The squid and the whale

Wassily Kandinsky, Untitled, 1934.


Commentary on the film directed by Noah Baumbach

According to the Institute for Child and Adolescent Growth (ICIJ), when a couple decides to separate, often the biggest concern is for the children: Will they be okay? How to break the news to them? The apprehension is justified, especially when it comes to children, who do not have a full understanding of the situation and can suffer great damage from divorce, including their long-term development. However, experts are unanimous in stating that it is better to have separated parents than a home with constant fights and disharmony.

Usually, the couple who have gone through a divorce process try their best to prevent the end of the relationship from affecting their children. Unfortunately, this is impossible because it's unrealistic to tell children that nothing is going to change. Even if parents exercise caution and take emotional responsibility, certain things will change. For example, it is impossible for a family to continue living in the same house after separation, so the children's living habits will change a lot.

Also according to the Institute for Child and Adolescent Growth (ICIJ), routine, by the way, is an important point. Knowing what will happen during the day, or what the week will be like, is important for any child's psychic balance. In the case of a divorce, the faster the new routine is implemented and explained to the child, the better the adjustment will be. It makes it much easier if the child can make small choices in this new day to day, with the creation of rules and agreed together with the parents.

Based on this premise, the feature film The squid and the whale exceptionally exposes this issue: how this process impacts the parent x child relationship. In the textual narrative, there are dense and well-written dialogues, which focus on presenting the concerns with the details of everyday life, the post-divorce dynamics and the impact of the extrajudicial process on the life of each family member.

The squid and the whale  is the fourth feature film by Noah Baumbach, the same director, producer and screenwriter of the critical success Story of a wedding. Son of writer, academic, essayist and film critic Jonathan Baumbach (1933-2019) and film critic Georgia Brown, Baumbach tries to reproduce with intimacy, veracity and viscerality the environment of narcissism and intellectual hypercompetitiveness in which he grew up.

The feature is a semi-autobiographical and partially fictional adaptation that focuses on detailing in a purely fictional way the troubled divorce process of Baumbach's parents, for the screenplay Noah was nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay (2006). The film's title makes a direct allusion to a children's horror tale by the 'father of free verse', the American poet, essayist and journalist Walt Whitman (1819-1892). In itself, it metaphorically represents the fight between a sperm whale (Physetermacrocephalus) and a giant squid (Architeuthis) at the famous Museum of Natural History in New York – paradoxically, Baumbach reproduces this devastation in his script, when methodically analyzing the conflicting relationship and the struggle of egos of their intellectual parents.

In the scientific article “Contemporary marriage: The difficult coexistence of individuality with conjugality”, Terezinha Feres-Carneiro analyzes: “Who separates is the loving couple, the conjugal couple. The parental couple will continue forever with the functions of caring, protecting and providing for the material and affective needs of the children. […] I usually say that the worst conflict that children can experience, in the situation of parental separation, is the conflict of exclusive loyalty, when demanded by one or both parents”.

The researcher reports a routine situation, when parents find it difficult to distance themselves from their own pain to look at their child's pain. When making this movement of distinguishing conjugality from parenting is difficult for parents (one of them or both), the ideal is to seek the help of a psychologist, in order to work out the situation for themselves and manage to avoid transferring their difficulties in relation to the ex-partner to the child, or contaminating the child's perception with one's own opinions about the child's father or mother.

The feature film begins with a family tennis match. In the game, Bernard Berkman (Emmy Award-winner for Outstanding Actor in a Drama Series Jeff Daniels) and his oldest son Walt (Academy Award nominee for Best Actor Jesse Eisenberg) stand on one side of the court, while his wife , Joan (Academy Award nominee for Best Actress Laura Linney) and the youngest, Frank (Owen Kline, son of Oscar winner for Best Supporting Actor Kevin Kline), are on the opposite side – ironically the game represents the future marital dispute that professor Bernard and his wife, writer Joan, will pit against each other.

“Mommy and me against you and daddy,” says Frank before starting the game. The phrase serves, in large part, to characterize the relationship between the family members, and it is also a prelude to the position of each one throughout the unfolding of this marital rupture. The game ends with a fight between the couple, which reveals the strain on their relationship. It is with this beginning that Baumbach introduces the eccentric Berkman family. The plot has the backdrop of New York City (Brooklyn) in the second half of the 80s (1986) and, as already mentioned above, deals with personal issues experienced by Baumbach himself during his adolescence.

Bernard is a professor of literature who was once a successful writer. At the moment, he faces the decline of his successful career, the successive refusals of publishers to release his new novel prove the fact, which ironically coincides with the professional rise of his wife Joan, who emerges as a revelation in the literary world, she who scored an article in the magazine The New Yorker and signed a contract to publish a book. Joan's success, especially in Bernard's area of ​​failure, serves as a bucket of cold water in a failing marriage already marked by Joan's numerous extramarital affairs, of which Bernard is aware.

In the opening minutes of the feature, Bernard and Joan separate, the request for separation comes from Joan. We can note that although the fight that culminates in the request for separation began with the discussion of Joan's extramarital affairs. It is clear that Bernard does not want to leave her, but he is not able to express this feeling either. As it was during the entire period they were married, he views the situation with arrogance and, instead of expressing his feelings, treats the moment as one more of his banal reflections.

After informing the children of the end of the marriage, Bernard rents a house and demands from Joan that their children stay with him on alternate days (that is, Frank and Walt must stay one day at his house and another at her house). This organization confuses the children, who are unable to settle down in any of the houses. A mitigating factor is that Frank has a stronger emotional connection with his mother, being reluctant to sleep at his father's house, even running away from there some nights; Walt, in turn, disgusted to learn of his mother's infidelities, refuses to go to her house and lives exclusively with Bernard.

In addition to him and his children, Bernard hosts Lili (Academy Award winner for Best Supporting Actress, Anna Paquin) in his new home. Lili is a literature student, moves into her teacher's house and becomes desired by father and son, although they do not notice the other's interest. The knowledge only comes to light when Joan criticizes Bernard for having an affair with her, who is only 20 years old, and warns that Walt likes her. Walt, in turn, discovers his father's affair with the student when he catches them both in Lili's room.

The act causes rupture between father and son. Before this rupture, however, it is necessary to understand the relationship between the two. The first family dinner scene, when everyone still lives in the same house, as well as the aforementioned tennis game, already anticipates an issue that is central to the narrative: the relationship between Bernard and Walt, which, at first appears to be a relationship of complicity, approval and admiration of the son in relation to the father; little by little, a relationship of dependency of the father on the attention of his son is revealed, who, after his ruin and professional decline, becomes his only audience.

At this dinner, Walt reports that he will read A tale of two cities (1859), by the English novelist Charles Dickens at school and asks his father's opinion about the work. Faced with his father's lack of enthusiasm, Walt decides not to "waste time" reading this classic of English literature, even though his mother argued that it is necessary for him to read it and draw his own conclusions. This reaffirms Walt's predilection for his pompous father, almost in a tone of devotion.

In several other moments, Walt makes comments about books and films that are based on what he heard his father say, although he has no real knowledge about them. His imitation of his father is not limited to pseudo-intellectualized comments, but also in relation to his affective relationships.

Walt meets and begins to relate to Sophie (Halley Feiffer), his schoolmate. The relationship between the two makes the boy's immaturity clear. A sexual immaturity, given his immediate ejaculation after a quick intimate touch from his girlfriend, and, mainly, an emotional immaturity, since Walt is all the time in doubt whether he should continue with Sophie, even though he likes her, because in his view " you can get something better”. This immaturity of his, fostered by the arrogance and arrogance that he copies from his father's behavior, ends up hurting Sophie and causes the end of the relationship.

Note the following, Bernard's treatment of Walt's courtship may explain, in part, the impossibility of a relationship between him and Joan. When talking to his son about his relationship with Sophie, he always makes it clear to his son that he must see himself as superior to her, that a woman can be an obstacle in the life of a man of genius (as he considers himself to be) and that it is necessary to Be careful when making a commitment to someone. Pure asshole of him as a father.

In his eagerness to be like his father, who he considers to be genius, Walt goes so far as to sing the song “hey you” (1980), by Pink Floyd, as if it were his own. He wins the festival. However, when the truth is discovered, he is forced to return the prize and his parents are called to the school.

The father's attitude, faced with this discovery, is once again proof of his pride and arrogance. He does not criticize the boy, because, as has already been said, Bernard considers himself and his son above all rules and social conventions. Law and truth apply to others, mere mortals, not to them. The only problem that the father points out to his son is the fact that, by school policy, Walt will have to see a therapist. Right from the start, Bernard tells his son that he will probably be treated by someone with no qualifications.

Frank, Bernard's youngest son, is completely cut off from Bernard. In this, he seeks an identification with his tennis teacher Ivan (William Baldwin), who is Joan's current boyfriend. Frank seeks, at all costs, a complete detachment from Bernard, either by stating that his physical traits are the same as his mother's, or by proclaiming himself a "philistine", which is the expression his father uses against Ivan, to accuse him of not interested in books and movies. Being a philistine means, for Frank, being different from his father and that's what he wants, different from Walt who idolizes his father.

The separation of his parents and the obligation to spend one day at each house have serious consequences for the boy, who starts to drink beer and other alcoholic beverages at home, without his parents noticing, and to masturbate in public places and spread his semen by the school. The scene in which the parents are called to school shows their disregard for Frank. They have no idea what is going on with the child and have already gone so far as to leave him alone at home for several hours while the mother travels with her boyfriend and the father is at dinner with Walt and Sophie. Without identifying with his father and without finding the strength and presence he needs at the moment in his mother, Frank continues alone in the plot, starring in lonely scenes and receiving some attention only from his brother.

According to Luiz Castilho from the website Cinematology, Baumbach uses the camera in hand, creating proximity of the audience to the situation, transforming it into an omnipresent spectator, amplifying even more the drama portrayed at that moment.

Still according to him, however, photography plays an essential role in configuring the setting of the feature film, using a palette of colors with pastel tones in order to create the atmosphere of something from the past, such as a memory or a story, so much so that the The story takes place in the 1980s, which, in addition to being expected, stands out with this layer, adding even more value to the film.

The performances are exceptional. Hard not to feel rancid from Jeff Daniels; not sympathizing with Laura Linney; not see yourself in the pain of children who seek a reference for themselves. The soundtrack is literally a separate show, the costumes faithfully portray the 80s and the scenography is very intimate and true.

*Vanderlei Tenorio is page editor cinema and geography.


The squid and the whale (The Squid and the Whale)
United States, 1986, 81 minutes.
Directed by: Noah Baumbach
Producer: Wes Anderson
Cast: Jeff Daniels, Laura Linney, Anna Paquin, Jesse Eisenberg, Owen Kline.


BELMIRO, Marcia. “When parents separate, how to help their children”. Institute for Child and Adolescent Growth. Rio de Janeiro, March 23, 2021. Available at:>.

WELLEN, Erica. “The Squid and the Whale: On Human Separations and Social Distancing”. Magazine Blog Academic Area. Maringa, March 23. 2021. Available at:>.

CASTILLO, Luiz. review of The Squid and the Whale (The Squid and the Whale) [2005]. Cinematology. Sao Paulo, March 23. of 2021. Available at: < >.

FÉRES-CARNEIRO, Terezinha. Contemporary marriage: the difficult coexistence of individuality with conjugality. Psychology Reflection and Criticism, Porto Alegre, Vol. 11, noo.2, p. 06-07, 1998.


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