66th BFI London Film Festival Diary – Day Three – The Whale, Bros, Enys Men

On day three, Brendan Fraser returns in Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale, Billy Eichner brings the gay rom-com into the mainstream with Bros and time is a flat circle in Mark Jenkin’s Enys Men.

The Whale (dir. Darren Aronofsky)

Darren Aronofsky’s filmography can seem rather diverse, as the controversial director has covered everything from sports dramas to science fiction, Biblical epics to whatever mother! was. But if there is a theme that can link them all together, it would be human beings struggling to define themselves against seemingly insurmountable odds. With The Whale, Aronofsky explores this idea once again, but this time he ventures deeper into overwrought misery tourism with the portrayal of its main character.

Charlie (Brendan Fraser) is a morbidly obese man living as a shut in, unable to move much under his own power. He spends his days on the couch, teaching an online essay writing course to college students in-between jags of binge eating. After a health scare, his only visitor, his friend and personal carer Liz (Hong Chau), warns him that he does not have long to live. This news inspires Charlie to reach out to his estranged daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink), as he tries to reconcile their relationship and make amends before he dies.

Based on a play by Samuel D. Hunter (who also adapted the screenplay), The Whale is self-serious nonsense that is as emotionally manipulating as it is problematic. Aronofsky is not a stranger to controversy, nor does he shrink from being blatant and obtuse with his storytelling. However, as wild and unsubtle as he can be, there always seemed to be an underlying honesty to his films, that what we were seeing onscreen was coming from some deep emotion or fascination he felt compelled to share. But with The Whale, it all feels very cynical, inauthentic.

What leaves a bad taste in the mouth is with the central character of Charlie, who is almost never off-screen, the film taking place primarily inside his living room. Brendan Fraser is terrific in the role, leaving everything on the field in his most dramatic performance yet. But the presentation ultimately rings hollow when one thinks of all the effort and make-up effects went into creating Charlie as this monstrous hulk of a person and all we can see is the artifice. Aronofsky wants us to feel as depressed as he does, to put us in his place but, much like Andrew Dominik does with Marilyn Monroe in Blonde, we can only watch in horror, and at arm’s length, at this person’s struggle, like they’re an exhibit in an alien zoo.

There is also an earnestness to the relationships in the film that comes off as pat and cloying when they should be gripping and tear-jerking. Its no surprise this was based on a play because the characters at times seem to be speaking at each other, rather than to each other. There is a lot of storming off, only to freeze in a doorway to say a line over their shoulder that is intended to be some devastating revelation but it all just falls flat. Not even a talent like Aronofsky can overcome the stagey-ness of the script in places. Neither can the actors (who are all very good) make the characters any more than cyphers, shuffling around that living room and occasionally bumping into one another.  

The Whale is a very disappointing effort from Aronfosky. One feels that, after the critical drubbing he received for mother!, he deliberately made a typical Oscar-bait drama out of spite. But if this is the case it is so transparent as to feel almost like a dark joke, even though it probably will rake in the nominations. Most upsetting of all, the film ultimately does a disservice to Brendan Fraser, who we have all been waiting to see return to the big screen, because he brings his A-game while Aronofsky seems to be on autopilot.

Bros (dir. Nicholas Stoller)

The publicity for Bros tells us it is the “first gay rom-com to be made by a major studio” which shows how far we’ve come in 2022 while, simultaneously, its dismal box office shows how far we still have to go as a society. Watching this delightful, funny and heartfelt film, it is sad it has not found a wider audience. But despite its exploration and lampooning of gay subculture, its very traditional rom-com format might be one of the major factors for its lack of momentum.

Bobby (Billy Eichner) is a gay historian and podcaster on the cusp of opening the very first LGBTQ+ museum in America. Aaron (Luke McFarlane) is a hunky probate lawyer second-guessing his career choices. Both men are happy living the single life, or so they say. But when they meet at a club, sparks fly and both men find themselves falling in love. But dating as gay men in twenty-first century New York is a minefield and, as they come together, their inability to be vulnerable with each other threatens to tear them apart.

Co-written and directed by Nicholas Stoller (Forgetting Sarah Marshall), Bros takes the classic, tried and true romantic comedy format and gives it an LGBTQ spin. It dives deep into the subculture, offering insights and historical titbits for the uninitiated, while also acting as a satire, poking fun at some of intricacies and intimacies of gay dating life, as well as the co-opting of gay culture by heteronormative power structures (like movie studios, natch). Although it comes from a very white, cis gender point of view (Eichner is quick to point this out himself), the script is loving, witty and sharp. However, it is a tried-and-true format, offering a very formulaic structure that, while it uses this structure to deliver some original comedy, the film ultimately plays it very safe.

Playing it safe could be the one of the major reasons why the film has not performed very well at the box office. There is comfort in the rom-com format, for sure, and doing a spin on the familiar makes sense as a delivery system for some new ideas. But the film feels like it’s pulling its punches a little bit when it comes to really confronting issues head on. At one point Aaron tells Bobby to “tone it down”. to essentially be less gay in front of his parents, and this causes a rift between them later on. The film itself seems to have been toned down (maybe due to studio notes, who can say) and so, while funny and informative, it doesn’t feel particularly fresh.

Bros is a good time, and at almost two hours (usually too long for a comedy) never really drags like some rom-coms do in the final stretch. The leads have great chemistry, and the supporting cast is stacked with some amazing comedic talent (Bowen Yang, Jim Rash, Harvey Fierstein) who elevate the jokes to a higher plane. The versatility of the romantic comedy template is on full display, but at the end of the day feels as if it plays it a little too safe and formulaic.

Enys Men (dir. Mark Jenkin)

Cornish filmmaker continues to make waves following his breakout indie hit Bait in 2019, as he returns to Cornwall and to 16mm film to expand further capture the beauty and the mystery of his homeland. This time, Jenkin enters the realm of folk horror and psycho-geography to explore the memories of the land, as well as the people who inhabit it.

Sandra (Mary Woodvine) is a botanist living on an unnamed island, spending her days chronicling the development of a mysterious flower that blooms on a nearby cliffside. When she is not studying the local flora, she enjoys her solitude. She reads, goes for long walks, and drinks copious amounts of tea. But then Sandra starts to have strange visions; first of a young girl who seems to be haunting her cottage, then women and children dancing in the fields, and miners climbing out of a seemingly abandoned shaft. What could all these visions mean? Does it have something to do with the malevolent looking standing stone outside the cottage? Is Sandra tapping into some deep held secrets of the island or is she merely going mad?

Enys Men is light on plot and details but heavy on mood and haunting visuals. Using 16mm film and intricate sound design, Jenkin pulls the viewer into a parallel universe which is as striking as it is surreal. Already we are put off-kilter by the filmmaking techniques, but the story of an isolated woman lulls us into a rhythm before Jenkin brings the hammer down and the story breaks apart to reveal a phantasmagoria of images and sounds. Drawing on British folk horror and mythology, Jenkin successfully delves into the idea of psycho-geography, that a location can hold the memories and secrets of thousands of years and these secrets can come to affect anyone who becomes tuned to its frequencies.

Mary Woodvine is terrific as Sandra, pulling us through the utter strangeness of the experience with a grounded performance. But the star of the show is Jenkin and the visual and narrative tricks he pulls off to keep the audience unbalanced almost from the off. Perhaps the film feels a little padded out at 90 minutes, as different time periods and memories begin to collapse in on each other, but Jenkin still succeeds at taking the audience on a hell of trip, from the coast of Cornwall, to beyond the infinite.

Liam Dunn

Liam Dunn is an Australian writer living in London since 2013 where he has written film criticism for many different British outlets, including Little White Lies. Liam loves all kinds of cinema, particularly world cinema, but it is with horror, sci-fi and Westerns where you can find his heart. He reckons Werner Herzog is the world’s greatest living filmmaker and will fight anyone who says otherwise.

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