March 2023

Arts & Letters

Body horror: Darren Aronofsky’s ‘The Whale’

By Brodie Lancaster

Brendan Fraser in The Whale

The American director’s latest film rehashes well-worn tropes on fatness, and confuses sympathy with empathy

These are Charlie’s last days.

In the shuttered, cluttered living room of his Idaho apartment, the protagonist of director Darren Aronofsky’s film The Whale receives a procession of visitors who offer him truth, anger, love, salvation, forgiveness and pizza. He accepts it all as he slowly tries to complete the task of eating himself to death.

Like much of Aronofsky’s recent work, the characters on screen are more walking metaphors than people: cyphers bearing messages about truth, empathy, self-destruction and religion. In The Whale, they are loaded, purposeful planets orbiting the massive ball of light and energy that is Charlie, played by Brendan Fraser.

“Do you ever get the feeling that people are incapable of not caring?” he asks Liz (Hong Chau), his closest friend and caregiver. “People are amazing.”

Charlie, derived from screenwriter Samuel D. Hunter’s semi-autobiographical 2012 play of the same name, is frequently awed by the capacity of people to show compassion, love and optimism towards one another. But his “people are amazing” line arrives in the concluding moments of a film that has made him the target of hateful cruelty, recounts the homophobia that his late partner, Alan, was subjected to leading up to his suicide, and reveals that everyone – from a door-knocking missionary to a pizza delivery guy – observes Charlie with some combination of disgust, pity and callousness. So it’s a confused and baffling declaration. People may be amazing, but they don’t appear so in the confines of this home.

Charlie is an English literature teacher. His students only experience him as a black square on a video call. He insists that his camera is broken, while he encourages them to write honestly, put the truth into words, tell him something real. Only once we meet Charlie and take in his reality does the irony settle in: he is a 300-kilogram man begging for the truth from his students while hiding his own. He is in near-constant physical and emotional pain, with a relationship to food that is both a security blanket and a way out.

Despite Charlie being the centre of Aronofsky’s story, his motives and choices are offered little real estate in The Whale. Meanwhile, the other characters that populate his world wear their intentions like a neon sign.

We know Charlie’s daughter, Ellie (Sadie Sink, from Stranger Things), is disgusted by his body and furious at him for leaving her as an eight-year-old, because she yells it at him. She’s also angry that he left her mother, Mary (Samantha Morton), for a mature-age student (the now deceased Alan). We know that the Christian missionary Thomas (Ty Simpkins), an exiled member of the conservative New Life church, wants to save Charlie’s soul, because he tells him directly. We know Liz, who also happens to be Alan’s sister, wants Charlie to go to hospital and get help before his high blood pressure and newly diagnosed congestive heart failure conspire to kill him.

Aronofsky’s work is rarely this literal, often dealing with themes both philosophical and theological. The Jungian theory of consciousness was at play in 2010’s Black Swan, where an impressionable ballerina (Natalie Portman, in the role that earned her an Oscar) battled her duelling conscious and subconscious, her persona and shadow self, in her performance as Tchaikovsky’s White Swan.

Noah (2014) a faithful Bible story, established Aronofsky’s fascination with Christian mythology. And then there was Mother! (2017), bloody, troubling allegory writ large. Its characters included God and Mary, Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel. Mother (minus the exclamation point) experienced the conception and, later, destruction of her firstborn son. It was grim and difficult viewing, offering few hard-won rewards.

Through Thomas in The Whale, we learn of Alan’s connection to the fundamentalist church that cast him out for being gay. While sneaking into the room Charlie once shared with Alan, Thomas finds the dead man’s Bible, and later treats its highlighted and annotated verses as a sign that he alone can save Charlie and cleanse the sins of his flesh. (Their first encounter was underscored by Charlie almost choking to death while masturbating to gay porn, so Thomas assumes his soul is crying out for salvation.)

Charlie is viewed as a sinner but behaves as a martyr. He absorbs and forgives all manner of cruelty lobbed at him – and there is plenty. Ellie smashes the plate that Charlie leaves pieces of fruit on for birds to eat at the windowsill. She posts pictures of Charlie on her Facebook page with cruel commentary, drugs him and screams at him to die. He takes it all in, and tells her how wonderful she is.

Look how forgiving the fat man is, Aronofsky and Hunter insist. Even in Charlie’s darkest days, even when everyone tells him he is worthless and should be dead, he can’t perceive humanity as anything but kind.

His suffering, they insist, is okay because it teaches other people something. It teaches the characters in Charlie’s world not that fat people are inherently deserving of love and care and respect and kindness in their lives, but that we should be nice to dying people even if their bodies gross us out. And it teaches the viewers of The Whale that looking the way Charlie does, having the body and life and life expectancy he does, is avoidable.

Fatness in film is never incidental. No matter what a fat character does or says, their body informs their character and – perhaps more importantly – the way that character is treated. In Shallow Hal, Gwyneth Paltrow’s fat suit offers a trite aphorism you’d find cross-stitched on a pillow or wall hanging: it’s what’s on the inside that counts.

In 2019’s Brittany Runs a Marathon, which was acquired by Amazon Studios following a strong premiere at Sundance, weight loss is depicted as a cure-all tonic for vices, low self-esteem, fear of commitment and garden-variety mid-twenties malaise. Australian comedian Rebel Wilson got her breakthrough in the United States thanks to her role as Fat Amy (really) in the 2012 film Pitch Perfect. Her entire personality was encapsulated in that nickname. When she spun off that success into a short-lived sitcom, its first episode featured three jokes about Spanx.

Perhaps the closest analogues for Charlie’s experiences are in maternal characters from either end of the dramatic spectrum. In comedy, there is Edna Turnblad, the reclusive mother in Hairspray who hid herself away – and encouraged her outgoing daughter to minimise her aspirations – because she understood the world’s deeply embedded cruelty. Dramatically, Charlie’s story mirrors that of Bonnie, the grieving, tragic mother in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? Just as Charlie does, she used food to try to fill the vast emptiness left behind by her husband’s suicide. One day she went inside, and years elapsed before she left the house again.

These are all depictions of fat women in film. By and large, it’s women whose bodies broadcast messages to cinema audiences: their fat bodies might tell us they’re evil or unfuckable or sad. Fat male bodies often serve as a shorthand in comedy, a sign lit up telling you to laugh at actors such as the late Chris Farley or John Candy, or at the early work of Jonah Hill and Seth Rogen.

“The way we see things is affected by what we know or what we believe,” wrote John Berger in Ways of Seeing. In a chapter on how the perspective of male artists and sculptors determines how we receive images of female nudes, he said: “Women are depicted in a quite different way from men … because the ‘ideal’ spectator is always assumed to be male and the image of the woman is designed to flatter him.” He then poses a challenge to readers: choose one of the nudes in his book, and then imagine it is a man, instead of a woman. “Then notice the violence which that transformation does. Not to the image, but to the assumptions of a likely viewer.”

Make no mistake: the depiction of Charlie’s body in The Whale is a kind of violence, and the filmmaker expects you to respond to it with revulsion. When Charlie removes his sweat-stained shirt from his body, the camera moves behind his couch, as if to spare you the sight. When he raises himself from that couch, using a walking frame for support, and his body is shown in full for the first time, the strings of composer Rob Simonsen’s score swell, invoking the first sightings of other massive, majestic, awe-inspiring objects: when passengers board RMS Titanic, for example, or the moment when the visiting palaeontologists in Jurassic Park first lay eyes on a dinosaur.

The same orchestral crescendos come as Charlie binge eats. Early on, he begs Liz to hand him a bucket of fried chicken and swallows it greedily as a layer of sweat builds across his brow. Later, it’s a sub sandwich he swallows so quickly he winds up choking. He binges and jerks off, sweats and falls. In Aronofsky’s abject perspective, fat people eat and eat and get fatter and die. Fatness is horror, he tells us, and it makes for a life absent grace and dignity. And they do it all to themselves.

Responses to the film have met Aronofsky’s tone. In an early review, Owen Gleiberman in Variety went to great lengths to describe the “sloping jowls”, the “gigantic jelly belly” and “legs that are like meat slabs”. He referred to the mix of prosthetics and CGI that transformed Fraser into “a fellow the size of Jabba the Hutt”.

If the film has a point to make about food addiction, grief or the way the body processes (or holds on to) trauma, it is neither confident nor smart enough to make it. And the spaces where that empathy or understanding could have been explored are instead being filled with fat jokes and food-themed descriptions of bodies.

Throughout the film, Charlie finds comfort in an essay a student wrote about Moby-Dick. He has memorised it, and recites it like a mantra or prayer. “This whale doesn’t have any emotions, and doesn’t know how bad Ahab wants to kill him … He’s just a poor big animal.” He begs Thomas to read the essay aloud to him while he’s experiencing a heart attack, and later asks Ellie to do the same. He doesn’t have emotions, Aronofsky seems to be repeating to his audience, so this treatment is fine.

“He’s just a poor big animal,” Charlie recites, proud of how truthful the student was in their literary interpretation. Or maybe he’s just pleased they found the capacity to feel for a mistreated, living thing.

Brodie Lancaster

Brodie Lancaster is a writer and co-host of the podcast See Also.

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