A woman in a red swimsuit sits at the end of a wooden dock, shrouded in mist. She (Aubrey Plaza) is still, but clearly shaken; devastated even. There is a sense that she is barely holding it together. It’s an image that Black Bear returns to repeatedly, that of some mysterious trauma; even as it delves into notions of art and artifice.
Alison (Plaza) is an indie filmmaker seeking a retreat at a lake-house cabin in the Adirondack Mountains. The cabin’s owners, Gabe (Christopher Abbott) and Blair (Sarah Gadon), are not entirely comfortable with their guest. Then again, Alison is, to be fair, a discomfiting figure – at once open and unreadable with an odd habit of giving compliments, with seeming sincerity, but refusing to take them.
Gabe and Blair’s relationship is already shaky, built on a bedrock of passive-aggressiveness, and Alison’s mere presence brings out the worst in them. An uncomfortably fraught dinner characterized by contradiction and pedantry – Gabe’s mother has been trying to sell the property for years, or is it just a year, two years, a year and a half? – descends into drunken, pseudo-intellectual nihilism.
Writer-director Lawrence Michael Levene initially seems to be aiming for a variation on Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, where it’s the guest – singular – acting as provocateur, but, as the night draws on, other elements come into play. Plaza, known for her spiky, deadpan demeanor, intrigues in the role of the mysterious Alison. Is she trying to subtly break up Gabe and Blair’s relationship, or is she just an innocent bystander? Is she really there to work through her writer’s block or is there some other agenda at play?1
It’s a role that gains new and unexpected dimensions as the very nature of the trio’s relationship is called into question. In Black Bear, no one and nothing is quite as it seems. James Abbott is master of embodying the fractured male psyche and Sarah Gadon provides a perfect counterpoint, the jealous light to his insecure dark.
Levene maintains a studied tone, even as the emotional tenor swings towards melodrama; until we arrive at the point of no return and all becomes clear. Your enjoyment may depend, ultimately, on your appreciation of meta-fiction – of art that mirrors life that mirrors art till its not clear where one ends and the other begins.
Black Bear proved to me to be more of a formal exercise than what may have been promised by the premise, but the questions asked about creation, complicity, and victimhood kept me engaged. Giulio Carmassi and Bryan Scary’s thrumming, disjointed score imbues even the simplest gestures with dread. Rob Leitzell’s cinematography contrasts the warmth and increasing feverishness of the cabin with the damp, peaceful outdoors.
Black Bear turns the mirror back on the act of filmmaking to reveal striking contrasts – like a face, pale and emotionless, peering out from the black water of a lake.
Black Bear is available in select cinema and on Video On Demand from December 4th, 2020
- In this, there’s a definite parallel with Shirley, though Black Bear is more intellectual than magickal.