Adam Driver and Greta Gerwig reunite as a couple grappling with their fear of death in Noah Baumbach’s adaptation of Don DeLillo’s novel.
I love supermarkets. Whenever I’m in a new place, I like to scope out the terrain by visiting the nearest grocery shop. Target, Monoprix, Edeka, Coop – I treat these places with a reverence usually reserved for galleries or museums. You can learn so much about a culture by browsing the aisles, peeking at the contents of other peoples’ trolleys, or noting which cereals or sweets children are haranguing their parents about.
As such, I also love Don DeLillo’s ‘White Noise’, a novel in which the supermarket is the modern cathedral, and its congregation a sea of twitchy-nosed patrons armed with lists and coupons , all looking for salvation in a half-off saving on soup.
Noah Baumbach is – at least at first glance – a curious choice to adapt DeLillo for the screen, as the author’s stylised, complex prose seems vastly different from the realist dialogue that the filmmaker tends to favour in his portraits of contemporary American life, which tend centre around the highs and lows of romantic and familial relationships.
But the overarching theme of White Noise – an anxiety around one’s own mortality and the looming spectre of death – is familiar territory for Baumbach, as is the psyche of the middle-aged middle-class white protagonist. The success of Marriage Story has granted him a handsome budget care of Netflix, and White Noise represents his most ambitious project in both scale and providence. DeLillo is considered one of the greatest American novelists of all time and his idiosyncratic style doesn’t lend itself to the screen easily.
This does seem apparent in the opening of the film. After Don Cheadle’s cheerful academic Murray Siskind delivers a monologue on the optimistic overtones of the car crash in American cinema, we cut to preeminent Hitler Studies professor Jack Gladney (Adam Driver) and his wife Babette (Greta Gerwig) in their kitchen, surrounding by a gaggle of precocious children. They move through the space with a choreographed fluidity; they speak not so much like people, but like characters in a play.
There is something artificial and odd about the tableaux, with its densely saturated colours and Gewig’s frizzy bouffant hair. But this jarring sensation doesn’t last, much in the way a euphoric high after a bout of unbridled consumerism is only ever a fleeting reprieve from the impending heat death of the universe. The rhythms of the film soon settle, and it becomes an offbeat, but not unwelcome, change of pace for Baumbach.
Driver and Gerwig, while perhaps a little young for their roles, have a proven chemistry and work together well. Their central relationship, as well as the bond they cultivate with their wise, inquisitive children, anchors the film, and their central anxieties around the impending possibility of their demise are compelling, particularly in the face of the “Airborne Toxic Event” which is brought forward in the narrative, disrupting the suburban idyll that is Jack and Babette’s domestic life.
Baumbach retains the anxious, wry spirit of DeLillo’s novel with his screenplay, but trims down many of the side plots and asides which give ‘White Noise’ such character. Purists might be offended, but it works in the favour of keeping pace.
After the melodrama of Marriage Story, it’s refreshing to see Baumbach tackle something a little more spirited. Yet even with horror and comedy elements, White Noise is still at its core a drama about familial tensions and the anxieties that come with getting old.
Shot during the summer of 2021, it seems inevitable that comparisons will be drawn between the events of this film and the Covid-19 pandemic: onlookers theorise about the causes and effects of the health crisis; masks are worn; and Jack and Babette find vastly different ways through their anxieties around death. But the strength of the source material (and indeed Baumbach’s execution) make White Noise one of the better examples of ‘pandemic art’ to emerge from this perilous time in history.
As for the supermarket – much has been written about the significance of these consumerist cathedrals in DeLillo’s work. In Baumbach’s film, the supermarket is like Disneyland: a place where no one dies; a place where time doesn’t exist; a place where you can find yourself, or at least find the toothpaste that best aligns with your lifestyle.
During the pandemic, supermarkets were one of a handful of places people were permitted to travel. The act of buying a box of cornflakes was elevated to a grand event. The film’s superb end credits sequence (set to a brand new LCD Soundsystem bop) speaks to this pageantry, and the fleeting comfort of our capitalist, consumerist society. Yet White Noise never feels judgemental.
Rather, there’s sympathy here for how fucked up everything is. Baumbach doesn’t pretend that he has the answers for what we do now, as we emerge blinking and yawning into a world where we can’t afford to heat our homes and politicians might as well be dancing on the graves of the people whose deaths they permitted. Sometimes death seems like a better option – a bypassing of the bullshit, so to speak.
But there are brief glimmers of a world worth sticking around for: the tenderness of love; the pleasures of parenthood. White Noise is a story about cutting through the static and learning to settle in silence.
Published 31 Aug 2022
By Matt Thrift
Noah Baumbach delivers what just might be his masterpiece with this bitterly funny divorce drama.
By Elena Lazic
The writer/director of The Meyerowitz Stories reveals how he mixes the comic with the tragic.