Maria Semple’s novel Where’d You Go, Bernadette is a product that soothes as it softens. The collage-like form gives an impression of cleverness with minimal strain, its faux-documentary excerpts labeled so carefully that readers need never puzzle to fit them together, its author scarcely troubling to disguise her hand while sliding from one narrator to the next. The book’s satirical passages and intermittent parodies are similarly challenge-free, characterizing their targets as having too much money and pretension or too little, too ostentatious a set of beliefs or none at all—which is to say, lying safely outside the thick part of the bell curve where a popular novelist finds her audience. As for the theme of a woman’s creative urges being dammed up by years of marriage and child-rearing, until the pressure threatens to crack her insides and flood everyone around her, a few madcap, picaresque adventures and snap reconciliations effect both the heroine’s liberation and a return to familial order. It’s certainly not a worthless novel. I live with two people who enjoyed it. But if we still have museums a hundred years from now, and books, a curator might tuck a copy of Where’d You Go, Bernadette into the vitrine labeled “The Literature of Reassurance, 2000–2020.”
Richard Linklater, by contrast with Semple, is an experimentalist to the core, despite having just made an appropriately fresh-scented, easy-to-apply film version of Bernadette. Even when taking on a commercial project, Linklater has usually sneaked a twist into his filmmaking, as when he put together an actual kids’ band for School of Rock, which made the picture into a quasi-documentary. His best movies—including the Before trilogy and the incomparable Boyhood—were shot as forays into unknown time. At the far edge of his work—A Scanner Darkly—he’s been the only filmmaker (Ridley Scott included) to risk a faithful approximation of Philip K. Dick’s writing, overlaying the real and the imagined in a single set of images, until the audience is almost cross-eyed with the strain of comprehension.
With Bernadette, though, he’s played it straight. If you like the novel, Linklater will give you what you’ve paid for, minus some incidental plot complications that would only have been in your way. If you haven’t read the novel, he will treat you to the story of a forceful, eccentric, tortured woman in her middle years who at last pulls a Houdini on the straitjacket of her life—a rather stained and moldy straitjacket at that—which you know from the start must come off. You’ll laugh. You’ll be reassured. You’ll even shed a happy tear. Thank God Cate Blanchett did the movie with him.
Linklater has previously worked with some excellent actresses, but none with Blanchett’s magical ability to pull bouquets of line readings out of her ears, her elbows, the thin air. As Bernadette Fox, an anxiety-ridden, reclusive, but infinitely sharp-witted architect who hasn’t designed anything for 20 years, Blanchett does full justice to the character’s suffering—manifested in her wary sidelong glances, moments of panicked stiffness, and blurts of sarcasm—while reveling in the innate energy that makes this woman such a strangely volatile depressive. Blanchett rambunctiously gargles her closed vowels to show Bernadette’s an American, throws her arms and voice high in the air to race through a recitation of complaints to an old friend, drops into a rasping yet purring contralto when she wants to send out a zinger, and never deigns to consult anyone’s sense of rhythm but her own. She’s reluctant to go on a cruise to Antarctica with her teenage daughter and husband, she says, because it would “require me to be surrounded by… ” then lets the pause tease you until she’s ready to come out with a clinching, tickling “peo-ple.” The character’s unease is palpable, but so is the fun Blanchett’s having.
That’s crucial—not only because the movie is meant to amuse but because it’s often as much a comedy of misbehavior as is its current competition, the preadolescent gross-out Good Boys. Bernadette is of course less raunchy, and far less ignorant, than the middle school kids who are the vehicles and butts of the humor in Good Boys. Even so, a lot of Where’d You Go, Bernadette is devoted to wringing laughs from the character’s insouciant slovenliness, habits of self-medication, foul-mouthed assaults on propriety, and wanton destructiveness. She achieves her greatest success in the latter category by allowing her garden’s retaining wall to crumble, sending a deluge of mud into the home of a neighbor (Kristen Wiig) whose only offense is being clean, orderly, chipper, and a little too rah-rah at the school where Bernadette, too, is a parent.
Given that the movie is entirely on Bernadette’s side, you’re free to enjoy the mess. Despite her many faults, Bernadette maintains a loving, warm, singing-in-the-car relationship with her daughter Bee (a delightfully alert Emma Nelson), can list a MacArthur award on her CV (unlike the neighbor, whose credits are apparently limited to Christmas cookies), and is not played by Wiig, who is busy throughout deploying her finest exasperated flibbertigibbet shtick. Let her drown in the muck!
But there’s another side to Bernadette as well, involving grief and frustration, into which Linklater invests rather more conviction than does the novel. Semple sketches a tale of woe in one section of the book but then edges away quickly. Linklater hooks the audience with some introductory slapstick and then has the guts to allow the sorrow to seep in. The pervasive sadness eventually makes good on the damp, peeling rot of the old house that Bernadette shares with her very patient husband (Billy Crudup), converting this dilapidation from a sign of quirkiness to a condition of the soul. Blanchett, too, gradually seems to bring the gloom inside her, no longer hiding impishly behind the character’s feistiness and big, round sunglasses balanced on the most prominent cheekbones in show business, but playing Bernadette’s guilt and dread with naked honesty. Linklater made a comparable transition from raucousness to sustained solemnity in his previous film, the funereal road movie Last Flag Flying. In Bernadette, he’s done it even better.
But then it’s over—because the plot kicks in, Bernadette’s picaro adventure to Antarctica takes off, and with a wash of turquoise polar light all is forgiven, forgotten, healed, and made whole. Somehow Kristen Wiig no longer deserves a mudslide—she’s nice! Billy Crudup no longer seethes with worry and recrimination—he’s contrite! Emma Nelson will not break Bernadette’s heart by growing up—she’ll remain the good child forever! And (spoiler alert) Bernadette is happy. By abandoning her home and family, she miraculously gets them back, and with them a revived career.
I don’t think wish fulfillment has ever disregarded my wishes more thoroughly. I had bought into both the brio and the gravity of Blanchett’s performance, the underlying desperation and the raised middle finger violence. I had been carried along by Linklater’s storytelling, with its deepening shadows. What I wanted was a resolution that would be true to the art in this movie—because the film is ostensibly about an artist’s need to create. What I got was a shell game.
Plus some gorgeous vistas of icebergs and ice shelves. Their presence, according to the story, helps redeem Bernadette. Just between us (spoiler alert), they’re melting.
In Give Me Liberty, a film by Kirill Mikhanovsky and Alice Austen that’s as independent as its title, the average shot shows the interior of a rickety medical transport van as it rattles at inadvisable speed along miles of pot-holed streets in Milwaukee, its seats jammed to overflowing with a mixed lot of the challenged (physically and developmentally), elderly, Russian-speaking, criminal, or some combination of the above, all being bounced, shaken, and moved to voluble protest or song while the driver radios lies to his dispatcher and guns into the next turn. I take this to be the filmmakers’ image of the American polity, proposed cheerfully and lovingly but with full awareness of our flaws. We’re not a melting pot, but more of a diesel-fueled corn popper on wheels.
Set over the course of a single winter’s day, cast mostly with nonprofessionals collected here and there, and directed as if Mikhanovsky was trying to keep his camera one location ahead of the bailiffs, Give Me Liberty motors along behind young Vic (Chris Galust), the slender, fine-featured, 20-something driver who provides the film’s point of view. It’s the perspective of a thoroughly acculturated Russian immigrant who has nothing in life but his work and a crate of old vinyl. Vic rooms with his dementia-stricken grandfather, perhaps on the down-low, in what appears to be subsidized housing and scrambles with great responsibility to serve the overload of variously needy clients who are his substitute for a social circle.
Over the course of the film’s exceptionally chaotic day, Vic’s schedule gets shot to hell and his circle expands. His grandfather and about a dozen other elderly Russians demand to be transported to the funeral of one of their friends—an unwanted complication that fills Vic’s van with squabbling, fussy, accordion-playing people. Their entirely unofficial addition to his passenger list sets Vic at odds and then in complicity with Tracy (Lauren “Lolo” Spencer), a smart, self-possessed, wheelchair-using young client from the black side of Milwaukee, and introduces him to a loud, brashly convivial interloper, Dima (Max Stoianov), a Russian with a boxer’s physique, bloody knuckles, and no proven connection to the dear “aunt” whose funeral he insists on attending.
Death looms over the story, obviously—not only the death of the old friend, whose interment and boozy wake provide a riotous centerpiece to the picture, but the deaths at police hands of residents of the black neighborhoods, which have taken to the streets in protest. More generally, Vic deals every day with infirm people who are still clutching at life, and with people who are vital but too often hidden from mainstream eyes: the adults at Milwaukee’s Eisenhower Center—a training and work facility for people with disabilities—who appear in the film as themselves. They’re all in “the land of the free.” So the dialogue reminds us, without irony—and so does the talent show at the Eisenhower Center, where one young man’s act consists of lifting his arms in the air as a boom box plays “Born in the USA.” The question for Vic, after he’s spent a wild day taking care of everybody else’s needs, is what he wants to do with his own freedom.
Give Me Liberty harbors no illusions of domestic tranquility. A mourner may claim that in the former homeland “we all lived together in peace,” but the others at the graveside are meanwhile arguing about whether to sing in Russian, Belarussian, or Yiddish. Lovers are betrayed in the course of the film, brothers are arrested, and one highly dubious alliance is formed. We may also assume that the next time Vic takes out the van, the shocks will still be terrible and the streets bumpy. No matter. America will lie open before him—Milwaukee, at least. Here it is as Mikhanovsky and Austen see it, in dowdy, frozen, spread-out, contentious glory: a gift to Vic, even if he’s only starting to realize it, and a gift to you.
A landscape film, a group portrait, and a reflection on words—the power they can represent, and the power that is sometimes used against them—Marjoleine Boonstra’s documentary The Miracle of the Little Prince takes off from the fact that Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Le Petit Prince has been translated into more than 300 languages. Among them are a growing number of tongues that have been suppressed or otherwise endangered. Boonstra travels to meet some of the translators of Le Petit Prince who are engaged in linguistic rescue missions, listens to them speak about their lives, and learns how this artfully simple fable soaks up meaning from vastly different circumstances.
Reasonably enough, she begins where the book is set, in North Africa. There, with the Moroccan mountains in the background, Lahbib Fouad talks about translating the text into the Berber dialect of Tamazight—the only language he had known until he was sent to school and told to his shock that he had to learn something called Arabic. He and his friend the poet Omar Taous describe Le Petit Prince as “a mirror to the Berber people.” It was natural to translate the book, Fouad says. He knows a lot of words for things in the desert.
A world away, in the snowy north of Finland, the translator Kerttu Vuolab also recalls being deprived of her language at school—she speaks Sámi—saying she felt as if her throat had been slit. In her loneliness, she discovered Le Petit Prince. “The book became my friend, and still is.” In El Salvador, Boonstra shows Jorge Lemus consulting with three grandmothers to refine his translation into Nawat, a language whose ban was enforced with a massacre in 1932. There is no pre-Columbian word for “rose,” Lemus notes, pointing to a difficulty in the translation, but is proud to say that the rose in the fable symbolizes Saint-Exupéry’s Salvadoran wife, Consuelo. As for Tashi Kyi and Noyontsang Lamokyab, Tibetans exiled in Paris, they struggle to retain their language while having lost their country and their families. It’s not far-fetched to say they’re like the Little Prince himself, trying to make friends in the desert while thinking about his home on Asteroid B-612.
Sitting in a world capital, writing in an English that’s spoken almost everywhere and is just as widely abused, it’s easy to despair of literature and to dismiss as sentimental the idea that a book might speak to people in many different conditions. Boonstra has evidence to the contrary. It’s worth listening to—in Tamazight, Sámi, Nawat, Tibetan, or any tongue you can name.