Don’t be alarmed if you find yourself wondering halfway through Lawrence Michael Levine’s Black Bear just what the hell is going on. Levine intends for his characters to be off-kilter. At least, at first. Influenced by filmmakers like Hong Sang-soo, Levine’s sophomore feature is less about following a straight narrative and more about the longtime screenwriter giving himself permission to explore the unconventional. To bask in the beautiful loneliness that inevitably comes with the curse of being a creative. A girl in a bright red bathing suit on a washed out dock alone at sea. Wood paneled walls conflating claustrophobia with feminine wiles. A young vixen slow dancing in the corner, swaying alone, playing at romance. A ravenous bear stirring up trauma wherever he goes. These images are captured by a shy, distant camera that grows more fervent as the movie rolls on, like a wallflower blooming to life and getting swept up in the storm.
Aubrey Plaza plays Allison, an actor/writer/director with a mean poker face who confronts her mental block head-on by heading out to a remote lake house in the Adirondack Mountains where she can rest and recharge. Hoping to shake off the cobwebs and dive deep into her next screenplay, Allison finds herself distracted by her flirtatious host Gabe (Christopher Abbott), much to the dismay of his pregnant girlfriend Blair (Sarah Gadon). It’s not long after her arrival that the three begin drinking their feelings, arguing over the merits of traditional gender roles and fencing over the implications of home cooked meals. “You’re really hard to read” Blair jests at Allison, her eyes narrowing as if she were inspecting a piece of evidence. “Yeah, you know what, I get that all the time,” Allison snaps back, a subtle war waged under the surface of smiles and salutations.
It started out as an artists retreat at an isolated cabin in the woods. What follows is a canned explosion. An exploitative, nightmarish bringing together of the conscious and the unconscious psyche, a Jungian exercise in the guise of a verbose play a la Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Fans of Sophia Takal’s Always Shine will dig the familiar structure of a woman being split in two. As the writer of Takal’s 2016 charmer and the husband to Takal herself, it makes sense that Levine’s latest project would echo similarities of their past work, although this time around, the dark humor really gives the film an edge. Plaza’s deadpan delivery of lines like “I’ve been lying since the second I got here” and describing her films as “unsuccessful small ones that nobody likes” keep the viewer off-balance, making each moment feel upended, foggy, like a waking dream. Does Allison really believe that women should be marital slaves for men? Does she really love the cold? Did her mom really die? Getting down to brass tacks with a performer as talented as Plaza is beside the point when her sarcasm is the source of her truth.
The challenge of duality offers a rare gift for actors looking to show off the many weapons in their arsenal. Given the opportunity, Plaza knocks it out of the park. Her movements veer from sultry to sad and back again. Her eyes dart restlessly around the room, a small smirk simmers. Fingers twitch and legs rock, a circadian rhythm that lends to the waking dream. Her dry, sardonic persona creeps into every crevice, permeates each frame, and it’s fascinating to watch her pull from her own artistic well of experiences as she deconstructs the image she holds in the public eye. In real life, both director Levine and star Plaza and are married to their filmmaker partners with whom they often collaborate. The authenticity of the characters onscreen is enriched by the personal demons they battle off-screen, the stress of creating with your significant other bleeding cathartic commentary into the picture, a therapeutic practice in performance art that plays it a little close to the chest.
It’s interesting to see both Abbott and Gadon here, in yet another movie that investigates the malleability of identity after their individual turns in Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy and Brandon Cronenberg’s Possessor. Abbott proves once again that he truly can play anyone, and watching him and Gadon feed off of each other’s energy is so engaging, it’s hard to look away. They are dazzling and powerful and sexy and scary, constantly pushing one another and picking at each other’s scabs and playing mind games and shifting power dynamics. Abbott’s lackadaisical manner undercuts Gadon’s quick-witted specificity in ways that spark and catch fire, making the inevitable boiling over of tensions all the more fruitful when the balance is tipped. It’s a joy watching all of these actors bounce ideas off of one another, some of the most enthralling moments in the tiniest throwaway lines or wayward glances.
Giulio Carmassi and Bryan Scary’s score sneaks up on you like small spiders scaling your back, the strings plucking and and stretching and snapping like elastic, a sensation that creates a tingling anticipation in the brain. Paired with Robert Leitzell’s animated cinematography and Matthew L. Weiss’ razor sharp editing, Black Bear is consistently upping the ante, starting completely still and growing more erratic as the temperature in the room rises, exacerbating the tension, keeping the viewer on the edge of their seat from the very first frame all the way through to the finish.
Director Levine meditates on his personal fears and anxieties in a way that is both deeply personal and wholly universal. By weaponizing his own personal relationships within the film industry, he instigates an insightful commentary not only on the price an artist pays to achieve their dreams, but also on the filmmaking business as a whole. Where some might end a movie with a final declaration that puts all of the missing puzzle pieces into place, Levine opts for the oblique, providing a less conscious, more spontaneous process that allows audiences to draw their own conclusions and begin their own debates. Is it healthy to use your movie as a coping mechanism for the issues you’re facing in your real life? Probably not, but it makes for great art.
/Film Rating: 9 out of 10
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