What is the meaning of death if we lose the fear of it? Would we act the same in our day to day life if we stopped fearing the end of our existence? Death not only paralyzes us or makes us see a light at the end of the tunnel, since one is aware that life is ending, his life changes. Everything takes on a new connotation. A family is a way of leaving a legacy; a couple, a way of not spending an existence marked by that fear alone. And this, which sounds grave and fake, is what Noah Baumbach laughs at in White Noise (background noise), the impossible adaptation of Don DeLillo's novel with which Venice Festival open.
Impossible, because DeLillo manages the changes of tone in his work at will. He goes from dense to light and from dramatic to satirical in a heartbeat. His x-ray of the American bourgeois class in the 1980s manages to travel between genres without forgetting his goal, to plunge the scalpel into an alienated society, happy devouring sensationalism on TV and consuming in its shopping malls, the only place where they forget their unhappy existence and marked by an exaggerated fear of dying.
Adapting such a suicidal book was, as redundant as it sounds, a suicidal act, and Baumbach is grateful for stepping out of his intimate dramas of families and couples to tackle an ambitious, big, self-aware film. Unfortunately, the film never manages to make its tone clear or to travel between them smoothly and lightly. Baumbach's White Noise works better when it goes to bestial satire than when it is taken seriously, and the problem is that sometimes moments are confused with others without knowing if it intends to make people laugh or transcend.
There is risk in the proposal, ambition in the intentions and a lot of bad blood. However, one leaves with the feeling that the game never fully works and that it drags on too long. That's despite a new show of Adam Driver's talent—here as a college professor who has built his reputation talking about Hitler—and a few supporting casts with brief but forceful appearances, such as Don Cheadle as Driver's college classmate and Barbara Sukowa. as a surprising nun in the hilarious final 'chimpún' of the film.
White Noise poses the dilemma of how we would act if there were a release of a toxic substance that endangers an entire population that must flee their homes. The apocalyptic approach is the least of it. It is an excuse to analyze family, couple and university dynamics; the power of the media to stupefy and shape behaviors and mental states. Also male and female roles. Men always asserting, passing sentence, setting the guidelines and showing that they only know how to solve conflicts from anger and revenge, believing themselves to be saviors even if they are clumsy. Women, as they are loved in the media and in the posh American suburbs, selfless wives capable of cooking fried chicken with chili while the world goes to hell outside the chalet. Driver's wife is Greta Gergwig, the director's partner who here does not work as a counterpoint to the protagonist. His scenes, where the fear of death that hovers like a "background noise" is staged - and hence the title of the film - sound fake and false. Maybe that's why everything works better the more crazy and surreal it is, including that musical closing with a new song by LCD Soundsystem.
A proposal with which Netflix will have a difficult time attending the Oscars, which seems to be looking for more with Bardo and the sequel to Daggers in the Back. White Noise is a mutant and irregular movie. At times vibrant and fascinating - the duel between Cheadle and Driver talking about the mother-child relationship of Hitler and Elvis - and at times disappointing, although always risking and on the brink of the abyss. A film that picks up a novel written in the 80s to realize that what DeLillo told is not only still valid, but has been expanded. That fear of dying, those alienating dynamics, have multiplied after the pandemic. Baumbach says that rereading the book in confinement he was surprised by how current it is.
Then he realized that it was not just the pandemic, but if he had read it at other times in recent American history, such as after the attack on the Twin Towers or with the election of Trump, it would have also fit perfectly. DeLillo captured a state of mind inherent to the United States, that madness that permeates everything and that Baumbach has tried to convey by achieving a work that is a rarity in a filmography that also needed to take risks, even if it was to fail.