by Leoni Horton
t’s a rare treat when a film-maker takes creative initiative with narrative structure, for such previous experimentation has worked to redefine how audiences engage with film. Christopher Nolan made radical waves with Memento through reversing the typical linear structure of traditional cinema, and David Lynch redefined art-house with Mulholland Drive by playing with character roles, story-arch and ambiguity. Although subverting audience expectation in this way can prove controversial, it is often the films that take such daring risks which prove to be the most revolutionary. With his fourth feature, Black Bear, Lawrence Michael Levine throws his hat into the ring of contemporary cinema, offering up a compelling yet wildly frustrating cinematic puzzle.
While physically, Black Bear does have a traditional beginning, middle and end, it also works to perceive the narrative from various vantage points. Picture the film as a circle: we might travel around and around, jump in at any angle and still arrive back at the same destination from which we began. In the first half of the film, we meet Alison (Aubrey Plaza), a film-maker looking to isolate herself from the outside world in order to focus on her work. She arrives at a lakeside cabin owned by Gabe (Christopher Abbott) and Blair (Sarah Gadon), a married couple locked in a game of passive-aggressive tit for tat. Gabe takes an instant liking to Alison; you could cut their sexual tension with a knife. However, Blair, heavily pregnant and ill at ease, begins to take vicious swipes at Alison and Gabe, which only works to solidify their comradery. We stay with these fiercely conflicted characters as they set up a compelling dynamic, raising questions, making allegiances and setting up intricate obstacles. Then, just as things are getting juicy, Levine flips the switch.
In the second half of the film, we meet Gabe, Blair and Alison once again, but they are not the characters we have come to know. This time Gabe is the film-maker, making a movie named Black Bear which Alison and Blair are acting in. Alison is now Gabe’s wife, jealous of his connection with her co-star Blair, who Gabe pretends to be having an affair with in order to get the best performance out of Alison. Oh, and the film they are making directly mirrors the same story the group played out in the first half of the movie. Yes, it’s all very complicated and meta. Following this structural twist, the same tensions displayed in the first half of the movie begin to arise again. However, this time, each character has a new role to play and a new motivation to contend with. It’s a film within a film, within a film, within a film. Envision a cinematic game of musical chairs, and you’ll see the rough ideas playing out within Black Bear.
Themes of betrayal, gender politics, gaslighting and parody rear their heads, but Levine never clearly answers any of the many questions this narrative phenomenon presents. Chiefly, the film seems to be prodding its finger towards the world of Independent Film and the egotistical, hipstery types who work within it—too smart for their own good, some might say. Black Bear seems purposefully obscure, never quite letting you sink your teeth into the real meat of the story. Reality appears to be in a state of flux, and between the shifting personalities, self-referential gags and large, ominous bear lurking around the outskirts of the movie, what’s really going on within the film is anyone’s best guess. It’s possible to read the two halves of the film as stand-alone sections, yet, minute details suggest that the two parallel worlds are deeply interconnected and are perhaps even bleeding into each other: Alison from act one and Blair from act two share identical nosebleeds. It all sounds very clever and pretentious, but Levine strategically offers us just enough to keep us engaged. He lets us believe we’ve got the full measure of things, then he pulls the rug out again, changing course and adding further exasperating complications.
Although this amalgamation of ideas is frustrating to grapple with, for the most part, Black Bear’s genre-bending experimentation pays off. However, a few sluggish details hold the movie back from reaching the extraordinarily meta heights Levine seemed to be gunning for. In the second half of the film, he gets too caught up in the interpersonal relationships and quirks of the cast and crew working on Gabe’s film. He also spends an excessive amount of time setting up a random succession of coffee spill gags—which are neither here nor there. Characters filter in and out, offering clever gags and complications, each likeable enough and doing the most with their screen time but failing to add any real depth to Levine’s vision.
Most of the film’s triumphs belong to Aubrey Plaza, who has a real knack for unearthing unusual projects and unconventional characters. Her work in Matt Spicer’s Ingrid Goes West showcased her talents outside the world of comedy, speaking to her affinity with the world of offbeat cinema. As Alison, she delivers Cassavetes levels of female emotion, delving into the world of misunderstood hysteria while also painting an authentic picture of how the film industry can manipulate women to get what it wants from them. Plaza’s characterisation work is thoroughly nuanced. Her tandem performances are eerie and almost impossible to read: ‘I’ve been lying since the moment I got here,’ she says to Gabe with a wry smile. Christopher Abbott also flexes his distinct acting chops; his work here just another sure step on his path to certain greatness.
Many viewers might get lost in Black Bear’s labyrinth of twists and turns, but Levine’s work here deserves to be acknowledged for its impressive originality and avant-garde ideas. There are no quick and easy payoffs, but just like any good puzzle, it’s incredibly satisfying to try and fit the film’s complicated pieces together.
Black Bear plays as part of the Glasgow Film Festival 2021.
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