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Bless This Mess | The Nation

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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.

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