Based on the novel by Maria Semple, WHERE’D YOU GO BERNADETTE is a tale of artistic vision quashed by its run-ins with the crasser elements of reality, and the consequences of living the resulting inauthentic life with Cate Blanchett perfection as Bernadette, the eccentric anti-social wife of a Seattle Microsoft bigwig. Her skirmishes with her pretentiously condescending neighbor (Kristen Wiig) are but one of the manifestation of Bernadette’s disquiet. So are the impromptu wall art of pencils and folded paper that embellish the peeling wallpaper of the elegantly crumbling home (a former girl’s reform school) in which Bernadette and Elgin (Billy Crudup) are raising their thoroughly self-assured daughter, Bee (Emma Nelson).
As a result of Bee getting perfect grades in her last year of middle-school, the pair are obligated to give her anything she wants, which turns out to be a trip to Antarctica, a trip that, logistically, they will have to take over the upcoming Christmas break. In two weeks. Before then, their yard will cascade into that neighbor’s living room, a mean mom from Bee’s school will pose a threat to Bernadette’s well-being, the FBI (in the person of James Urbaniak) will visit, and many people will have to face some revelatory truths about themselves and others. Except for Bee, who may actually be the incarnation of a Hindu deity that Bernadette suspected she was when she was born blue.
There have been many tales of frustrated housewives told cinematically over the years, almost always the perspective of whatever contemporary zeitgeist prevailed. With BERNADETTE, we come close to achieving gender equality when it comes to self-fulfillment in that at no time during Bernadette’s interactions with family, friends, and health-care professionals is there the suggestion that she should find her fulfillment by being a wife and mother. Yes, there is the fascism of affluent suburbia as embodied by Wiig, in a flinty performance of surprising nuance. There is a workaholic husband incapable of understanding what his wife is going through, played as neither villain nor martyr, but rather as a concerned bystander to his wife’s alarmingly metastasizing oddness. When his response to her is to bring in a therapist (Judy Greer), there is no doubt that he has failed his wife, but in the most caring, sensitive way possible to someone with a world-view less encompassing than his wife’s. Bernadette herself is presented as difficult, but also in her complexity and zing as the most interesting character of the piece. She is adrift, with only her unseen, unheard virtual assistant, Manjula, as a social outlet. To Manjula, Bernadette pours her heart out and her vitriol in memos dictated with a stream-of-consciousness flow that provides therapy as the lagniappe to the to-do list. Where others would journal, Bernadette parses the deeper implications of her relationship to a fishing vest and the timing of having wisdom teeth removed.
In Bernadette, Linklater finds a way to revel in the small wonders that others miss, thereby celebrating the mixed blessing of uncontrollable iconoclasm, while also fiercely dissecting the consequences of an aimless existence. His heroine tears up over car karaoke with her daughter, finds pleasure in nurturing a plucky vine that sprouts beneath a carpet in her home, and delights in the composition that her myriad medications form in an antique apothecary jar. And so do we. And just as we despair of a woman of such gifts idling her life away for no good reason, we are set straight.
How Bernadette arrived where she is unfolds gradually, as bits and pieces of her life reveal themselves, starting with a groupie who accosts her in a library, and culminating in a reunion with a former professor and mentor (Laurence Fishburne), who becomes the first person, analog at least, to really listen to Bernadette in decades.
Blanchett is a marvel. Sparkling and fragile, luminate with a razor-sharp mind, sardonic humor, an enormous capacity for whimsy, and a core of sadness that fuels the mask that Bernadette wears as a shield from herself and from the world. She possesses that most devastating and dynamic element in the actor’s repertoire: the ability to surprise, even jolt, an audience with every choice. Linklater choreographs the film around her in such a way that even when she is still, or snoozing on a sofa at the local, upscale pharmacy, she is the kinetic center of every scene she is in. In her, there is the necessary cohesion to a sometimes meandering screenplay.
WHERE’D YOU GO, BERNADETTE uses the narrative device of Bee recounting how her mother ended up alone in a kayak in Antarctica. In it she decries the evolutionary flaws of the human brain so perfectly attuned to the dangers of sabre-tooth tigers, but as adrift as Bernadette is, literally and figuratively, when confronting the dangers posed by living life out of step, even a few steps ahead of, and several dimensions away from the masses.