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THE WHALE - COMPULSION AND ITS COMPLEXITIES

THE WHALE – COMPULSION AND ITS COMPLEXITIES

SYNOPSIS

Charlie (Brendan Fraser) is a reclusive English teacher who lives with severe obesity and struggles with a compulsive eating disorder. He teaches online classes, but always leaves his webcam off, out of fear for his appearance. Despite living alone, he is cared for by his friend and nurse, Liz (Hong Chau). Even so, he is alone, living daily only with guilt, for having abandoned Ellie (Sadie Sink), his now teenage daughter whom he left behind with her mother Mary (Samantha Morton), by falling in love with a man. Alan, his partner, commits suicide, leaving Charlie devastated by the loss. Now, he will seek to reconnect with his teenage daughter and make amends for his past mistakes. To do so, he asks Ellie to visit him without telling her mother, and she accepts, on the only condition that he help her rewrite an essay for school. The plot is permeated by the visit of Thomas (Ty Simpkins), a young missionary who runs away from his own story and brings up the guilt and religious conflict that led Allan to suicide.

Although The Whale focuses on Charlie's morbid obesity, I would like to address other aspects of the plot, such as grief over the loss of a loved one, the guilt experienced over abandoning one's family to live a great love, obesity prejudice, love between individuals of the same gender relationships, parental alienation, shame, social rejection, religious ideologies, and more.

In Charlie's case we see binge eating as a psychosomatic symptom expressing his psychic pain, but it could be the addition to substances like cocaine, alcohol, gambling, etc. The eating compulsion is undeniably visible in Charlie's case, while other compulsions can be more easily hidden, because their effects are often harder to detect, or more socially accepted in our society. Because we live in a sociocultural moment in which the dictatorship of aesthetic standards and so-called healthy behavior is in evidence, the poetic license of using a morbidly obese character brings the issue of addictions to the fore in an indelible way.

Eating disorders are difficult to treat, because it is not possible to avoid the first sip like with alcohol, nor the first dose of any other substance, it is necessary to learn to eat respecting the needs of one's own body, a fact increasingly rare, because people seem to be no longer able to eat naturally and instinctively, following diets and nutritional advice increasingly imposing, as much as the demand for an athletic and Instagram’s body style.

The scenario seems to represent Charlie himself, dark, closed, oppressive, a soul trapped in a disabled body that is practically immobile because of being overweight. Charlie suffers the consequences of overeating and his consequent obesity, such as high blood pressure and heart failure. As much as there are advocates against fatphobia, it is a fact that obesity is a risk factor for health, and an important health issue.

Charlie's grief over the dramatic loss of Alan is the backdrop for a heightened depression, and the reason for the bond between him and Liz, Alan's sister, his partner. Alan was depressed before his suicide, facing an existential crisis generated by his rigid religious upbringing, in which affect between individuals of the same gender was considered a crime against the spirit and against God. Alan cannot stand living in sin, throws himself off a bridge, and Charlie is not even allowed to go and recognize his body, because their relationship was not socially recognized.

The film deals with issues pertinent to gay relationships and the rights of affective union in LGBTQA+ relationships, which although some important advances have already been achieved, there is still a long way to go. A similar situation can be observed in hetero affective relationships, where leaving the family and children to live a great love suffers similar criticism and retaliation, including parental alienation, which presents both explicit and veiled characteristics, either by financial punishment or limitation of cohabitation according to the amount of money dedicated to the initial family. The subsequent family may remain in the social underground, even without obtaining legal rights, such as marriage or stable union, and access to social benefits pertinent to each social and professional situation.

Charlie accumulates all the guilt, that of abandoning his daughter, that of not having been enough for Alan to want to live, that of not being able to control his compulsion. All of Charlie's aggression is turned against himself, while at the same time he projects onto others the kindness and gentleness that we see in his always kind, always gentle behavior. Charlie excuses himself all the time, doesn't feel he has the right to exist, and walks towards his own death, in a self-destructive behavior that shakes the audience and the people around him.

What would be more difficult for us when we look at Charlie? His deformed and handicapped body due to morbid obesity, his grotesque way of eating, characteristic of all kinds of addiction, in which addiction is more important than anything else? I think that the aggressiveness directed against himself is an unconscious trigger for the rejection that he arouses, a capacity for destruction that we unconsciously perceive, which we fear to contact relation to ourselves.

The repulsion for his image would be the symbolic repulsion to his guilt, self-centered aggressiveness, and, why not, to the positive projection of his shadow, for his docility, affection, and companionship are experienced in a shadowy way, projected onto others, in a fantasy generated by guilt that anyone would be better and more capable than he is. Charlie has the gift of seeing the best in people, and Ellie has the gift of detecting the shadow, both in the authors she reads and in Thomas, which arouses her distrust, as she recognizes in Thomas the transgression and conflict that permeate his story.

Although the critics consider the presence of Thomas and his parallel story unnecessary to the plot, I consider this character to be crucial, for his naivety and willingness to want to save Charlie's soul, even if in an automated way due to his religious issues, the relationship between Thomas and the other characters reveals the nuances of each character's character. Liz shows her aggressiveness and rebellion towards the religious issues that have affected her life and led her brother to suicide, Charlie confronts the biblical passages when talking about love, and indirectly questions a divinity that punishes love, by condemning the pleasures of the flesh, exposing the punishment to his own body, In a clear dissociation between psyche and matter, in which the body would be the tormentor that prevents the psyche, or the soul, from ascending to heaven and to God, bringing a symbology to the eating compulsion, in which the body, and sexuality, especially homosexuality, in this case, would be an impediment to spiritual life and the plenitude of psychic life.

Thomas himself transgresses, stealing the church's money to pursue a missionary work that he considers more legitimate and profound than what missionary Jeff demanded of him. Thomas himself suffers the consequences and punishments of his addiction to marijuana, which is minimized at first by Ellie, but which he emphasizes dominated his whole life, and that yes, it was an addiction, confronting the popular acceptance that smoking marijuana does no harm, while several patients have their lives paralyzed by the inertia and apathy caused by the excesses of the use of this substance. By the way, the cinema itself usually romanticizes the use of substances such as alcohol, cocaine, and controlled medication.

Would the drugs used for weight loss be an addition of the present times, attenuated under the facade of health care and appearance, fitting individuals to the established aesthetic standards? How would the use of drugs to lose weight, (even if in the form of side effects) sleep, wake up, gain muscle mass, etc., be different?

We live in a society where the separation of mind and body has reached drastic consequences. Instead of listening to our body to understand its needs for food, movement, rest, we treat our bodies as machines of efficiency, or we just forget that we are individuals who do not exist without the physical body, and that this physical body is not at the service of our minds but forms a unity with our psyche. The body expresses the psychic symbolisms, and the psyche expresses itself through the body, one does not exist without the other. It is not possible for us to evolve psychically or spiritually through the subjugation of the body, just as there is no possibility of life with the annihilation of the planet.

Charlie knows that he is going to die and tries to salvage his relationship with his daughter. Despite his guilt at having abandoned his daughter, we see that Charlie was prevented from living with his daughter by his ex-wife, who felt ashamed and humiliated at having been left for a man. Mary is a user of alcohol and tranquilizers, both Mary and Charlie use addiction as a way to deal with grief, or at least to numb it. Ellie has relationship problems, being accused of being mean by her own mother, but Charlie projects numerous qualities in his daughter, and clings to an essay Ellie had written four years ago about the novel Moby Dick, whose whale gives the film its name. Whale is an embarrassing nickname given to obese individuals compared to the large animal.

Charlie is fascinated by Ellie's writing, which he considers exceptional. In the essay, Ellie talks about the description of the whale as a way for the author to defend himself from his own emptiness, and the fantasy that killing the whale would be the solution to the character's life. Ellie has a talent for identifying the author's psychic defenses of the work, and she denounces, in a bare way, the ineffectiveness of the action in relation to the author's emotional state. She sees beyond the poetic license of the work, unraveling the soul of the author through his characters and narrative, and this is what fascinates Charlie, the capacity that his daughter has to see the other beyond the persona, and perhaps this is her fantasy that a rescue of the relationship between the two is possible.

Charlie sacrifices his own health to save money for Ellie, and his selfishness and aggressiveness towards Liz is the only one evident in the whole story. Liz cares for him and his physical disability, bringing food and monitoring his vital signs, and feels betrayed when she learns that Charlie had money saved for Ellie, while she had to walk in the snow to bring supplies to him when his car was broken. The relationship between Liz and Charlie is full of aggressive and passive aggressive moments. At the same time that she takes care of Charlie, she criticizes his way of eating, a common fact in living with people with compulsions of any kind, and even more accentuated in socially visible compulsions, such as for food and alcohol, although the so-called social alcoholism is still much more softened in the eyes of society.

Ellie, in turn, takes out all her aggressiveness on Charlie, takes out all her hurt and resentment, which he accepts without question. He accepts her aggression in the same way that he accepts all the aggression and rejection he receives, which he feels he deserves. Addict patients consider themselves deserving of the rejection and scorn of others, because they themselves reject and scorn their addiction, considered as a lack of character, rather than as a symbolic manifestation of their suffering.

Ellie's essay is one of the protagonists of the plot and seems to represent the possibility of bonding between Charlie and Ellie, for it is through literature, and the proposal to rewrite her essays for school that they resume a troubled relationship full of hurt and questioning of a daughter who has found herself abandoned by her father. Charlie uses the essay almost as a mantra of well-being, it is Thomas' reading of the essay that calms him and brings him out of a crisis. The essay represents the lost bond with his daughter, and the only way to know her that he has access to over the past few years.

Ellie's essay


'In the amazing book Moby Dick, the author tells his story by being at sea. In the first part, the author is in a small town (...) Ahab doesn't have a leg (...) In the course of the book, his whole life revolves around killing the whale as revenge. I think this is sad because the whale has no feelings. And he wants to kill it. A poor, huge animal (...) when I read the boring chapters that were just descriptions of the whales. Because I knew the author was trying to spare us from his own sad story (...) I feel bad for Ahab too. Because he thinks that his life will be better if he kills the whale. But actually, this won't help him at all (...) I was saddened by the book and felt strong emotions. Just for a moment, this book made me think about my own life. And then it made me feel happy about it.

By looking symbolically at Ellie's text, we can better understand who Ellie is, and why Charlie feels so united to her by this text. The character Ahab has been amputated by the Whale, and seeks revenge by trying to kill the Whale, making it the reason for his existence. The sea would be the state of unconsciousness that permeates their relationship, as Charlie only has news about Ellie through Mary, who has forbidden her contact with her father after their separation and Charlie's union with Allan. Ahab had one leg amputated by the Whale, just as Charlie and Ellie had their father and daughter relationship amputated by the separation imposed on them. Charlie experiences his symbolic psychic amputation through his reduced mobility due to morbid obesity, which hinders his relationship with the outside world, leaving him confined in his apartment. Ellie feels the separation from her father as an affective amputation, which makes her aggressive, and vengeful, like Ahab. The fantasies of revenge are a misguided attempt at reparation, which will never come, because all reparation needs affection and empathy, while revenge only brings more estrangement and sharpens the feeling of loneliness and isolation.

Killing Moby Dick would not return Ahab's leg, just as symbolically killing the father who left her emotionally crippled by his absence would not restore Ellie's emotional balance. By showing empathy for both Whale and Ahab, Ellie demonstrates the potential to understand both sides of the coin, although according to her interpretation, Whale, represented by Charlie, has no feelings, only acts on instinct. The love between Charlie and Allan is interpreted by both Ellie and Thomas as a manifestation of the desires of the flesh, of primitive instinct, and not as an affective relationship between two men.

The boring chapters, which were only descriptions of the whales can be seen as the superficial defenses, which create sociocultural justifications to explain things, like the representatives of Allan and Thomas' religion, who use biblical passages to blame what they consider sin, in this case, both sex and gluttony, because we cannot forget that gluttony is one of the seven deadly sins. This is how Ellie deconstructs Thomas' arguments, treating them as defense mechanisms that hide his true reasons and feelings. Ellie seems to have specialized in confronting hypocrisy, dialectically complementing the difficulty her father and mother had in confronting the prevailing social norms and finding a creative way to deal with the pain of separation and abandonment. The book makes Ellie think about her own life, and I think that the arts and literature have this numinous character, to put us in touch with our own essence.

Charlie recognizes his daughter's human potential through this writing, done by someone so young, and so capable of seeing beyond appearances. If we think of all the layers of fat on Charlie as a psychosomatic defense, and a physical one, because as he says to Liz when she threatens to pierce him with a knife, the knife would need to go through sixty centimeters of fat before reaching his vital organs, that is, the fat would be a kind of organic armor that would prevent external aggression from hurting him.

The relationship between Mary and Charlie shows at the same time all her resentment for having been abandoned, the shame for having been exchanged for a man, which aggravated her pain and made her feel humiliated, as well as Charlie's resentment for having been taken away from his daughter, being punished for his love choice by being forbidden to live with his daughter. We also observe remnants of a fondness experienced by both, memories of good and bad times. One of Mary's memories is in relation to Charlie as a good cook, also a grievance for Ellie, in noting that Charlie had cooked the best of the steaks only when Allan had been invited to dinner, on an occasion when Mary was absent, in a reference that Charlie saved his best for Allan, leaving Ellie jealous.

Charlie had once had a healthier relationship with food; he was a skilled cook, able to prepare special meals that pleased everyone, but now he only eats ready-made or processed foods. The pleasure of preparing one's own meals and sharing company at the table with loved ones has been replaced by compulsive and solitary eating, in which food seems to fill an overwhelming void. What characterizes compulsion is not only weight gain, but the ritual implicit in eating. In a binge, eating is impulsive, desperate, where food quality, quantity, and pleasure are not present, that's why watching a person with a binge eating is so uncomfortable for others, because it's as if we observe an unnatural situation, that is, eating to punish instead of nourishing, eating to fill the empty spaces of the loneliness of the soul, not to nourish the body. This is similar to drinking to toast or enjoying the harmonization of a dish with the drink, or drinking until you are unconscious and vomiting until you pass out.

Although Thomas is not part of Charlie's main affective core, he appears armed with a purpose to have influence in Charlie's life. His naivety and will to help, even if in a wrong way in front of everyone, brings reflection about the social behaviors that are repeated automatically, without deep reflection.

Thomas, even without being fully aware of it, questions his own faith. By stealing the mission's money in order to be able to play his role as a missionary in a way that is more consistent with his feelings of empathy and love for his neighbor, and his puerile fantasies of saving people. Anyway, even without understanding, he complies with Charlie's demand to read Ellie's essay out loud, and shows a tendency to obey without question, being at the mercy of Liz and Ellie, who tell him to leave, stay, sit down, etc.

Thomas represents Charlie's passivity and the social conventions that we blindly obey. His rebellion is dark, as is usually the case with teenagers, who question life through transgressive attitudes, rather than through the clarity of their arguments. Both Charlie and Thomas trust people and human nature. Thomas believes in religion and its presence to help people; Charlie believes that education and writing are a form of personal and professional fulfillment.

The Bird


The film has its scenes announced according to the days of the week, as if it were a diary of Charlie's life. Day after day, Charlie places chopped fruit for a bird to feed on in his window. His death seems marked by the day the plate that fed the bird breaks, as if his soul no longer appeared in his window. The delicacy with which Charlie feeds the bird contrasts with the brutality with which he feeds himself. Charlie's delicacy and fragility are represented in the bird, the psychic life cultivated day after day, where his sensitivity is fed and confronted by the love of literature and the beauty of life projected in lives other than his own.

Do you ever get the feeling that people are incapable of not caring?


Charlie sees people's capacity for empathy, like the pizza delivery man, who seems concerned, or curious, about the mysterious customer who never shows up to pick up his pizzas. People need intimacy, familiarity with each other, and even a regular delivery man feels that it would be natural for them to acknowledge each other's existence. For Charlie, only the food matters, and he seems surprised when he introduces himself, right behind the door. Charlie sees the world through the closed, or half-open curtains of his apartment, or when the door opens for someone to enter, bringing a blinding light, since he only goes to the door to get his food that had been delivered. He does not show himself because he is ashamed of his appearance, keeping his computer camera turned off during his online classes.

A morbidly obese patient once said that it didn't matter what kind of person he was, nor his character, education, or interests, because his appearance was an insurmountable barrier that prevented people from getting close enough to know if he was an interesting person to relate to. Morbid obesity is at the same time a dome that isolates the individual from others; while it protects from social interactions, it is felt to cause rejection. Lowered self-esteem acts as thorns that keep others at a distance, as a way of confirming that one is not worthy of affection. Obviously, this traumatic wound was caused by other forms of primordial rejection, the trauma of which is constantly being updated.

Charlie maintains a self-destructive behavior for several years, with the argument that he would not take care of his health because all the money he earns from his classes would go to Ellie's future. What seems most frightening to me is that both Mary and Ellie find this natural. Only Liz reacts to this, both because she feels rejected when she knows that Charlie would have money to take care of himself, and that all the effort she makes to take care of him could be effective if he would cooperate by accepting medical help, and realizes that her giving to him was not as important as making money to leave to her daughter.

Especially in cases of separation, money enters as affective currency, a compensation for abandonment, even if the parents' separation doesn't actually imply emotional or financial abandonment of the children. The patriarchal society considers that the father's role is to provide material goods, and any affective compensation should be material compensation. This complex seems to reach the family triangle formed by Charlie, Mary and Ellie. Fathers who work until exhaustion, or even death, are seen in a romanticized way as heroes, but I think they are closer to being considered martyrs of a society that invalidates men's capacity for love and affective commitment.

We can't forget Ellie's essay, which says that whales have no feelings. They are just huge animals with no feelings. Sperm whales were killed so that their oil could be extracted. Charlie sacrifices his life so that their oil/blood/money will stay with Ellie, all with Mary's consent and approval. We can say that Charlie places a noble value on his sacrifice, while he hides in his body the marks of depression and the pain of abandonment caused by Allan's suicide. Death by suicide causes a terrible wound in the one who is left, for choosing death over the company of the one you love is even more painful than being left by another love. Suicide is a lonely act that excludes everyone else, leaving everyone with a terrible feeling of abandonment. On the other hand, suicide by gay people has been encouraged by lines like - I'd rather have a dead son than a gay son. So, the toxic patriarchal society considers gay suicide practically as an honorable way out of shame, as it is for many men who have felt ashamed for not being able to support their families or for being caught in illicit situations. Suicide for honor or shame was encouraged by patriarchal societies for many years.

As we can see, the comparison of Charlie to the Moby Dick Whale, and the analysis of his suffering, goes far beyond fat-phobic issues and binge eating. It goes through homophobic issues, religious issues, the social roles of marriage and parenting, parental alienation, as well as the pain of abandonment, fantasies of revenge, values such as honor, good looks and financial success, and the male role of provider and the sacrifices as proof of affection or redemption. Even if the price is paid with one's life.

References

1 MEVILLE, H. Moby Dick. [S.l.]: Editora Antofágica.

2 VON FRANZ, M.-L. Archetypal Patterns in Fairy Tales. ISBN 9780919123779. ed. [S.l.]: Inner City Books, 1997.

3 WOODMAN, M. The addiction to perfection: understanding the relationship between eating disorders and psychic development. [S.l.]: Summus Editorial.


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