Written and directed by Lawrence Michael Levine, Black Bear is an incredible look into the toxicities which are often entwined with the creative process. It’s difficult to peel your eyes away from – much like a horrific car crash. The premise is clever: a filmmaker travels to an isolated location to play a ‘calculated game of desire and jealousy in the pursuit of a work of art that blurs the boundaries between autobiography and invention.’ Reading this summary after my first watch was surprising: halfway through the film, the viewer is slapped by a second part, a different story told in an alternative universe with the same location and characters.
Part one sees Aubrey Plaza’s character, Allison, take to a remote lakehouse seeking a retreat and peace to write her next film. She is hosted by Gabe (Christopher Abbott) and Blair (Sarah Gadon); the latter is pregnant, and the two are in a fraught relationship. Often in a bright red and sleek bathing suit, Allison is a dangerously appealing manifestation of chaos. Her very presence causes arguments between Blair and Gabe, and she goads each of them as she condescends to Blair and liaises with Gabe. The second part sees the three characters with different relationships, roles, and characters: Gabe is directing a film that takes place at the lakehouse; Allison is his wife and leading actress; Blair is the secondary lead. Gabe conspires to elicit the best, most passionate performance from Allison as is possible.
Plaza, Abbott, and Gadon work fantastically together – as a group, the chemistry is palpable. In part one, the audience is placed as an awkward voyeur as we observe the undeniable attraction between Allison and Gabe and the intrigue and tension between Blair and Allison as Blair tries to form a bond; then, the breaking down of Blair and Gabe’s relationship, made all the more complicated by their pregnancy. Everyone is still just as captivating in part two, even though everything has been completely flipped on its head. Watching the three of them together is like observing history’s most dynamic Mexican standoff.
There’s a deep claustrophobic presence throughout. Even when the massive, sprawling lake house only has three occupants, they remain far too close for comfort. They are squashed in at a dinner table; Blair and Allison, then Allison and Gabe, hold one another tenderly as they dance, and they share space in the den and argue. The claustrophobia is amplified in the second part when crew members of the film that Gabe is directing fill every little crevice of the house, and they’re not exactly being pleasant either – they’re getting high, they’re dealing with bum tums, they’re flirting and slacking off together. They’re in every room, in every corner, constantly observing the protagonists and adding an extra barrier to any communication.
Allison’s character is recognised as difficult in both parts. In the first, she is an actress who struggles to find work due to her nature, and in the second, we can plainly see that her supposed ‘difficulty’ comes from the fact that she is being manipulated. There’s a standout scene in part two that is torturously long and painful to watch, in the best way possible. Gabe and the crew are waiting for their lead to appear, to film their last scene. Allison, drunk and heartbroken, appears alongside Blair and an unnamed actor. One of the senior production assistants is unwell and disappears to the bathroom, and the script supervisor is stoned out of her mind. Everyone is behind schedule due to the set and crew being a mess, but Alison is blamed despite her performing brilliantly. It’s devastating to behold.
All this being said, the ending did leave me somewhat unsatisfied. It’s very ambiguous, which I generally take no issue with, but the film builds to, and possibly needs, a third part. The first two sections see a man controlling two intelligent and talented women, pitting them against each other, and I was so ready to see him get a taste of his own psychological torture. A dissatisfying ending isn’t necessarily a bad thing when executed with purpose – in fact, it can actually be satisfying in a weird, roundabout way. But ultimately I feel an imbalance between Blair and Allison’s characters that I can’t quite rationalise. Otherwise, this is a phenomenal watch.