Review: Art imitates, deconstructs, confounds and distorts life in writer-director Lawrence Michael Levine’s trippy tour of the film-making industry, which playfully explores the combustible relationship between a creative and their vision. Bookmarked by the striking image of a lone woman in a blood-red swimsuit, sitting on a pontoon and staring forlornly at the glassy surface of a lake, Black Bear gleefully plants seeds of doubt about the veracity of what we are watching. Aubrey Plaza delivers two contrasting performances on opposite sides of a camera – one figurative, the other literal – as a quick-witted and erudite mistress of her own destiny and a tortured artist at the mercy of a manipulative spouse.
Both iterations of her character, Allison, slalom at breakneck speed through conflicting emotions, culminating in the introduction of the titular mammal in very different ways, accompanied by broken glass or an irreparably fractured heart. Levine delivers an ambiguous parting shot that seems to ignore the first rule of how to satisfactorily end a story but perhaps that’s just another rug being pulled from under us to maintain our disorientation as end credits roll to a discomfiting jazzy score.
Actress-turned-film director Allison (Plaza), who pithily dismisses her own movie back catalogue as “unsuccessful small ones that nobody likes”, travels to a remote lake house belonging to professional musician Gabe (Christopher Abbott). She is seeking inspiration for a new project. The house has been in Gabe’s family for years and he maintains it, on behalf his mother, while he and pregnant girlfriend Blair (Sarah Gadon) prepare for the arrival of their first child. Tensions between Gabe and Blair are immediately evident: they talk over each other and vociferously contradict versions of events that might show them in an unflattering light.
Blair eventually shifts the conversation to Allison and takes a swipe at her boyfriend’s far from lucrative choice of career when she tells the visiting director: “It’s so rare to have the opportunity to pick a real artist’s brain.” Wine flows freely, pot is smoked and the “weird, anti-progressive conversation” about feminism and traditional gender roles spirals into full-blown verbal warfare. As Gabe half-heartedly convinces Blair that he isn’t attracted to their house guest, pulses race and a hirsute, four-legged denizen of the surrounding wilderness prepares to send everyone’s lives into a sickening spin.
Black Bear sustains an air of unease, powered by bruising arguments between characters teetering on the precipice of a nervous breakdown. Simple, uncluttered camerawork, trapping the actors in uncomfortable proximity with toxic emotions, allows the fearless performances and a lean, sharp-toothed script to shine. Levine see-saws between the horribly inevitable and the shockingly unexpected and makes no apologies for spinning heads. The truth is a stranger to fiction.
Find Black Bear in the cinemas