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Review: 'Black Bear' Two Different Movies in One

by Kilian Melloy
Thursday Dec 3, 2020
Christopher Abbott and Aubrey Plaza in 'Black Bear'
Christopher Abbott and Aubrey Plaza in 'Black Bear'  (Source:Momentum Pictures)

Films with a schizophrenic edge aren't that uncommon; sometimes they merge two different elements, or even two different genres, with brilliant results ("Pan's Labyrinth" comes to mind). Other times, they present two visions of a single theme, feeling like a kind of back-door anthology. "Black Bear," by writer-director Lawrence Michael Levine, falls into the latter camp.

Essentially two movies in one, "Black Bear" starts out as a tense toxic relationship drama: Filmmaker Allison (Aubrey Plaza) arrives at a remote guest house deep in the woods for a few days of solitude, intending to work on her next screenplay. If she's looking for raw material to fuel her imagination, she gets it in spades in the form of Gabe (Christopher Abbot) and Blair (Sarah Gadon), the property's proprietors, an unmarried couple who mercilessly snipe at each other, using everything in sight - Blair's pregnancy, Gabe's ideas about masculinity, even their guest, Allison - as ammunition.

Not that Allison seems to mind; she pitches in with the dramatics, happy to let loose with provocative comments or confessional, radically honest disclosures. But how much of what she's saying is genuine, and how much is simply play-acting, riffing on the moment in a kind of performative, ad-libbing style, whether for sheer amusement or as an artistic exercise? How genuine is anything that any of them have to say - aside, that is, from Blair's very real jealousy, as she picks up on the mutual attraction between Gabe and Allison?

This first chapter ends abruptly, and seemingly unresolved, as the film swerves in an entirely different direction. If the first part, with its small cast and confined settings, felt like a stage play committed to film, the second part jumps into a wider, more meta milieu, reimagining the weekend visit to the property as a last day of filming on a movie in which the same people are acting out similar dynamics. Gabe is now a director, and Allison his wife, an insecure actress; the two are in constant conflict over creative choices, with Gabe playing mind games on Allison in order to coax a more effective performance from her. When Gabe and Blair - who's now an actress who's playing the part of the weekend visitor - pretend to have had a sexual encounter in order to ramp up Allison's jealousy, their ploy works a little too well, sending Allison to the bottle... and into a rage that could all too easily turn homicidal.

This second chapter runs about twice as long as the first and makes room for different subplots and running gags. It's a much more humorous take on the same dysfunctional, relationship dynamics, in part because the quarreling lovers now have an audience twice over: Us, the viewers, and the film crew who observe as the film's final scenes are being shot under increasingly difficult circumstances.

How do the two versions of the story tie together, if at all? What is the director of the film... the real film, not the film within the film... trying to say? The final minutes offer a third (but by no means definitive) take, one that offers a semblance of an explanation but shrouds it in still more mystery and obfuscation. It's a perfect note on which to end, but it won't make the film's two disparate halves fit into anything comfortably unified. That, of course, is the point: Levine is meditating on love, and art, and the best way for him to do it is to get his hands as narratively dirty as possible, implicating us, his audience, along the way.

Make no mistake: You may hate this film; you may find its audacity dazzling; you will probably prefer one of the other of its two main chapters. But it won't be one of those movies that simply evaporates from your mind within hours.

"Black Bear" premieres in theaters Dec. 4.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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