Lawrence Michael Levine’s Black Bear is an uncommon animal with an equal measure of mystery and fury. Starring Aubrey Plaza, Christopher Abbott and Sarah Gadon, it opens as something that feels like an ordinary artistic retreat narrative, where Plaza’s character Allison heads to a remote house, by a lake, for the chance to optimistically inspire some ideas for a new film.
Whilst there, she unintentionally – or intentionally – begins a calculated game of desire and jealousy, pushing the boundaries around her to try and create tension in her stay and stir a deep passion that cannot be controlled. But… this isn’t just one story, it also shifts into a different version of events, where everything we know restarts and the same core people are making a film, thus blurring the reality of creation and autobiography.
While I love a film that plays with time, and the very nature of ‘character’, Black Bear is one that audiences will either love or hate. There’s no middle ground. Although, it’ll help if you’re creatively minded and open to deconstruction of self. It’s a big question film, an art installation designed as a film, a delve in the dark psyche of animal instinct and breaking down the creative barriers inside your brain.
So, back to the beginning, when we first arrive, we’re following Allison (Plaza), an outsider who’s taking a spare room in the lake-side house that Gabe (Abbott) and Blair (Gadon) own. We learn that he’s musician and she’s pregnant, but everything is certainly not peachy. They’re bickering in that sharp way people do when a relationship is crumbling. They’re renting out a room, somehow hoping that extra income and a change in atmosphere might freshen things up. They appear to have some kind of life together but are now pretending to have a life together, with continual contradictions being thrown through the ether. It’s strained.
While Allison clearly notices, she’s also keen to dip inside the chaos, to explore that hidden world and try to work out what’s going on, and maybe even how they got here. It’s difficult to tell with any of the characters who’s telling the truth, or if there’s a secret game beneath, and this all comes down to a trio of strong personalities. Black Bear dives into discussions of gender roles, the changes in society and after the unintentional trinity throw alcohol into the mix, it becomes even more heated with emotional truths thrown like rocks through glass windows. Truth is revealed, mistakes in the darkness are made, night swimming on a quiet night… and then, holy shit, we reset the entire narrative progression.
Part two is the same key three actors, but now we’re literally making a film. We open with the same shot, but then the director, cameramen and women and film-making entourage emerge into the scene. So, is Black Bear now a film within a film? Well, in one sense it literally is but now our lead three actors are different characters, with their personalities switched and relationships in different orders.
Because Lawrence Michael Levine’s film is basically set in one location, there’s a definite stage play vibe kicking through the middle. While the second half continues to share views, thoughts, appetites and desires around filmmaking and relationships, it could lose some of the audience because, for want of a better word, it borders the realms of becoming a little ostentatious and too self-referential.
We’ve got a mixing bowl of life imitating art and vice versa, it’s deeply intense and so can occasionally be stressful to watch, and this mainly comes down to the sheer commitment of everyone to their character, whoever they are. While we certainly have dark moments of humour, usually led by Plaza, I could understand why some people might find this overwhelming, as it has the edges of too much reality but when it’s pushed to the brink.
Aubrey Plaza is excellent throughout, it’s somewhat of a masterclass watching her rage through the emotions to the point of explosion as the conclusion comes to a head. I can’t say it’s not also slightly disturbing, because those elements are there, but it’ll definitely fuel discussion over whether this is simply an avantgarde drama-class for the professionals, or if it’s simply expansive auteur filmmaking. Gadon and Abbott are the shape-shifting system around her but equally exceptional, and full of impact.
Truth is, we’re all out of control, and the dark reality of those characteristics lurk beneath the surface all the time, so maybe the Black Bear is the creature we create but only reacts when it’s challenged. And, with that in mind, maybe being challenged is what we want in a creative sense, whether it be in filmmaking or writing, or life. Because, after all, it’s all part of the same package, right?