It’s difficult to heap yet more praise onto a film that’s already so widely acclaimed, but there’s something so special about The Squid and the Whale that you can’t help but keep coming back to it. The critical acclaim came flooding in as the film premiered at festivals across the globe 11 years ago. Then came the festival nominations, followed swiftly by an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay. Writer and director Noah Baumbach had honed in on his formative years in New York when his parents had separated, painting a fragile, raw picture of being stuck in between two homes. As a wise friend of one of the main characters says: “Joint custody blows.”
Set in the 1980s, The Squid and the Whale centres around a fairly ordinary family with creative, slightly bohemian parents at the heart of it. Interestingly, and perhaps due to the autobiographical nature of the film, you don’t ever take a side in the divorce. Bernard (played to perfection by Jeff Daniels) is self-absorbed and ultra-competitive, and Joan (Laura Linney) is openly adulterous and carefree when it comes to whom she sleeps with. It’s obvious that they still care very much for one another deep down, but they just can’t live together anymore. The stunning cast (also featuring Jesse Eisenberg and Owen Kline as sons Walt and Frank) are all faultless in their performances, but it’s the richness of the dialogue that truly makes this film shine.
Baumbach manages to use key, subtle phrases that deeply show characters’ faults and the trauma of divorce. Bernard and Joan have very different ideas of how the divorce should play out in front of their children. Joan wants to be open and honest, seemingly feeling quite guilt-free about the whole thing, and Bernard wants to be the victim. He makes it clear to his children that Joan has had affairs and that he felt he did everything he could to save the marriage. But his repeated phrase of Joan being “difficult”, and his previous wife being “very difficult”, show that he has a very narrow view of what a wife should be. Questioning things and not agreeing with his point of view make women “difficult”, apparently. The two sons naturally begin to take sides as the constant house-swapping continues. Eldest son Walt, a very impressionable and naïve teenager, sides with his father. He begins to mimic him, repeating key phrases that he’s heard and even referring to his new girlfriend as “difficult”. Youngest son Frank feels closer to his mother, still needing that maternal connection, but his dialogue too begins to change with the effects of the divorce. His language becomes much more sexualised, reflecting his mother’s infidelities and her relationship with his tennis coach.
Early on in the film, before the couple decide to split, Bernard briefly spots Joan on the street as he drives with Walt in the car. She’s reclining against a wall and talking to a man. Bernard asks Walt, “Did you see what she was wearing?” Without even receiving an answer he continues, “No, never mind, I’ve probably seen it before.” The obvious question for him to ask would have been: “Did you see who she was with?” Is it that at this stage of their relationship he’s so aware that she’s cheating on him that he’s more interested in whether she sees the affairs as serious or not? Does she like them enough to go out and buy a new outfit to wear for them? Perhaps he just feels that it’s not appropriate to acknowledge to his son that he saw the other man. At this stage of the film, slightly at odds with his behaviour later on, Bernard seems to want to protect his children from the state of his marriage. When Frank discovers him folding up the sofa-bed one morning and worriedly asks if he’s been sleeping on it, Bernard reassures him by saying “It’s better for my back than the bed.”
As with each of the family members, Bernard’s behaviour changes throughout the film, and his competitive streak becomes an overwhelming characteristic. Everything can be a competition, whether it’s a heated discussion regarding a book he’s read or what should be a playful game of table tennis with his youngest son. His competitiveness comes to the forefront when he’s discussing his sons with his ex-wife. Joan brings up the subject of Walt’s new girlfriend and asks Bernard if he’s met her yet. She may ask it with a gentle smile on her face, but it’s pretty certain she’s aware that he hasn’t, and that this is the perfect chance to get one up on him. “No,” Bernard replies, “but he talks to me about her, though.”
Tensions within the family reach an all-time high when Joan gets some of her new writing published, as Bernard is a long-time author but now, predominantly, an English teacher. Walt remarks to his younger brother Frank: “Dad’s the writer in this family.” He too has a very clear view of what a wife should be, and at this stage in his life it’s everything that his mother isn’t. Throughout the film, however, Bernard’s stupid mistakes and overbearing nature begin to push even Walt away. By the end of the film after a series of embarrassing and foolish incidents, Bernard’s guard is down, and he begins to reminisce with Joan about seeing Godard’s À Bout de souffle at the cinema: “I got you in for the children’s price. You were pregnant with Walt.” Joan rolls her eyes: “Yeah, like six weeks.” “I still got you in on a children’s ticket,” replies Bernard. Despite the competitiveness, despite always needing to be right, Bernard recalls a memory from 16 years before which made him feel proud in front of his wife.
Baumbach has gone on to write more commercially successful films than The Squid and the Whale, such as Fantastic Mr. Fox and Frances Ha, but the depth of this script remains unparalleled. As every writer will tell you: “Write about what you know.” Honing in on a raw, sensitive part of his childhood meant that Baumbach managed to sidestep any awkward or stilted dialogue. Instead, each of the characters managed to convey a lifetime of feelings in just a few short sentences.
The Criterion Collection Blu-Ray of The Squid and the Whale is available now. Thanks to the Criterion Collection, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment and Emfoundation for providing a copy.