*Trigger warning for discussion of sexual assault and suicide.*
When I watch movies that I know I am going to hate, I always try to view them in the company of a particular friend who has become a kind of movie-watching chaperone. Sharing the experience of a painfully awful film helps temper my rage. One summer day when we decided to rent Adam and Mozart and the Whale as a double-feature, my friend seemed far more entertained by my wrathful outbursts than by the movies themselves.
During our initial viewing of Mozart and the Whale, my movie-friend had to stop me from slowly inching toward the DVD player in a subconscious bid to shut it off. “No, Caroline. It’s still only half over.”
I originally intended for this to be a companion piece to my previous post about the 2009 film Adam. Mozart and the Whale is a 2006 romantic “dramedy” about a man and a woman with Asperger syndrome and, in many ways, it makes a very neat thematic companion to the other film. In Adam, the protagonists’ relationship ultimately fails because the title character’s autism prevents him from fulfulling an appropriate “masculine” role. In Mozart and the Whale, the relationship succeeds because both characters are autistic; neither of them can successfully maintain a relationship with a “normal” person but, as the tagline says, “They don’t fit in. Except together.” The troubling implication is that if autistic people are going to pursue romantic relationships, it’s best if we stick with “our own kind.”
The relationship also works (well, “works,” but I’ll get to that) because Donald (Josh Hartnett) can take on a normatively masculine role in relation to Isabelle (Radha Mitchell). Even though he is arguably “more autistic” than she is (his behavior is much more rigid and ritualistic, and he is less socially aware), she is ultimately “more disabled.” She exhibits mood swings, manic outbursts, and petulant, domineering behavior that prevent her from integrating into normative society. This renders her sufficiently dependent, and Donald can take on the role of emotional and financial caregiver.
The film was written by Ron Bass, who also wrote Rain Man. Bass is apparently under the impression that all autistic people are savants, because every single autistic character in this movie—the protagonists meet through an adult support group, so there are several apart from them—seems to have some kind of savant skill. One nearly nonverbal man is a piano virtuoso, another man apparently knows what the weather was like on every day in recorded history, a woman who literally never stops smiling has an encyclopedic knowledge of US presidents, and a kid named Skeets(!) spouts off facts about sperm. Apart from this really tiresome stereotyping, however, the background autists are actually pretty enjoyable.
The aspect of the film that elicted such a viscerally negative reaction from me was the protagonists’ relationship itself. There are other problematic aspects to harp on: this film, like Adam, demurs from actually showing any sex scenes, and the protagonists’ respective savant skills are annoyingly gendered. Donald is spatially and mathematically gifted, while Isabelle is an artist with perfect pitch. Everything else is overshadowed, however, by the sheer toxicity of their relationship.
When I first watched the movie, I was never able to believe that Isabelle was actually autistic. The character just didn’t read like she had Asperger’s. Upon a second viewing, I saw that some fundamental autistic traits are there, but they are overwhelmed by what can only be interpreted as severe mental illness. It was during that second viewing that I realized the film isn’t really about autism—it’s about negotiating a relationship with someone who is profoundly disturbed. And it isn’t up to that task. I’m not sure that I’m up to the task of analyzing the film’s portrayal of a woman in psychological crisis.
Isabelle is introduced when she shows up as a new member of a support group organized and run by Donald. As part of an exercise in sharing personal stories (a device contrived for working in an exposition dump), she tells the women in the group that she was raped when she was fourteen and how she has spent her life in a series of destructive relationships. This triggers an emotional outburst among the other women, and the initial spark of her relationship with Donald is lit when he carefully confronts her and tries to calm the situation.
Although Isabelle first appears on that distressing note, she is presented throughout most of the film as a “manic pixie dreamgirl.” She’s a “quirky” free spirit who dresses “whimsically,” makes faces at animals in the zoo, and carries her pet rabbit around in a baby sling. “I can’t keep from shocking people so I just make it work for me,” she declares to Donald the second time they meet. Of course, her behavior doesn’t seem to “work for her,” since she spirals into a terrifying crisis over the course of the film.
As I said, I was and am repulsed by the protagonists’ relationship because of its one-sidedness and emotional toxicity. Isabelle initiates the relationship when she invites Donald out for Halloween. Being a musical savant, she dresses as Mozart and he dresses as a whale—hence the film’s title. Rather than developing a bond based on mutual experiences, they descend quickly into a co-dependence consistently driven by Isabelle. She draws Donald in and pushes him away in a succession of ever larger and more desperate gestures. First, she stops speaking to him when he becomes upset at her for completely cleaning and rearranging his apartment (and understandably so—one thing you really shouldn’t do to an autistic person is suddenly rearrange his or her living space). He perseverates on the incident and on her, leaving her message after message, trying to convince her and himself that it really was okay and kind of her to clean his apartment without asking. As soon as she relents and draws him back in, she suddenly proposes to him that he take a new job and they both move into a small house together. When Donald (again, understandably—he’s still getting over his apartment) balks at undertaking this sudden, drastic change, she says “It comes down to this: Do you want to make me happy?”
It was immediately following that line that my friend had to stop me from reaching out to shut off the DVD player.
But they do move in together, and Donald supports both of them with a job as a data analyst. A montage shows their new life as “whimsical” and idyllic. Isabelle paints trees with eyeballs all over the walls, and their pets—a flock of small parrots, an iguana, Isabelle’s rabbit—roam freely through the house. One day, however, as he is leaving for work, Donald asks Isabelle if he can express something without her becoming “enraged.” He reminds her that his new boss will be coming over for dinner, and lets her know that he really wants everything to be “nice.” She tenses forbodingly, but smiles and acts as if she is unperturbed.
When Donald arrives home with his boss, he is dismayed to find that all of the animals are still roaming the house. Isabelle is in the backyard, surrounded by empty beer bottles, lounging in an evening dress and enormous sunglasses. She antagonizes Donald’s boss by acting out, talking at him about impossible changes she and Donald want to make to the house—like putting a giant sandbox in the living room—and dumping her rabbit into his lap at the dinner table.
After dinner, Donald is incensed. When he brings up the fact that his job supports them, and that both the job and the house were her idea and she manipulated him into moving to “make her happy,” she back-pedals and screams “It was all for you!” She accuses him of “wanting to be normal” and throws him out of the house.
An indeterminate amout of time later, she draws him back with news that her rabbit has died. She wants him in her life, but she can’t offer him any stability: “I don’t know whether this will last for two days or twenty years.” She explicitly tells him that she does not want to get married. Nonetheless, the seed is planted and he decides that she doesn’t really know what she wants. He takes her out to dinner and proposes. “You’re my last chance,” he blurts out. She completely melts down. “I don’t want you to save me!” she screams. Good for her—there’s no reason for her to feel pressured into marriage, and it was out of line for him to propose when she explicitly asked him not to. And just because she’s mentally ill does not mean that she needs to be “saved”—except that, according to the film, it totally does.
After storming out of the restaurant, Isabelle returns home in a daze and mixes various medications into a large cup of wine. She drinks the mixture and is only found in time because Donald eventually follows her to apologize.
At the hospital, Donald waits in anguish. When he finally asks after Isabelle, her psychiatrist informs him that she has signed off on her discharge and Isabelle has left. “She’s in therapy, so she’ll be fine,” she tells him. (Really? A woman attempts suicide and she doesn’t even stay overnight? She’ll “be fine?”) The psychiatrist insists that Donald refrain from calling or contacting Isabelle—sound advice, after he triggered into a suicide attempt.
But the film needs a “happy ending,” so after a “humorous” montage illustrating the lengths to which Donald went to prevent himself from calling, he physically tracks down Isabelle against all sound reason. And, against sound reason but perfectly in line with their relationship’s perverse logic, she welcomes him, pouting “I hated you for not calling because you were always going to be there, and when you weren’t it was as if you didn’t love me anymore.”
After this line my friend had to stop me again. “Don’t worry, Caroline, it’s almost over.”
The film ends on an oppressively upbeat note, with the two of them apparently married, sharing a meal with their “quirky” family of autists and animals.
Like Adam, this film is intended to offer a non-disabled audience a sense of “betterment.” It’s meant to be “uplifting,” and “inspiring.” The destructive and co-dependent relationship at the center of the film is meant to be taken as “romantic,” and I find that inexcusable. Isabelle is draining and emotionally manipulative, and Donald stays with her out of a combination of guilt and desperation. I do not wish to imply that anyone dealing with mental illness or a personality disorder doesn’t deserve to be in a relationship, but neither character grows or benefits from the relationship. There is no assurance that Isabelle will really “be fine;” her suicide attempt is just dismissed, never resolved. And her agency is undermined because, as it turns out, Donald was right to assume that she really doesn’t know what she wants. There is no indication whatsoever that the couple won’t continue their cycle of traumatically pulling away and then reconciling over shared desperation. The reprehensible “message,” if there’s one to take away, is that any relationship is better than no relationship—especially if you’re autistic, since you might only get one chance.
Related: We’re All Mad Here—a previous guest series exploring the portrayal of mentally ill women in popular media