Black Bear, 2020.
Directed by Lawrence Michael Levine.
Starring Aubrey Plaza, Christopher Abbott, Sarah Gadon, Paola Lazaro, Lindsay Burdge and Lou Gonzalez.
A film director seeks solace whilst vacationing at lake house, though quickly becomes entangled in the lives of the couple who own the property.
The question of whether art imitates life or vice versa has been debated for over a century, but for director Lawrence Michael Levine, with his sophomore feature Black Bear, a more interesting question seems to be: what happens when the two are blurred together? Dissecting the relationships – professional and personal – between director, cast and crew, confronting gender roles and agendas, pondering even what it means to be an artist – Levine’s film takes a lot of weight on its shoulders. Then again, the act of merely exposing psychological wounds is no guarantee they will be healed, or even treated.
Allison, played by the mesmerizing Aubrey Plaza, arrives at a lake house owned by a young musician and his pregnant girlfriend, purportedly needing space and time to think. She is film director, and just may be working on a new script. Like the turning on of a gas tap, the tension is immediately in the air between the three characters, though it will be allowed to completely fill the room before the inevitable explosion comes. In the presence of a guest, the couple barely hold back from airing their dirty laundry, and though the shots fired between them are delightful to witness, they represent an off-putting disconnect from the polite awkwardness that would imbue such a scene in reality. Perhaps the effect is intended, in order to distance the first half hour of the film from the real world, or from what is to come; but the dialogue certainly feels more contrived than necessary here. This is possibly the single gripe in an otherwise breathaking piece of filmmaking, and watching Plaza’s Allison nihilistically stir things up between the couple is enough of a stomach churning joy for it not to matter much. And anyway, that’s just Act I.
The second act changes gears so dramatically, it generates a desire to immediately re-watch the first act once the movie comes to an end, just to try and make sense of what has been seen. Roles are reversed, power dynamics skewed. Suddenly, bathetic running gags lighten the mood, yet somehow seem to only increase the overall sense of unease. The character changes play to Christopher Abbott’s strength as an actor, allowing him to flex comedic and dramatic muscles as Gabe, the somewhat hapless master manipulator. Levine’s direction throughout shows an incredible capability to meld genres, and a consistency across the metamorphosis of the film that speaks to the real strength of his skills.
Through Gabe, Levine astutely exposes aspects of the modern man that should really feel antiquated, but are sadly still so prevalent. As he confidently eats celery (the cockiest cinematic foodstuff since Captain Kirk’s apple) whilst plotting the emotional and psychological torture of his wife, or pushes the idea that the breakdown of traditional gender roles has been chaotic for society, there is a sense that this is the confidence of a person has never been truly challenged for, or perhaps because of, who they are. Levine’s treatment of the female characters is a little less profound, the two leads oscillating between crippling jealousy and sexual allure without much middle ground, though this only adds to the director’s overarching point. The two never feel unrefined, and in fact, neither do any of the peripheral characters – each one equipped with the depth of character that believability demands.
Totally original and unbelievably intriguing, Black Bear never takes its eye away from the operating table – when the focus isn’t on the characters, the film takes aim at independent filmmaking and the cinema industry in general. As the plot rushes towards dramatic conclusion – an ursa ex machina, if you will – it’s hard to escape the feeling that this is a truly special film; certainly one of the most fascinating features in years.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★