fraser have taken substantive risks, in the name of an insistent empathy. I think, and my tear ducts agree, that those risks paid off.

“The Ghost of Richard Harris,” directed by Adrian Sibley, should interest any cinephile who’s fascinated by screen acting, which is to say, I suppose every cinephile period. Harris had three sons by his first wife Elizabeth, all of them involved in the arts: actor Jared, director Damian, and actor and musician Jamie. They serve as onscreen docents for much of the film, providing voiceover and appearing on screen visiting their father’s suite at London’s Savoy Hotel and the warehouse where his personal effects are stored.

Other personalities from Harris’ life chime in, including “Gladiator” costar Russell Crowe, “Camelot” co-star Vanessa Redgrave and “McArthur Park” songwriter Jimmy Webb, whose recollection is especially poignant. Sibley makes it a point to emphasize how very seriously Harris took his acting, and I learned a lot, sometimes by implication. The movie doesn’t spend a whole lot of time on his work in Michelangelo Antonioni’s “Red Desert,” but its overall account of Harris’ evolving attitude to film work in the ‘60s, and its display of the physical qualities of his acting, gave me some clues to unraveling his performance in that film.

The advance publicity on “Don’t Worry Darling,” a dystopian retro satire directed by Olivia Wilde, has pretty much served the purpose of putting a target on its back. Wilde’s anti-charm offensive with journalists culminated with the film’s post-screening press conference today, with lead actress Florence Pugh a no-show and Wilde turning icy at particular questions; one journalist was shut down trying to ask a question about Shia LaBeouf, whom Wilde claimed to have fired; the disgraced LaBeouf said that wasn’t true and produced public cringe-worthy evidence for his side. Anyway, it’s safe to say this was not the Venice that Wilde had hoped for. The audience applause after the screening I attended was the most tepid I’ve heard at any festival, and it didn’t get more enthusiastic when Wilde’s name appeared on screen.

Hence, “Don’t Worry Darling” has become the film on which to dogpile, and I’m not someone who approves of that syndrome. Unfortunately, while “Don’t Worry Darling” isn’t THAT bad, it’s also not very good. People think that auteurism was founded on the principle that the director is the ultimate creative power on a film, but it was not. Rather, it held that certain directors were able to exercise a style which imprinted their personality upon their movies. In this respect, “Darling” really is an auteur picture, replete with traits Wilde has let fly in recent interviews. It’s pompous (in its on-the-nose didacticism), humorless (satire doesn’t have to be funny, true, and this is one unfunny satire), condescending (the racial dynamic here, in which the sole Black female with a speaking part is relegated to a martyrdom prop, is a doozy), entitled (the recurring Busby-Berkeley-meets-“Carnival of Souls” bit has no utilitarian value, save saying “nightmare,” and it’s clear Wilde shot this indulgence just because she could, okay fine), and more. On the other hand, every now and then it latches onto a groove of narrative momentum and goes with it to some purpose. The premise might have made for a memorable episode of Rod Serling’s “Night Gallery.” This picture is nearly two hours, so that’s a problem right there.

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