The first thing you know about your body is that you’re stuck in it. Only later, when your tiny infant brain develops object permanence, do you learn your body is stuck in the world.
Cake is a 2014 black comedy-drama film starring Jennifer Aniston as Claire Bennett, a woman living with chronic pain after a car crash. Claire is, to put it mildly, not the most pleasant person. The film opens on a support group meeting following the suicide of a member, Nina (Anna Kendrick), where everyone is encouraged to voice their feelings about her death by speaking to the group leader as if she was Nina. Some express sorrow, others anger that she didn’t reach out and that she left her five-year-old son motherless. Claire watches with part-amused, part-scoffing indifference until she’s finally prompted to share against her will:
“She jumped off a freeway overpass, right? Specifically where 110 meets the 105? And is it true that she landed on a flatbed truck that was full of used furniture that was heading to Mexico? And that no one discovered the body until it reached Acapulco? That was, like, more than 2,000 miles away? And that they sent her body back in a Rubbermaid cooler which then got stuck in customs for, like, a week before Nina’s husband could even claim it? Way to go, Nina. Personally, I hate it when suicides make it easy on the survivors. But please, continue.”
Critics didn’t seem to know what to do with Cake. While there was near-uniform praise for Aniston’s performance (for which she was nominated for a Golden Globe), the rest of the film received a more mixed response, especially the screenplay, and was often treated as mere fodder for puns. “This cake needs more layers” goes a typical riff. I’m not sure why, because Cake is one of the richest and most rewarding films about suicide I’ve ever seen, and probably the only one to seriously explore suicidality as an embodied experience.
Despite her dismissive response to the group leader’s probing, it quickly becomes clear that Claire is fascinated – obsessed, even – by Nina’s suicide. She begins to have nightmares and hallucinations of Nina (or at least an imagined Nina: while Claire’s Nina is a snarky bitch who expresses contempt for her family, the real Nina was, by all accounts, a kind woman) after taking Percocet. She has her care assistant, Silvana (Adriana Barraza), drive her to the intersection where Nina killed herself, so she can ask a worker who witnessed it what happened.
Claire is suicidal but can’t convince herself to die. “What’s stopping you?” asks Nina in Claire’s first nightmare. “You don’t believe in God, or heaven, or hell. You don’t believe in anything.” “I know,” she answers, before Nina grabs Claire’s head and tries to drown in her pool. “Just do it. Just do it. Don’t be such a coward.”
The answer becomes clear a few scenes later when Claire is left unattended after a physiotherapy session in a swimming pool. She grabs an ankle weight and jumps into the pool, letting it drag her to the bottom where she can drown in peace. But as her lungs begin to crave air, Claire drops the weight and desperately kicks to the surface. Claire can’t kill herself because, as much as she wants to die, she also wants to live. Later in the film, her physiotherapist asks her, “Do you want to get better? Really? No bullshit. Do you want to?” and Claire sincerely says she does. She strikes up a strange and slightly flirtatious friendship with Nina’s widower, Roy (Sam Worthington), and puts real time and effort into the relationship before pushing him away when she swings towards suicidality again. And even when she does try to kill herself, as at the swimming pool, her body wants her to live, and it rebels against harm as bodies do. The body is filled with survival mechanisms, like the way our legs all but shut down as we approach a high ledge so we don’t walk over it. But the body is also, in a very meaningful sense, the true target of many suicide attempts. Our body is what keeps us situated in a specific time and place, and when suicidality is a response to the conditions of our life – poverty, sickness, isolation – then suicide is not necessarily about a desire to end life in and of itself, but a desire to escape those conditions by destroying what ties us to them: our body.
Claire’s body is therefore both the locus and the source of the film’s major drama, her attempt to either reconcile or definitively choose between two contradictory drives: to live or to die. Initially, we assume her suicidality is a response to her chronic pain (and it’s not not a response to her chronic pain) but we eventually learn a more pressing reason that explains her specific fascination with Nina.
It’s not just that she must live with ongoing pain, but she must endure the psychological pain of a body etched with the memory of the worst thing that’s ever happened to her. Her body is covered in scars from both the crash itself and the reconstructive surgery necessary to stitch her back together after. Claire has a strange relationship with her scars, as articulated in two brief but pivotal scenes in the first act of the film: she refuses to use a cream that will help her scars fade despite the insistence of Silvana, but when she invites her handyman in for painful, unemotive sex, she pushes his hand away from them. She forces herself to live with the crash carved into her flesh, a visceral and permanent tie to her history written on her body, but it’s a private history, for her alone to know and contemplate. Throughout the film, as we learn more details about the crash, it’s never Claire who gives us the information, it’s Silvana or her physiotherapist or the other driver from the crash, who shows up at her house unannounced to apologise. And it’s this history, at once too painful for her to live with and yet too vital to let go, that makes Claire want to die.
Claire’s son died in the crash and she wants to die because she can’t stand to live without him, to remain in her shattered, agonised body in a time after him, in a world after his world. But, at the same time, she wants to live. Her body wants to live. And she becomes fascinated with Nina because she wants to figure out how Nina could stand to kill herself while her son was still alive when Claire still wants to live after hers is dead. This is the perfect contradiction that tortures Claire and guides her obsession with Nina. After the unwelcome visit from the man who killed her son – during which she screams and hits him and throws him own onto the street – Claire overdoses on her painkillers and sits down in front of the television to wait to die, just as she sat waiting on the floor of the pool. But her body rebels again, and she stumbles to the bathroom where she throws up just enough pills to survive.
The drive to death, the drive to life; the urge to autodestruct, the repulsion from self-harm. Claire vacillates wildly, unsustainably, between these instincts as she remains trapped within the history inscribed on her body. She is imprisoned in her own skin, in this flesh that remembers, and so she doesn’t even bother to free herself from more escapable prisons. When he finds out about her son, Roy asks her how she can stand to live in the house her son never came home to, haunted by memories. Her answer is evasive: “I like my house.” The honest answer is that she can’t – she’s scrubbed every trace of him from every room, except his bedroom, where all his belongings are stacked in boxes. The back wall of her living room bares the impression of a picture frame that once held his photo. She gives a box of his toys to her handyman booty call for his own child, unopened, and when she enters his room later to find swim trunks for Nina’s son, just opening a box causes an immediate panic attack. She cannot live with this history, she cannot bring herself to confront it. She can’t sit up in a car without triggering a post-traumatic episode, forcing her to be ferried around on her back. Her body can’t be in this world. Her body must be in this world.
Her final suicide attempt leaves her body no obvious mechanism to rebel: she lies down on the train tracks next to a drive-in cinema, her neck perfectly bent across one rail. Nina appears to warn that her final thoughts are important because they’re all she’ll take with her. Claire starts listing things off – McDonald’s French fries, Coppertone sunscreen, she played a mouse in the Nutcracker Suite three times because her mother said she wasn’t graceful enough to play the Sugar Plum Fairy – but Nina warns her again, more urgent this time. “We’re running out of time. Say it, Claire. Say it.”
“I was a good mother. I was a good mother.”
It’s not a magic spell. It doesn’t fix things. But, for the first time, Claire moves beyond the endless, private contemplation of her history and articulates it to herself. She says the forbidden thing, that she was a good mother, and therefore that she’s not a mother anymore. The tension flees her body, and the moment. The question is no longer how she can go on living, but, given that she can, how she will choose to live. She starts to lift herself wearily from the rails. The film ends shortly after with no real indication of what Claire’s life will be like now and how her relationships with those around her might change. But her relationship with herself and with her body is moving forward, finally unstuck from the prison of her warring impulses to live and die. In the final scene, as Silvana pulls out of Roy’s driveway, Claire pulls the lever to raise her seat. She’s thrust upright and the film ends with Claire staring into and through the camera, her eyes cast past the veil of her trauma and at last towards the future.