Where’d You Go, Bernadette (2019)

Dir. Richard Linklater. Starring Cate Blanchett, Emma Nelson, Billy Crudup

Where’d You Go, Bernadette is a truly rare thing: a movie that runs at about 105 minutes that really ought to run about 135. Anyone who’s watched an Oscar movie will know that the opposite is so much more often the experience, but like Nocturnal Animals, another recent movie with a stunning lead performance from one of our great actresses and middling reviews biting at its heels, this is a picture which would benefit from a little more time. There’s a chase in the end, whimsically happy-sad in the manner of some mid-level Pixar, which leads Bee (Nelson) and her father, Elgin (Crudup), to Antarctica to find Bernadette (Blanchett). There’s a moment where Elgin reveals to Bee, who has been the engine of this quest, that he’s going to leave his job at Microsoft and step back towards a family he’s been stepping away from. There’s a moment where Bee and Elgin listen to Bernadette, happier now than she’s been in years, going on about the research station at the South Pole she’s going to get to design. There’s a hug. None of this is bad, but all of it is a little rushed, and if the whole movie were as needlessly chipper as it is in the final fifteen minutes, then sure, Where’d You Go, Bernadette would be middling at best. (One wishes they’d gone with the ending from the book, but here’s the thing, and I promise this is the final non-Linklater movie reference I’ll make here: if we really penalized movies for choosing cheerier endings than the ones the adapted material provides, we wouldn’t have just given Jojo Rabbit an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay, would we.) The final rush keeps Where’d You Go, Bernadette from being a really, really good movie; the stuff that comes before ensures we keep a “really” in that description.

While the other pretentious kino lovers and me were waxing rhapsodic about how Richard Linklater depicts his rapture with the passage of time and shapes it to his will with the patience typically associated with tectonic plates, Linklater himself has been doing something more practical. In this decade he has become a master of verbal fights and tussles and battles which are the rarest thing in movies: gripping. He understands the way that people in the audience will feel stress in every moment, because he has designed the scene in such a way that the people in it only blow their tops when given an opening to do so. Before Midnight has that sequence towards the end which gets longer every time I watch the movie, but that is a tremendous fight because it makes sense that Celine should be incensed. She knew that Jesse would try to move their family from France to the United States in order for him to get some scraps of time with his son, she knew that it would be a sacrifice she would need to bear, and she knew that even after she warned him against it hours back, he would still ask. I think about Everybody Wants Some!!, the best hang in Texas since they executed Nathan Lee, and that scene where McReynolds loses at ping-pong and cows a room full of guys who try to hide it as best they can. Linklater gets tension. He understands how people stepping out of that line of politeness, or courtesy, can become a victorious bellicosity against people who are unprepared to parry it, or can be the source of a real row for people who welcome the fight. Thus a really fine scene in Where’d You Go, Bernadette, where things come to a head between Bernadette and her equally difficult (but far more socially acceptable) neighbor, Audrey (Kristen Wiig). What might have been a throwaway scene turns out to be a critically important one. In her granola way, Audrey tells Bernadette she’d like her to remove the blackberry vines from her yard (but without weed-killers or pesticides), and Bernadette, in her quietly aggressive way, does not advise her that it would erode the hillside in potentially ruinous ways; Bernadette speeds away from Audrey in the pick-up line at school, and despite the melodrama of Audrey’s performance, the walking boot she’s wearing suggests that Bernadette may well have smushed Audrey’s foot; the rain comes and there is a mudslide which rather uncouthly interrupts a fundraiser at Audrey’s home by interrupting the structural integrity of her walls and the spotlessness of her floors. In short, when Bernadette is driving back home with Bee and Audrey confronts her, we know there is a rivalry, a dislike, and by the end of the fight an antipathy. Bernadette, in her offhandedly antisocial way, sounds a little too flip about the genuinely unsettling events of the afternoon, while Audrey, pushed well past the limit of a much more patient woman, crosses the line by drawing Bee into the fight. It’s a great scene, and it’s great because it’s not there to wow us with Acting, or cow us the way McReynolds’ teammates were cowed. This is characterization, simply, and it gives us the limits of Bernadette’s patience and plenty of reason to side with her.

I wonder if Bernadette is, in fact, too easy to side with, or if Blanchett is simply so easy to root for that we pull for her against all comers, or if Bee’s eagerness and protectiveness in service of Bernadette makes it easy to pull for the one she defends. Maybe it’s all three. Blanchett is not a woman we see a lot of in the movies, which is to say she seems like she’d be difficult to cope with in close proximity, even though that difficulty is neither tempered with virility to pique our voyeurism nor a drug addiction. Elgin decides quickly (this movie needs another half-hour!) that Manjula affair is the proof that his wife is profoundly unhinged, mentally ill enough that he wants her to check into a mental institution over Christmas while he takes their daughter on the trip to Antarctica that she’d been so afraid of. It is possible, perhaps even probable that Bernadette would do well with some kind of therapy; it is certain, however, that Elgin is the devil, and this is what I mean when I wonder if it’s not too easy to side with Bernadette. Soo-Lin (Zoe Chao), his new admin and one of Bernadette’s rivals from their children’s hippie school, worships Elgin, watching his TED talk (the devil, seriously) with a look on her face most people save for their pornography. Linklater insinuates his way through most of this, and I love that no one has to say the word “affair” or “emotional affair” or “are you sleeping with her” or whatever else it is people would say if Noah Baumbach someone else had made this movie. The puzzle pieces are there, and this is not a complicated jigsaw puzzle to put together, not for Bernadette and not for us. Maybe Elgin is not thinking about how this will end with Bernadette successfully institutionalized and his daughter off at a boarding school so he can play house with his fawning inferior from the office, not in so many words, and yet it’s all we can see in the scenes they share together and, ultimately, the one that Bernadette shares with them.

Aside from the sympathy she gains from having this awful husband, Blanchett’s Bernadette is a mood. She’s an insomniac who falls asleep at the pharmacy while she waits for them to work through her prescription, which is being toned down from “drugs the Soviet doctors used to break prisoners’ wills” to “Xanax which isn’t mixed in with a bunch of other prescription meds in a jar for the aesthetics.” She is hilarious when she’s dismissing people and hilarious when she’s panicking about the Drake Passage. I don’t know that I’ve ever related to a character from a movie more in her total fear of contacting people on the phone, and thus her use of Manjula (in fact a sophisticated Russian piece of spyware) to do just about everything. She gets a vest for the trip to Antarctica, and she loves it. In a lot of ways, I think this requires Blanchett, who is one of the most equanimous actresses in understanding her characters; she does not judge them, nor make fun of them, nor belittle them. She’s funny, or hard-edged, or pitiable because Bernadette is as natural in her hands as fractiousness is in Linklater’s. What Where’d You Go, Bernadette reminds me of in these moments, down to the brilliant daughter and the architecture background, is Next to Normal. The trauma of Next to Normal is significantly louder, but what the story boils down to is much the same thing. At a certain point, a husband who is tired of his wife’s decay from her young and brilliant days looks for the shortest possible route to fix her, no matter what she wants or how ineffective that fix will be for everyone but him. When Elgin brings in a doctor (Judy Greer), an FBI agent (James Urbaniak), and his would-be mistress into the same room for an intervention with his wife, he’s not all that different from Dan in Act II of Next to Normal, who helps Diana remember the events which led to the death of their infant son but refuses, despite her desperation, to tell her what their son’s name was. (“Dad!” Natalie cries, amazed at her kindly father’s cruelty; Bee fills much the same role here when she upbraids Elgin for wanting to go back to work after her mom has disappeared in the middle of an intervention.) Elgin, not to the movie’s credit, has a eureka moment that slaps us upside the head with its suddenness while he and Bee are chatting in Antarctica: you can’t stop a creative person from creating, and I’ve held her back, he realizes.

Whether or not women can “have it all” is an exceptionally pernicious red herring for us as a people, I think, and Where’d You Go, Bernadette, sidesteps it with absolute deftness. Bernadette, a truly gifted architect (as evidenced from some funny talking head cameos from Laurence Fishburne, Megan Mulally, and Steve Zahn, of all people), stopped practicing after an incredibly ambitious project of hers was literally destroyed by the avaricious capitalist next door; three years of labor into a genuinely local and highly personal project is turned into a parking lot, which is maybe a little on the nose but whatever. This is followed shortly by Bee, who is born with a heart which is too small, and it is extremely touch-and-go until the surgeries work and baby Bee gets well. Bernadette turns the passion in her life into mothering Bee, but never finds a way back into her architecture, nor does Elgin, who spends more and more time away from his family, encourage her to do so. The movie never makes Bernadette’s role as a parent anything less than her great joy, and it never presents her withdrawal from the world of architecture which, it is said multiple times, sets her “heart racing,” as anything less than a tragedy. It’s what makes the ending, which, again, is fairly cheesy in practice, one which made me smile anyway. Her daughter is the one who gives her the go-ahead to leave for the South Pole for a while, to get the lay of the land before she can begin designing the research station. One joy must volley to the other side, with the promise that the volley will be returned.

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