Director Richard Linklater and longtime producer Ginger Sledge
WHERE’D YOU GO, BERNADETTE? B
USA (109 mi) 2019 d: Richard Linklater Official site
There aren’t that many good movies written about a woman suffering an anxiety-ridden midlife crisis, though two that come to mind are Woody Allen’s take on the Tennessee Williams play Streetcar Named Desire, 2013 Top Ten List #7 Blue Jasmine, and Todd Haynes’ lurid lesbian romance 2015 Top Ten List #6 Carol, both starring Cate Blanchett, who stars in this film as well, and while one can appreciate the mental breakdown of Juliette Binoche in Kieślowski‘s THREE COLORS: BLUE (1993), perhaps the one that most stands out most is the legendary performance of Gena Rowlands in A Woman Under the Influence (1974) directed by her husband John Cassavetes. Even more uncommon is when the breakdown occurs in front of her children, so for that reason alone, this is rare territory, adapted from Maria Semple’s popular book published in 2012, spending a year on the best seller’s list, altering the narrative voice from the daughter to that of the mother, who disappears for about 100 pages of the book, requiring sophisticated sleuth techniques for her daughter to find her, while here the film itself reveals all the secrets, keeping viewers appraised, even as her family is kept in the dark. It’s like sinking down a black hole and disappearing from view, almost like erasing one’s identity, which then must be reformulated, or a variation on a theme of the old saying, “Physician, heal thyself,” in this case pertaining to a world-class artist that’s been stifled in life by early success, later finding herself stuck inside her own body trying to break free. Perhaps another film that feels most like an artist drowning in the enormity of their own creative impulses has to be Charlie Kaufman’s SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK (2008), which is a sprawling work of much greater complexity and ambition, while this is more performance based, accentuating the vast talent of Cate Blanchett, who turns this into an impressive tour de force, nicely directed by Linklater, who seems to specialize in clever dialogue and complex human relationships, becoming a somewhat conventional mainstream drama that is certainly one of the best mother/daughter movies seen in a while, both demonstrating intelligence and an extreme loyalty, with a wayward dad Elgie (Billy Crudup) who’s a Microsoft software genius spending inordinate amounts of time away from home at his all-consuming job, allowing this unique family relationship to be tested in extraordinary ways. Early on we are introduced to Bernadette Fox (Blanchett), who seems to be supremely frustrated by repressing her artistic inclinations, a former architectural whiz, the lone female in an old boy’s club, yet surprisingly resourceful and independent, but after four miscarriages and a difficult delivery, it seems she has sacrificed her dreams, neglecting her own life, with all her energy fully invested into motherhood and raising her gifted daughter Bee (Emma Nelson), now 14, who is ready to cash in on a promise her parents made to her years earlier that if she graduated middle school with a perfect report card she could ask for whatever she wanted, and after some serious consideration, she wants to take a family trip to Antarctica over their Christmas break. Her shocked mother recalls it used to be a pony she wanted, desperately responding “Ponies are cute, and maybe not as much trouble as we thought.”
Backing up a bit, the picture of Bernadette is one of befuddlement, identified in an early animated drawing of kayaks in Antarctica all traveling in a pack until one veers away, swerving away from the group, pushing ahead alone. Bernadette has grown so disgusted with the status quo, all the parent meetings, visits with neighbors, and other social activities that she simply wants to avoid them all, preferring to live as a recluse, spending the better part of her days whining about living in Seattle, which in her case is a picture of eternal frustration. Her anti-social bent is so aggravated that it becomes humorous, as she literally hates everyone except Bee and her husband. While she and her daughter are on the same wavelength, with her daughter adoring her just exactly the way she is, stubborn, standoffish, and set in her ways, preferring to do things her own way rather than follow the standards society sets. In this sense she’s bit of a rock star, filthy rich beyond one’s dreams, Elgie making a killing in the Microsoft industry, driving a luxury Jaguar when picking her daughter up daily from school, doing her best to avoid the “other” mothers who form a club of hovering conformity, all praising their children and their schools like cheerleaders, not knowing the first thing about what life is really life, living in their suburban bubble safely tucked away for security purposes. While the rest of the neighborhood resembles cookie cutter styles all looking the same, each one manicured, looking spotless, Bernadette has a sprawling lot infested by weeds and natural growth, about twenty times the size of the other lots, but certainly not attended to, where even the house is an unfinished mansion that used to be a girl’s reform school that has never been restored, which was the original plan when they bought it, but she simply never got around to it, so the house at the end of the block resembles the home where Vincent Price lived in EDWARD SCISSORHANDS (1990). All this is a diversion, however, as it typifies Bernadette’s rather hilarious take on the rest of the world, viewing people as one might think of rush hour congestion, a stranglehold of trouble best avoided, preferring to spend her days puttering about, basically complaining about everything under the son. Elgie is so tied up at work that he barely notices, or cares, while she devotes every last fiber of her body to her daughter, making them best of friends, an unbreakable bond, with Bee growing sensitive about the way her father occasionally criticizes her mother, believing he is mistaken, that he simply doesn’t understand what a marvel of invention she can be. But it’s not just Elgie, her true nemesis is her next door neighbor Audrey (Kristen Wiig), that pleasant sort who is always happy, volunteering her time for school projects, leading a sunny life where every problem can be fixed, except for that dark cloud at the end of the block that is a true embarrassment, going on the warpath against Bernadette, who she finds to be criminally neglectful, even going so far as to fake having her foot run over in a blatant attempt to drive away from her, playing the victim card to draw attention, wearing a fake cast on her foot afterwards, taking her lie just a little bit too far in her morally pretentious self-righteousness.
But it’s the trip to Antarctica that Bernadette dreads, sending her into a swoon of depression, worried about seasickness, having to contend with fellow passengers, and being stuck in tightly restricted space with so many others, going on a panic attack just thinking about it. Her rather unique daily routine is talking to a Siri-like computer virtual assistant from New Delhi called Manjula, ordering an entire weather-appropriate wardrobe for the trip that mysteriously arrives at her door, yet she has to contend with the ravings of her neighbor who wants to eradicate her blackberry bushes, claiming they’ve become a creeping, crawling mess invading all her perfectly manicured lawn projects, hiring a landscape specialist to have them removed, which Bernadette readily agrees to just to get this woman out of her hair, but when the excavation trucks arrive, she fumes with resentment, having Manjula design a hilarious warning sign to her neighbor, suggesting it’s a hazard zone, so stay as far away as possible. Of course, during the next rain, right when Audrey is having her annual school function basically praising the parents and all their volunteer teamwork, serving drinks and tasty treats, the barren mountainside (minus the blackberry vines) above her home caves in, creating a mudslide that crashes into Audrey’s home, destroying her precious lawn and one wall to her home, driving the guests away in droves, with the colorful hazard sign conspicuously sticking out, like a message sent from hell. Audrey is incensed, blaming Bernadette in a rampage in front of Bee, claiming she’s a public nuisance, that no one likes her, that she doesn’t belong in this neighborhood (while claiming a love for Bee), and people would appreciate it if they’d leave as quickly as possible. Bee comes to her mom’s defense, passionately claiming Audrey doesn’t know a thing about either Bernadette or herself, and for that matter is clueless about her own son, who gets high after school every day to avoid having to be that perfect person in front of his wholesome family. Viewers begin to appreciate the close bond between them, but Bernadette’s dread of the anticipated trip causes her to unravel, even trying to squirm out of it last minute with a fake emergency dental procedure, but thinks better of it, instead going on the deep end with Manjula ordering prescription medicine to combat seasickness, which turns out to be extremely dangerous experimental medicine used by the Russian KGB with their gulag prison population, known for causing permanent damage afterwards, so the required face-to-face meeting with the local pharmacist doesn’t exactly go as planned, as they are horrified that anyone would ever consider ordering such a loathsome product, creating something of an international scandal when the FBI arrives at her door, hilariously represented by Agent Marcus Strang, James Urbaniak from Hal Hartley’s wacky comedies Henry Fool (1997) and Fay Grim (2006), whose revelations are like a breath of fresh air in this film, as they simply come out of nowhere. Now the Russian mob (the real identity of Manjula) has stolen her passwords and bank account information, leaving all their assets openly exposed to theft, where they could soon be wiped out entirely. And suddenly on a dime, despite the rather screwball comedy element of much of this, relishing the absurdity of it all, the mood turns deadly serious.
Again backtracking a bit, Audrey has a partner-in-crime, a gossip partner sharing all the dirt on Bernadette, Soo-Lin (Zoë Chao), who has mysteriously wormed her way into Elgie’s working life, becoming a valuable member of his support team, seen by Bernadette earlier (before she got the job) in the library (Bernadette’s safe place due to the architectural design) googling YouTube information on Elgie, now officially part of his life away from home. Bernadette describes these overly fussy women as gnats, “Because they’re annoying, but not so annoying that you actually want to spend valuable energy on them.” In the book, Elgie and Soo-Lin actually end up having an affair, where she gets pregnant, so he builds a lavish home for her. Nothing of the sort happens here, but she does poison Elgie’s mind with all the hot gossip on his wife, making her out to be public enemy number one, as if she’s not in her right mind. Elgie grows so concerned that he suspects she needs professional help, turning to a therapist himself when she refuses, none other than Dr. Kurtz (Judy Greer), a humorous reference to Marlon Brando in APOCALYPSE NOW (1979), an officer who went over the edge, losing his sanity to the horror of war. Dr. Kurtz has deep concerns about Bernadette’s mental stability, where somehow Kurtz, Soo-Lin, the FBI, and Elgie are sitting around the living room unearthing the madness of Bernadette, so of course she walks in, finding herself in the midst of a psychiatric intervention she wants no part of, trusting none of the usual suspects who couldn’t begin to understand her life and how she operates. Nonetheless, Elgie, choosing sanity and stability, is in favor of taking the Antarctica trip with his daughter while confining Bernadette to a psychiatric hospital under the care of “Colonel Kurtz,” which is what she calls her, though she may as well be Nurse Ratched. With that Bernadette disappears out the bathroom window (like the Beatles song in reverse), where it’s only the miraculous ability of their wonderchild daughter Bee (short for Balakrishna), the only one who truly knows her mother, able to see through the muddled soothsayer tea leaves of Dr. Kurtz and the undermining Soo-Lin, two gossip queens who have distracted and perhaps even disconnected Elgie from his marital vows. Among the revelations Bee discovers is a YouTube essay on the most influential architects, mentioning Bernadette Fox as “one of architecture’s true enigmas,” the recipient of a MacArthur genius grant, building two historical landmark constructions in Los Angeles twenty years ago before disappearing with her husband to the Pacific Northwest and never heard from again. Of course, one must be willing to travel to the ends of the earth to find your true love, which Bee is more than willing to do, challenging her Dad for losing faith along the way, knowing her mother would never leave her, setting out to Antarctica (actually shot in Greenland) to find her, turning into a heartwarming thriller, filled with plenty of misdirection and intrigue, including an impressive turn from Troian Bellisario as a scientist enlisting Bernadette’s help, but cleverly resolving all loose ends to the upbeat music of Cyndi Lauper - Time After Time (Official Video) - YouTube (4:56), played earlier in the car with Bee and Bernadette literally dancing to the music like gleeful little kids, again playing over the end credits to a remarkable set of architectural drawings that somehow spring into life, ending on a positive beat. It’s a wonderful way to explore the challenging detours of motherhood, facing career decisions that men simply don’t have to make, with a closing dedication to Linklater’s own mother Diane who died in 2017 during the shooting of the film, movingly identified as “my Bernadette.”