Director: Lawrence Michael Lavine
Stars: Aubrey Plaza, Christopher Abbott, Sarah Gadon
If Aubrey Plaza’s against-type performance in festive charmer Happiest Season hinted at her abilities in a more serious role, Black Bear brings that promise to fruition. That she appears here in a three-hander with Christopher Abbott and Sarah Gadon only adds to the film’s cache. Honestly, I didn’t need any more to be all-in on this one.
Plaza is Allison; an actor/director with a faltering career who joins Gabe (Abbott) and his pregnant partner Blair (Gadon) at their secluded lakeside summerhouse. She’s staying with them in order to focus on writing a new feature, even as she openly questions her commitment to continuing her career.
From the off there’s a tension between this trifecta as their roles together are established. Allison’s early chat with Gabe about rejecting both compliments and acts of chivalry brings expressions of affection into the negative spaces of their interactions, implanting the suggestion of flirtation, even if the surface talk is about its absence. Black Bear is already loaded with such subterfuge.
At dinner on their first night, the fractious relationship between Gabe and Blair is revealed as she publicly exposes his professional shortcomings and a heated, overwrought argument develops on the subject of feminism and defined gender roles. In the impassioned exchanges, writer/director Lawrence Michael Lavine skirts close to Sam Levinson’s self-indulgent diatribes, ala Malcolm & Marie, yet succeeds (where that film failed) in siphoning the results back into the interpersonal dynamics. Half an hour in and we’re deep into a darkly menacing battle of wills.
And then, just as Black Bear becomes increasingly devoured by darkness and lethal implications, we encounter a significant mid-film switch… but not a wholly unanticipated one. So much of the first half of the film is about lies, about creating false-identities, about pretense and power dynamics. When Lavine pulls the rug, we’re carried with it.
I’d stop here or significantly skip ahead if you don’t want to know specifics… Feel free to rejoin us around “Plaza’s multi-leveled intensity”…
The promise of meta-textuality that has surrounded the film’s buzz comes to fruition. In the second half of the picture we find ourselves in the same space with the same actors, but a different dynamic is at work. Now, the lakeside house is a shooting location for a film directed by Gabe. Allison is his partner and star, and Blair is the interloper (and co-star) threatening them. But once again Gabe is the architect, sabotaging his own relationship.
Lavine shoots the second half of Black Bear very differently to the first, bringing a verité edge to proceedings with loose, wandering hand-held. On the soundtrack, Guilio Carmassi and Bryan Scary’s score starts percolating, bubbling like Jon Brion’s work on Punch-Drunk Love, creating a similar sense of volatility. With earlier scenes now taking on the appearance of set-ups, we’re urged to believe the film’s entire first 45 minutes were fiction.
The debated gender roles in the first half are similarly reconfigured. Gabe’s approach to directing his masterpiece involves callous manipulation of Allison’s feelings. Think Shelley Duvall under the thumb of Stanley Kubrick. In the process, Black Bear questions the validity of such abuse for the sake of art (placing it in a similar sphere to one of the last week’s notable releases). And out of this comes a further piece of interrogation, as we’re asked to question the integrity of a ‘drunken’ performance as performed by someone who is actually drunk (that this is all a performance leads to the kind of spiral thinking Lavine seems to be encouraging).
Dividing his film into two disparate halves, Lavine has managed to manifest two calling cards. In the first he shows his ability to create absorbing psychological melodrama that’s played straight. In the latter section he shows a more sinuous comedic flex, drawing on the tics of Truffaut’s Day for Night or Olivier Assayas in Irma Vep mode. And yet into this more obviously satirical second section Lavine builds a new kind of pressure, until the high-anxiety of part one’s climax is rekindled in new ways.
Plaza’s multi-leveled intensity has been rightfully championed, as she uses the flex of her funnier instincts to add an edge to her late-blooming dramatic fury. Combining both halves, it’s one of the year’s best performances. But she’s not alone. Abbott shows a real comedic flare for Lavine. He’s one of the most consistently great actors out there right now, and Black Bear only adds to his seemingly unbroken run. Gadon, for her part, brings the same impressive commitment that she’s similarly become known for. Between them all Black Bear almost feels exhaustively well performed.
Which is fitting, because this is a piece about performance, and the porous lines between artifice and reality. It’s not so much a film within a film – parts one and two are similar but neither acknowledges the existence of the other – as it is two concurrent dramas unfolding in neighbouring parallel universes. While the film’s final moments invite a further reading, multiplying the ambiguity.
And it absolutely hammers by, carried by these people and their innate magnetism. Those seeking neatness and defined resolution might find themselves irked and challenged. For those who enjoy such provocations, Black Bear offers plenty of slipperiness, daring us to get a solid hold on it. Consider yourself both warned and encouraged.