Black Bear is available on all major digital platforms from 23rd April
There is always something compelling about meta films that reflect on their own existence as a work of art. For an audience, watching a film about filmmaking often evokes a feeling that we are in on the “secret”, getting a peek behind the curtain. Meta-cinema goes against standard narrative conventions by refusing the audience their suspension of disbelief, deliberately not allowing them to forget they are watching a work of fiction. Historical examples go back as far as the late 1920s with Dziga Vertov’s groundbreaking The Man with the Movie Camera. Yet meta-cinema is often associated with the self-reflective, arthouse new-wave films of the 1960s, such as Fellini’s 81⁄2 (1963) or Godard’s Le Mépris (1963).
The concept remains popular today, with recent examples like Iñárritu’s Birdman (2014) and now Lawrence Michael Levine’s Black Bear (2020), which pushes meta cinema in new and interesting directions by constantly toying with the audience perception of what is or isn’t “real” within the world of the story.
The film consists of two ‘episodes’, framed at the beginning and end by Alison (Aubrey Plaza) sitting down to write, indicating that perhaps what we are about to see are visualisations of the ideas she is working on. The first episode, titled The Bear in the Road, starts as a chamber-piece thriller where Alison, a former actress turned director, stays in a remote lake house to find inspiration for her next film. Talking through the night with her hosts, a young couple Gabe (Christopher Abbott) and Blair (Sarah Gadon). Here, the group’s issues and differing outlooks on life soon come to the surface. We learn that Gabe is an unsuccessful musician, while Blair’s drinking habit is compromising her unplanned pregnancy – something they constantly bicker about. Meanwhile, Alison is aloof and sarcastic, seemingly enjoying prodding at Blair.
Gabe is attracted to Alison from the start, which is apparent to both women and further fuels the tension between them; Alison and the couple’s dialogue a repartee that feels too excessive and theatrical. For instance, during dinner, Gabe and Blair contradict every sentence the other says, constantly digging at one another to a ridiculous degree. The conversation feels deliberately stylised, as if the film wants to make us aware of its staginess. The sequence building to a surprisingly dramatic crescendo that, again, feels deliberately excessive as if drawing attention to its own artifice.
As we question just what is going on, the film takes an unprecedented 180-degree turn, and episode two begins. The Bear by the Boat House at first seems to be giving us the answers we want, only to keep reconfiguring everything we have seen so far.
Here we find out Alison is the lead actress in a film being made, directed by her real-life husband, Gabe, with Blair in a supporting role. A similarly tense love triangle is developing both onscreen and off, only this time Blair is the interloper and Alison the scorned wife. By telling us the same story but switching around the ingredients and adding another layer on top, the film again throws us in at the deep end.
Throughout the second episode, we watch as Gabe pretends to have an affair with Blair with the express purpose of making Alison jealous to bring out the most realistic and honest performance in the film they are making. Alison is also finding solace in alcohol to deal with the situation, showering Gabe with the same “insults” as the fictional Blair used in episode one. All these parallels make the audience question what we have seen in episode one. Was it Alison’s own version of the events, taking the role she would have rather had? Could it have been a future project of Alison’s where she is trying to process the traumatizing events of filming Black Bear, confirmed by her character claiming to be a former actress turned director? Or could it have been a script of hers coming to life in her mind?
There are no specific answers to these questions, which leave the film open to several various interpretations and might leave audiences frustrated.
This second part diverts stylistically from the staginess of the first, emphasised by the hand-held camerawork and authentic conversations. However, the film also introduces a screwball element, with the various crew members working on the film becoming involved in comical hijinks. These include the script supervisor being so high that she doesn’t know what page of the script they are on—the assistant director running to the toilet frequently due to food poisoning. And various crew members pouring coffee on Blair by accident. While entertaining, these moments again draw attention to the artificiality of what we are watching, the making of the film just as staged as the film itself.
One of the significant connotations of meta cinema is that, as the audience sees the crew and director at work, they are also aware of how the film they are watching essentially has another unseen team in the background. As the movie continued, I kept expecting a finale where the camera pans out and takes a step back into reality, where we see Levine instructing Aubrey Plaza and the other actors. This did not happen, maybe for the better, because then it automatically would raise the never-ending question of “now who is filming this crew?”
The cast is great across the board, but the film clearly belongs to Aubrey Plaza; she remains the most likeable character in both episodes, despite playing the temptress in the first and scorned woman in the second. Her performance in the film’s opening episode clearly playing off Plaza’s established persona as a dry-witted and ever sarcastic comedienne. Yet, in the latter half, she hits notes that we haven’t seen from her before.
The second episode clearly borrows from John Cassavetes’s masterpiece Opening Night (1977), which is also about a drunken actress undergoing an emotional crisis. Those around her insisting she presses ahead with the performance; Plaza heavily influenced by Gena Rowlands’ incredible turn as Myrtle Gordon, cribbing some of her mannerisms and gestures.
All of Black Bear’s toying around with metatextuality does have a purpose, like Opening Night; it raises thought-provoking questions about the sacrifices made in the name of art. Is it worth forcing an actress to suffer a mental breakdown to achieve a great performance? Given all the stories over the years about how great directors like Kubrick and Hitchcock have treated their leading ladies, as well as more recent revelations about the likes of Joss Whedon, the question of how artist/muse relationships can easily slide into abusive territory, has long remained a pertinent one.
Black Bear is an enjoyable meta-film that keeps the audience on the edge of their seats by continuously challenging our expectations and bending the genre to what feels like its limits. And while the film is very much dialogue-heavy and sometimes feels a bit too ambitious for its own good, the core emotional through-line is honest and dynamic enough to keep you hooked until the end.
The lack of answers and assistance to understand what is going on is one of the film’s most frustrating elements and biggest charms. The best example is the titular black bear, which shows up after both episodes to bring things to a potentially violent end. It’s abundantly clear that the bear is not just a bear; it must be a symbol for something. The film actively provoking the audience to figure out what. One explanation is that it symbolizes a creative crisis, where the off screen writer is simply running out of ideas. It’s as if Levine was saying: “I have no idea how to finish the film. You come up with it yourselves.” And surprisingly, it works.