Led by a tour de force performance as savage, unpredictable and frightening as the film’s titular ursine, Black Bear stars Aubrey Plaza in stellar form as a writer-director seeking inspiration, in this bamboozling psychological character study.
Art appears to imitate and draw upon life in Lawrence Michael Levine’s head-scratching, emotionally fraught follow-up to 2014’s Wild Canaries. Set in an isolated upstate New York house, it opens with Allison (Plaza) in a striking red swimming costume, looking straight at the camera, at us. Sitting on a lakeside pontoon, her vacant, emotionless stare looks through us, into the misty middle-distance and the unknown. The lines of the towel on which she sits are in line with the wood panelling of the deck, which is in line with the pages of her notepad.
Seek to read between those lines and you will come unstuck. This prologue – to which we will return – sets up an elliptical, purposefully elusive narrative where all is never quite what it seems. Positioned somewhere between the marital disintegration of Le Mépris, sinister role-playing of The Talented Mr. Ripley and full-blown, alcohol-fuelled eruptions of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Black Bear is formed of a vicious love triangle.
Owned by Gabe (Christopher Abbott) and heavily pregnant Blair (Sarah Gadon), Allison is to rent a room at the lakeside house to get away from it all for a while. She wants to write and disconnect from the world. Initial interactions are a little defensive, borderline confrontational and with only passing reference to how they know Allison, or not, our guard is up. For all the plaudits Plaza will likely receive, it should be made clear Abbott and Gadon are also on very good form here. The actors chew over and spit out the knotty, thorny dialogue at one another.
Stinging jabs are thrown this way and that and far from finishing each other’s sentences in a cutesy way, Gabe and Blair disagree to disagree on almost everything. A few bottles of red wine down and differing viewpoints flare. With flawless timing and pitch of delivery, venomous glances and air of menace, the first night’s exchanges make for uncomfortable, yet enthralling cinema. But when alone with Gabe, Allison admits, “I’ve been lying since the second I got here,” we question everything we’ve seen. Forty minutes have passed and Black Bear takes a running jump off the pontoon, transforming into an entirely different beast.
Not wanting, or indeed being confidently able, to spoil the smoke and mirrors of what ensues, we’ll end all mentions of plot there. But a quick Google of the symbolism of a black bear is enlightening. Sincere introspection, exploring the notion of one’s innermost existence is the name of the game-playing nastiness here. For all the blood, guts, vomit and bile of Plaza’s quite extraordinary performance, Black Bear is a film which demonstrates its humans at their very weakest and most vulnerable. The lengths to which some will go to create – for better or worse – is further proof that you should never let the truth get in the way of a good story.
The 2021 Glasgow Film Festival takes place between the 24 February to 7 March. You can follow CineVue’s coverage here.
Matthew Anderson | @MattAndo63