“Where’d You Go, Bernadette” and the False Dream That Art Will Fulfill You
The artistic temperament has a lovely mythology; in its fury, capriciousness, and whimsy, it can seem, as the author Madeleine L’Engle put it, like “a battleground, a dark angel of destruction and a bright angel of creativity wrestling.” One imagines, say, van Gogh as a madman plagued with demons, painting tumultuous night skies and sunflowers pulsing with light. The artistic impulse supposedly differentiates the artist from everyone else, individualizes him or her, in the spirit of Oscar Wilde: “A work of art is the unique result of a unique temperament. Its beauty comes from the fact that the author is what he is.” In Richard Linklater’s adaptation of the novel “Where’d You Go, Bernadette,” by Maria Semple, the artistic temperament is maddening and destructive. But, in the film’s unfortunate logic, art serves as the artist’s answer to all of life’s ills.
As the movie opens, Bernadette (Cate Blanchett) lives in an abandoned school near Seattle with her tech-genius husband, Elgin (Billy Crudup), and their teen-age daughter, Bee (Emma Nelson). Bernadette busies herself around the space, which is large and broken-down, its ceilings leaking and its furnishings old and haphazard, while dictating e-mails to Manjula, her virtual assistant, who lives in India—long, digressive rants, which spiral out of Bernadette’s everyday worries. When Bernadette ventures out into the world, wrapped up in scarves and donning large sunglasses, her interactions with people are colored by her misanthropic snark. At the Seattle Public Library, a young woman accosts Bernadette, showering her with praise and gratitude for her influential work in architecture, and Bernadette skitters away awkwardly, barely saying a word in response. But there it is, the revelation that the film will use as its emotional crowbar to explain the how and the why of Bernadette’s character and her disappearance: she is an artist.
We learn of the once thriving artistic career of Bernadette through an Internet video about her early projects and the crushing defeat that led her to give up architecture. Later in the film, when her breakthrough comes and she finally finds her happiness and direction, the solution is presented as something simple: she must create. Oh, the fickle Muse!, the movie seems to declare, granting Bernadette her much-needed inspiration before it ends abruptly. We’re meant to assume that Bernadette’s next project—a research center in Antarctica that looks like the offspring of a submarine and Baba Yaga’s hut—has redeemed her, and that now her family can move forward, knowing that this outlet is what Bernadette requires to prevent her from becoming a “menace to society,” as she calls herself.
For some reason, those are Bernadette’s only two options: artist or menace. Her confrontational run-ins with a neighbor, unwitting involvement in a Russian identity-theft ring, and generally erratic behaviors are the fault of her artistic temperament. She can’t help it. The movie skips over her obvious debilitating problems: her anxiety and likely depression. She’s agoraphobic, unnerved by social interactions, and struggles with mundane tasks like going to appointments. She mixes all her prescriptions together in a jar, and, when she goes to collect some new, industrial-strength meds and is declined, she passes out on a couch in a pharmacy. This is where Elgin discovers her. After Bernadette rebuffs Elgin’s suggestion that she seek help at therapy, he stages an intervention, the action that incites her disappearance. But these attempts to get Bernadette help are silly, the movie seems to say. Bernadette doesn’t need therapy; she just needs to make art.
Who is immune to the allure of the artist as type—not simply the artist by trade but the artist by temperament? The offbeat poet or painter with her quirks and bohemian life style—the artiste, as one would say—for whom art is a means of emotional and mental survival in a colorless world. When Elgin realizes that he has misunderstood Bernadette’s behaviors, he sees that he has judged her through the lens of regular society, disregarding her unique status as an artist. When her prized creation, a house built from materials sourced from within a twenty-mile radius of the property it sits on, is bought only to be torn down by a rich celebrity (notably, a host of a trashy cash-grab show), the sense is that Bernadette the artist is defeated by grubby capitalist values. All around her is the stifling presence of life in the upper strata of America, ruled by shallowness and profit. But what undercuts the film’s romantic notion of Bernadette as a misunderstood artist is how she is similarly defined, like Elgin in his corporate tech world, by her output. Bernadette is safe and acceptable only when she is making something. Creativity is all well and good in the abstract, but it’s wild and impractical, even disabling, until it produces something of use.
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Throughout the film, the characters say “artist” over and over, as if genuflecting. But the artist as iconoclast is a tired trope. “The artistic temperament is a disease that afflicts amateurs. It is a disease which arises from men not having sufficient power of expression to utter and get rid of the element of art in their being,” G. K. Chesterton wrote, one can imagine, with a sneer. “Artists of a large and wholesome vitality get rid of their art easily, as they breathe easily, or perspire easily. But in artists of less force, the thing becomes a pressure, and produces a definite pain, which is called the artistic temperament. Thus, very great artists are able to be ordinary men—men like Shakespeare or Browning.” Though Chesterton is a bit unforgiving, and too prescriptive about the relationship of artistic temperament to ability, he is right about the charade of it, the false equivalency that says the temperament is the artist is the art, when, beneath it all, there’s nuance: personality, character, shortcomings, ambition, intention, experience, the entire sum of a life.