Richard Linklater’s latest film has been billed as a mystery-comedy-drama, and it’s about as strange as that description sounds. Based on the bestselling novel by Maria Semple, the screenplay follows former architect Bernadette Fox, played by Cate Blanchett, as her life starts to disintegrate around her. Bernadette lives in Seattle with her husband Elgin Branch, played by Billy Crudup, and her daughter Bee, played by Emma Nelson, and spends most of her time doing up their enormous old house, with occasional jibes at her neighbour Audrey Griffin, played by Kristen Wiig. For the first half of the film, Bernadette drifts from one dissatisfied torpor to the next, but it takes a fairly implausible plot twist about identity theft, and FBI surveillance, to bring her frustrated mid-life ambitions to a crisis point, prompting a sudden trip to Antarctica, where she rediscovers her vocation with her family in hot pursuit.
For the most part, all of this is delivered with a weird mildness that never quite congeals into a real tone, as Linklater opts instead for a half-hearted and forced folksiness to move us from one scene to the next. It’s the line of literary quirkiness that might work well in a book but isn’t so good on the big screen, especially since the main plot points feel more attuned to a run-of-the-mill paperback rather than the more rigorous narrative expectations of a Hollywood film. For that reason, Linklater falls back on technology to do a lot of expository work in the screenplay, which is pretty heavy on voiceovers and monologues, typically when Bernadette composes emails by voice directly onto her phone, or when she attacks her neighbour, her husband, or the state of society in one of her many free-floating jeremiads.
This oddly aborted and distorted tone doesn’t just feel like an afterthought, but a key symptom of the film’s project, which is to present a certain kind of white mid-life crisis as a universal rallying-point twenty years too late. Two decades ago, this kind of story would have connoted diversity but its quirk alone, but it feels strangely jettisoned by time now, leaving all the characters and situations to languish in an obscure backwater that Linklater expands out to the broader palette and texture of Seattle itself, which is nearly always coated in rain, fog and cloudy obscurity. In a weird way, Bernadette is more comforting in retrospect, and feels warmer in memory, perhaps because it starts in a cinematic world that is already over.
Insofar as the film have a compelling plotline, it’s about trying to come to terms with this devolution of eccentric whiteness – or this devolution of “eccentricity” itself as a mechanism for assuring us that whiteness in and of itself encompasses diversity. This fixation with sustainable whiteness plays out through Bernadette’s architectural practice, since we quickly learn that she was a foundational proponent of green design – a hands-on ethos, use of found objects, and a fascination with all the minute ways that buildings could be made more environmentally friendly. Her masterpiece, we discover, was the “20 Mile House,” an experiment in sustainable living that only used building materials found in a twenty mile radius. Since the structure was bought and destroyed by a corporate overlord to make way for a carpark, her vision has languished, leaving her nothing to do except obsessively fashion and refashion her rambling old house, which occupies the windiest, coldest spot in the city.
Of course, it’s questionable whether the luxury fittings and bespoke environmentalism of the 20 Mile House were sustainable for anyone other than the 1% – a bracket that Bernadette seems to occupy quite comfortably, given her husband’s status as a major tech innovator. Accepting Bernadette, for the moment, as a sustainable visionary, however, it makes sense that she gradually turns her sites towards Antarctica, which has become a figurative focal points for anxieties about white longevity in the face of catastrophic climate change. As the largest ice field on earth and the whitest continent, it’s a natural outlet for Bernadette’s anxieties, which she gradually crystallises into a desperate need to see “the white continent” before it melts, even if it means leaving her husband and daughter behind with no warning.
This sudden departure for Antarctica explains the question in the film’s title, which ponders what it means to contemplate Antarctica as both the whitest visual field on the Earth’s surface, and the vista with the most apocalyptic implications for the entire planet. For Bernadette, this means finding a line of flight both to and from Antarctica, which she manages by getting a job to design to the new South Pole Station, occupied by only the most exclusive of scientists who are “over-wintering” at the bottom tip of the world. By designing the station, Bernadette situates herself in the heart of the continent, the part most secure from climate change, where she helps scientists remain safe enough to keep on rehabilitating the fringes.
No surprise, then, that Bernadette’s decision to accept this job coincides with her reuniting with her family, who arrive to join her between Palmer Station and South Pole Station. No surprise either, perhaps, that it ushers in the first really beautiful sequence in the film – the closing credits, which depict the construction of Bernadette’s vision for the South Pole, set to Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time.” Finally, we glimpse Bernadette’s appeal, and the film this might have been if it was made twenty years ago, while there’s a nice symmetry with the 20 Mile House, since everything has to be flown in from afar to make this building come alive.
Nevertheless, something doesn’t stick about the film as a whole – the lyricism comes too late, and ultimately feels like an afterthought for a white savior complex applied to the very climate changes issues that complex has so often exacerbated. For all the scientific optimism on the closing scenes, it’s hard not to feel that the South Pole functions here primarily as a pinnacle of whiteness, since as the most isolated part of the world, it’s also the most competitive and elite, meaning that Bernadette has to bring in the big guns to even get a chance at the job, even though she somehow immediately lands it as soon as she mentions her credentials too. Call it a strange experiment, then, more than a fully-formed film – and an experiment that is likely to seem even stranger with time, if only because it is already so weirdly out of time.