To say I was sceptical from the outset about Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale might be something of an understatement. Like many others, I was thrilled to see Brendan Fraser, an actor who has gone through genuine hardship and come out the other side positive, kind and more sharply talented than ever, had attached himself to a comeback vehicle. The Whale was originally a stage play, about a 600-pound man consumed by grief, who seems determined to eat himself to death. As a fat person myself, I was not filled with confidence that someone like Arronofsky, who is not a fat person, would have the nuance and ability to make something meaningful from this material. Then there was the title, a winking reference to Moby Dick, apparently, that nevertheless encourages you to conjure an image of an immensely fat person. But, hell, stranger things, right? Keeping an open mind is an important element of criticism, and I’ve never been one to subscribe to the idea that meaningful work about a group of people can’t be made from someone outside that group – it is simply a greater challenge.
A few days ago, a new poster for The Whale was released. The poster, by James Jean, depicts an artistic rendering of Brendan Fraser’s character in the film, Charlie. He looks down, in deep sadness. His mass, his immense flesh, spreads outward inhumanly beyond the confines of the poster. One imagines that if the image zoomed out, we’d see some sort of human-whale beast that the title wants us to imagine, or maybe his flesh would simply go on forever. The quote from the artist attached to the image is telling. “In my drawing, [Charlie’s] pain is full bleed and stretches beyond the margins, but his humanity and optimism breach the surface in the peaks and valleys of his face.” It’s the kind of well-meaning but myopic interpretation of fatness that comes from one who is not fat, but interprets fatness as something that cannot exist divorced of pain and suffering.
And then there’s that word, ‘humanity’. The self-congratulatory nature of the marketing of The Whale has regularly invoked this word, as has the film’s actors and director. The comparison that The Whale wants to encourage is something akin to the wonderful Leaving Las Vegas, a film in which a man attempts to drink himself to death. The most human thing a person can do is suffer and die, is the understanding implicit in both films. However, a more apt comparison for The Whale might perhaps be David Lynch’s The Elephant Man, only without that film’s nuance or profundity.
In spite of a game, go-for-broke performance from comeback wonder Brendan Fraser, Darren Aronofsky’s controversial adaptation of the play of the same name is a plodding, overwrought and exhausting work, as contemptuous of the fatness at the centre of its story as it is unsure what it wants to say about the world.
From the outset, Charlie’s condition is presented as a horror. ‘How could he have done this to himself?’, the film wants you to ask. Laden in garish prosthetics and a fat suit – a prop replete with harmful signifiers from a film history full of Fat Bastards – the film asks us to gasp as Charlie steps into the light, or later when he removes his shirt. ‘Ew’, an audience member exclaimed as Charlie sat forward, revealing a large sweat stain on his back. And all the while, The Whale wants to remind you that Charlie is human. ‘See, he is a human, underneath all the disgusting fat!’, it seems to say. That’s what sets it and The Elephant Man apart. In The Elephant Man, John Hurt’s character’s humanity is not in question. To accept The Elephant Man, you must accept all of him, and in turn question what elements in yourself pushed you to ever think of him as something other than human in the first place. The Whale suggests a human buried beneath the fat, that if you dig deep enough, you’ll see it.
This is not to say that The Whale needed to adopt an outlook of body positivity. As a fat person, there are plenty of times you feel angry, frustrated, outright hateful toward your body. The idea that a fat person needs to be endlessly ‘positive’ about their body can be as harmful as more forthright fatphobic thinking. The fat body is just a body, and the relationship someone has to their body is their business. But the way The Whale feeds into negative stereotypes about fatness while presenting itself as a sympathetic and well-meaning portrayal exemplifies the profound risk in people like Aronofsky (who, between Requiem for a Dream, mother!, and so on, has hardly been known for subtlety or nuance in the past) attempting to speak from this perspective. The Whale cannot conceive of a relationship to fatness that isn’t profoundly negative, nor can it conceive of the life of a fat person where fatness is not the all-encompassing key to who they are.
But even without this fatally narrow and punishing view toward fatness, The Whale would still be a turgid, self-important morass, an exhaustingly overcooked melodrama chock-full of weighty monologues designed for Oscar reels. Arronofsky, usually a compelling visualist, is trapped by the source material’s theatrical structure. The feeling of watching a filmed play never escapes the viewer, but neither does Arronofsky attempt to make this a feature rather than a bug. Instead, we are trapped in Charlie’s dingy apartment, lit dimly, like a horror film, all the better to inject scenes of Charlie eating fried chicken and pizza, the spectacle of his munching maw and the grease spread across his face intended to inspire above all else, revulsion. That is, after all, what a normal person would see when watching a monster feed.
The Whale’s cast is game, and Fraser works hard to inject depth into his role, as does Hong Chau – justly nominated for Best Supporting Actress – as Charlie’s dedicated nurse and carer. Time and again, however, they are drowned by stilted dialogue and tear-soaked, histrionic exchanges better suited to the stage. Arronofsky is no stranger to a groan-worthy metaphor, and he litters the film with a bunch of them – a bird on the windowsill (because Charlie longs to be free, y’see), snatches of news pieces discussing the first Trump campaign. All the while, The Whale is building toward an ending it wants you to see as transcendent, in some way, of the physical space that Charlie occupies. The discussions the characters of The Whale have are very concerned with spirituality, the afterlife, God and redemption. The Whale’s messaging is so muddled, however, that it is unclear what the ending is supposed to mean. Is Charlie’s fate redemptive? And if so, for whom is it redemptive? The Whale at once seems to strive for a sort of stoic cynicism about the world and a wide-eyed optimism, characterised by Charlie’s steadfast belief that ‘people are amazing’. Because even with all the fat he has to carry, he’s still human. More human than the thin people, even!
Stories that meaningfully discuss the lives of fat people are few and far between in cinema. These stories, to me, offer a rich view of the human experience with the potential to help fat people see themselves in meaningful ways that encourage normalised relationships to their bodies, the good and the bad. Other fat writers who have watched The Whale have remarked, tellingly, on how few fat people were in their audiences. In my screening, there were also very few fat people. There were a lot of regular-sized people, crying at the horrible situation Charlie had put himself in. Unsurprisingly, as I walked out of the cinema afterward, I felt incredibly on display.
The Whale in cinemas now.
Movie title: The Whale (Aronofsky, 2022)
Movie description: In spite of a game, go-for-broke performance from comeback wonder Brendan Fraser, Darren Aronofsky’s controversial adaptation of the play of the same name is a plodding, overwrought and exhausting work, as contemptuous of the fatness at the centre of its story as it is unsure what it wants to say about the world.
Date published: February 2, 2023
Country: United States
Author: Samuel D. Hunter
Director(s): Darren Aronofsky
Actor(s): Brendan Fraser, Sadie Sink, Hong Chau, Ty Simpkins