TIFF 2022 | The Whale (Darren Aronofsky, US) — Special Presentations

By Clara Miranda Scherffig

More than just a key to a healthy life, eating can be a ritual of joy. The lack of food is generally associated with violence, and its excess is often regarded as obscene. This is, in part, the premise of The Whale, another installment in Darren Aronofsky’s career-long study about the body as a battleground for psychological turmoil. Adapted from Sam D. Hunter’s play by the same name, the film centres on Charlie (Brendan Fraser), a severely obese man who works remotely as an English teacher, and has lived in solitude—apart from his only friend, Liz (Hong Chau), who helps tend to his daily needs—since losing his partner, for whom he had left his family. We catch up with Charlie as the comorbidity of congestive heart failure is counting down his last days. “The grease will sizzle when you burn in Hell,” or something along these lines, is what his teenage daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink) captions when she posts his photo on Facebook—merciless, but understandably confused as to why her father suddenly wishes to reconnect after eight years of silence.

Stuck in his apartment—a stage-like setting occasionally resembling the interior of a boat in stormy waters (Moby Dick is an abused leitmotif)—Charlie is visited by, among others, Thomas (Ty Simpkins), a missionary from a fictional Christian community that, years earlier, had been partially responsible for the loss of his partner. Noticing that Hunter play specifically portrayed Thomas as a Mormon, I couldn’t help but wonder whether Aronofsky’s vaguer adaptation was meant to protect the actual religious group from the accusations made in the film. But how will an obese spectatorship (36% of the population in North America alone) feel about watching The Whale? What measures have been put in place against the stigma of this epidemic, whether it is caused by physiological or mental illness?

Make-up, prosthetics, and a good deal of CGI help Brendan Fraser reach Charlie’s gigantic frame. His character is periodically hit by self-loathing binges, which come with the arguable suggestion that cooking—something that Charlie apparently did very well in his past life—is a luxury for sane and happy people. When the score grotesquely grows in crescendos to underline his struggle to stand up, Monty Python’s Mr. Creosote comes to mind; in other words, this is miles away from a compassionate representation. Despite the character’s humour and his Pollyanna attitude, Charlie’s eating disorder is only superficially explored, and details about his body and homosexuality are morbidly revealed. Far from wanting to wear the woke cape in defense of body positivity, watching The Whale feels like being forced to trade shock for empathy.

What is even more enraging and appalling, well past the point of Charlie being able or not to afford treatment is the evidence that healthcare comes at a cost. Yet the ultimate obscenity is not the story of a large lonely man, nor the political one that still allows for an inhumane healthcare system to exist (news of the 2020 Republican primaries run on TV in the background). Even in the midst of such a tragedy, and despite the ameliorative efforts of Fraser’s performance, at the end The Whale cannot resist to stuff our faces with a schmaltzy happy ending—an otherworldly, sugarcoated conclusion that tastes bad and nourishes poorly, just like junk food.