Nightstream: “Black Bear” blurs the line between art & reality

Black Bear Aubrey Plaza & Christopher Abbott in Black Bear (Momentum Pictures)

Aubrey Plaza is outstanding in a surreal comedy-drama about artistic integrity.

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(This review is part of our coverage of the 2020 Nightstream festival)

The art is always worth it, right? Artists (and writers, and musicians) are by nature self-absorbed, convinced (occasionally to the point of delusion) that the world must know what they have to say. Often that requires not just using your own experiences as creative fodder, but other people’s as well, sometimes without their knowing it. One may even manipulate certain situations, just to see what happens, and if it’ll make it into your next book, or the final print of the movie you’ve been trying to make. Lawrence Michael Levine explores the dark side of artistic integrity (or the lack thereof) in Black Bear, a clever, confounding movie that defies categorization. It’s occasionally funny, but mostly not. It sometimes feels like it’s going to turn into a psychological thriller, but then diverts into a relationship drama. It’s not a fun watch, for sure, but it’s always intriguing.

Black Bear opens with Aubrey Plaza as Allison, a filmmaker who’s the first guest of a remote cabin in the Adirondacks owned by Gabe (Christopher Abbott) and Blair (Sarah Gadon). Gabe and Blair, who are expecting their first child together, are trying to make a go of turning the lodge into an AirBnB, although neither of their hearts seem to really be in it. Despite their initial pleasantries, the vibe between the trio quickly turns sour. Allison is sarcastic, and inexplicably lies about such things as not knowing how to cook, Blair is smug and judgmental, and Gabe can barely conceal his innate misogyny. Why Gabe and Blair are a couple (let alone having a child together) when they clearly despise each other is a mystery, but it’s one that Allison takes advantage of, drawing them into one argument after another, which she observes (and occasionally pours fuel onto) with a wry smile.

Even though they barely know each other, by the time the evening is over Allison and Gabe are taking private swims together, holding hands, confiding in each other, and almost having sex before Blair catches them, which goes about as badly as you think it will. Then, abruptly, everything changes except the lodge, which we soon discover is actually a film set. Though Gabe, the film’s director, is still a belligerent asshole, Allison and Blair have essentially switched roles. Now, Allison is the unhappy spouse of a manipulative partner, and Blair is the interloper who gets a sadistic pleasure out of helping Gabe essentially gaslight her. Gabe’s constant bullying and his and Blair “pretending” that they’re having an affair (although they might actually be) is all in service of getting the most dramatic, realistic performance possible from Allison, who either has no idea what’s going on, or knows all too well what’s going on. The oft-repeated question here is who’s using whom, and for what purpose?

It’s not a fun watch, for sure, but it’s always intriguing.

How much you’ll enjoy Black Bear relies largely on how willing you are to spend an hour and forty-five minutes with some deeply unpleasant people. While it’s interesting to watch them play an endless game of psychological chess with each other, mostly for the sake of “art,” it’s not very fun, and it makes you wonder why anyone would ever get romantically involved with an artist. Anchored by a stunning performance by Plaza, however, it’s endlessly fascinating, and inevitably draws comparisons to such directors as Stanley Kubrick and, more recently, David O. Russell, both of whom are famous for haranguing, tormenting and terrorizing their actors. Despite the tsk-tsking over such things as Russell calling Lily Tomlin a “c*nt,” few critics would say that Russell’s films, for the most part, aren’t worth the bullshit he puts his actors through. Indeed, although some of them tend to Allison as she has one breakdown after another, Gabe’s crew just sort of quietly stands by and watches as he psychologically abuses her. He’s the artist, he knows what he’s doing. Allison knew what she was getting into when she signed up to play this role.

Black Bear also offers a little inside baseball about the film shoot process, providing some of its funniest moments (not to mention brief respites from all the shouting and crying). A standout is Paola Lázaro as a put-upon production assistant who has to hold the shoot together while struggling with a case of explosive diarrhea. When she and another P.A. help an inebriated Allison get ready for a scene, you’ll be reminded of every time you’ve had to help a friend who’s had three too many walk it off. It’s a jarringly realistic moment in a movie that otherwise constantly blurs the lines between what’s real and fiction, and what’s an idea that hasn’t even been written down yet.

Black Bear premieres in theaters and VOD December 4th

Black Bear Trailer:

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