Richard Linklater’s latest features a fascinating heroine AND a trip to the Southern Hemisphere
Watching the new Richard Linklater offering, Where’d You Go, Bernadette?, the one figure which kept coming to my mind throughout the whole film was writer Joan Didion. Like the main character, Didion has enjoyed life as a revered and celebrated artist who was hailed as a pioneer in her field. Her works have inspired generations of other writers, most notably Bret Easton Ellis, while cementing a legacy few others ever come close to. Additionally, Didion is famous for the remarkably close bond she shared with her husband, the late writer John Gregory Dunne. The bond was different with the couple’s daughter, Quintana. Once when Didion asked her adult daughter about her performance as a mother during her formative years, she replied, “You were fine, but you were a little remote.” The response struck Didion due to the fact that, as she puts it, “Her father and I so clearly needed her.” Here is where the comparisons between Didion and the character of Linklater’s film ends. While whatever remoteness Didion may have showed could be chalked up to a consuming devotion to her work, Bernadette’s own remoteness stems from the complete absence of it.
Bernadette Fox (Cate Blanchett) was once one of the most innovative and acclaimed architects in the history of the field, transforming decrepit buildings into awe-inspiring works of art. But that was the past. Today, Bernadette is living in a half-renovated house she gave up on restoring with her loving tech industry bigwig husband Elgie (Billy Crudup) and their teenage daughter Bee (Emma Nelson). While Elgie and Bee have found their respective rhythms with suburban life, the same cannot be said for Bernadette, who spends most of her time shopping online and trying to avoid the cluster of soccer moms, led by the annoying Audrey (Kristen Wiig). When her daughter proposes a family trip to Antarctica, Bernadette finds herself forced to face the woman she’s become, eventually disappearing in the middle of the day without a trace.
Staying with the Didion motif for just a tad longer, I remember hearing the author mention during an interview that she was literally unable to think unless she was writing. This is also seems to be the case with the complex and layered protagonist of Where’d You Go, Bernadette? It takes literally no deducing whatsoever to see how much of a wreck Bernadette is when we first encounter her. She’s sullen, hostile, prefers to interact with no one but her family, and exists more or less only during the night. One of the biggest reasons for her current state is that she literally doesn’t know who she is away from her work, which, thanks to the shift in her life, hasn’t been a presence in quite some time. While both Elgie and Bee have acclimated to the suburban way of life, Bernadette has merely been trying to survive it. Her existence as a caustic semi-recluse may be part of her personality (not unheard of in someone as artistically inclined as she naturally is), but it’s also her armor against an alien world which possibly scares her because she doesn’t know herself in it. This isn’t to say that Bernadette doesn’t have other problems which are exacerbated by her stifled existence, mainly a perception of reality which severely clouds her judgment at every turn. Such an outlook leads to a variety of consequences for Bernadette, including everything from a general apathy to a dependency on prescription drugs (a scene featuring the character trying to procure tranquilizers strong enough to knock out a bear is hysterical, if sadly telling). Internal problems aside, the bottom line is that Bernadette is a creative person, and creative people are meant to create in order to fully live.
Where’d You Go, Bernadette? is also the portrait of a family trying to hold it together by whatever means necessary, or so they think. The relationships shared by Bernadette, Elgie, and Bee are ones filled with love, but also great compromise. Bernadette has compromised who she is as an artist AND a woman by “living” a life she never really wanted. Elgie has subconsciously surrendered himself to his work in an effort to avoid acknowledging how much help his wife truly needs. Finally, the one member with the least amount of emotional baggage to her name, Bee, copes with her environment by just trying to indulge in her own interests and ambitions while being fiercely protective of her parents. This is especially true when it comes to her mother, and rightfully so. For all of her issues, Bernadette is never anything but present for her daughter in any and every way she is capable of being. It’s in this area where Elgie should take a lesson from his wife. As father and daughter go on a search for their missing loved one, we see Elgie coming to realize that while he’s always loved his wife, he really hasn’t seen her for the longest time. Without knowing it, Elgie has put blinders on because he doesn’t want to accept the fact that the exciting and vibrant creature he fell in love with has devolved into someone he doesn’t know. Seeing the character literally re-discover the woman who once bewitched him makes for some of the most beautiful elements within Where’d You Go, Bernadette? as it shows the strength of the bond shared by two people in love and the unshakable power it possesses.
In Bernadette, Blanchett has found yet ANOTHER amazingly complex woman to sink her teeth into. It’s refreshing and compelling to watch the actress embrace the character’s many (and I do mean, MANY) flaws and insecurities with such gusto, eager and unafraid to explore them fully. Because she’s Blanchett, Bernadette neither comes across as over-the-top nor unsympathetic. Instead, the warmth and empathy the actress shows towards her is one of love, which radiates onto the audience by way of her stunning work. Crudup achieves a similar, if slightly smaller, success with Elgie. In a way, the character is a trickier one than the woman at the center since the task requires making a case for a man who has essentially buried his head in the sand with regard to the state of his family. As the movie progresses, the actor beautifully brings to life the different revelations his character experiences, showing him falling in love with his wife all over again. Nelson’s character is written as a “beyond her years” teen, and the young actress steps up to the plate with a performance that more than keeps up with those from her more seasoned costars, while Wiig has a fun supporting turn as the neighbor from hell with her own baggage to unpack.
If it feels like the release of Where’d You Go, Bernadette? has been in the works for a good little while, it might have something to do with the film’s marketing. When the first trailer was released some time back, it gave away far more than probably anyone had intended, while a second one focused on the more accessible elements of the story, namely the film’s unique brand of comedy. The two vastly different trailers showed how, much like the character herself, Where’d You Go, Bernadette? is a unique puzzle whose existence is transformative. Like most novels brought to life on the screen, the film feels a bit compressed at certain points thanks to the sprawling richness of the original text. The relationship between Audrey and Bernadette, as well as a subplot involving the mob, are both left by the wayside, causing audiences to wonder how much space they occupied in the book. This minor complaint aside, I have to wonder: maybe both of the film’s trailers, in their own way, got it right. On the one hand, Where’d You Go, Bernadette? can be looked at as the literal search for a missing woman who is both valued and loved. On the flip side, the title suggests the question the main character asks herself at one of the most defining points in her life, and her quest to find the answer.