“Do you remember what it was like in the beginning, before all of this?”, Allison (Aubrey Plaza, Life After Beth) will ask near the end of Black Bear written and directed by Lawrence Michael Levine whose previous feature, Wild Canaries (2014), also boasted a bestial title. “We were so happy,” Allison continues, “I just want to go back there.”
By this late stage in the film’s accumulation of narrative layers – some shrilly (perhaps even terminally) dramatic, some paradoxical, some metacinematic – going back is not so straightforward, even if the opening scene is reprised, in minimally different takes, several times in the film. For once you have followed Allison on this journey, in fact unfolding in a single location but with a number of ramifying pathways through its confines, the starting point is no longer easily retraceable, or indeed the same as it first seemed.
Black Bear begins with Allison sitting cross-legged in her swimsuit on a jetty, meditative as she looks out to the water, before she goes to her room in a big house, sits at the table, opens a large notepad, and starts to write. In fact the film’s title appears on screen written in pen on lined paper, as does its first subtitle, Part one – The Bear in the Road. At this point, we have not yet learnt Allison’s name, or seen her share the screen with anyone else. All we know for sure about her is that she is staying by a beautiful woodland lake, and that she is a writer – and from here on in, as something of a narrative emerges, it is hard to tell where exactly her reality ends and her writerly imagination begins.
In the film’s first Part, Allison arrives alone by cab at this place, an actress/director/writer on retreat hoping to find inspiration for her next screenplay. Struggling with writer’s block and caught in the marital friction between her hosts Gabe (Christopher Abbott, Piercing) and the heavily pregnant Blair (Sarah Gadon, Antiviral), Allison gets stoned and drunk, and offers her flippant views on everything from cooking to gender rôles to the importance (or otherwise) of ideology in film. She also jokes, pretends and downright lies in much of what she says, playing, like the actress she is, a version of herself that is so unreliable that neither the other two characters nor we can be sure just who she is. “You’re really hard to read,” as Blair says of Allison, figuring her guest as a piece of writing. When this tense menage à trois reaches a catastrophic ending rooted in two-timing, deception, betrayal (and a bear), the film goes crashing into its second part (The Bear By the Boat House).
“It would make a great retreat, or maybe even a place to do film shoots,” Gabe had said of his plans for the lakeside property, and sure enough, in this film of two halves (plus prologue and coda), Part Two sees the location turned into an actual film set, as Allison works through one reordered version of this scenario even as she performs in another (now dramatised for film by her writer/director husband Gabe). These two formally demarcated chapters of Black Bear relate to each other like the different parts of David Lynch’s Lost Highway (1997) or Mulholland Dr. (2001), each telling essentially the same story (here of jealousy, duplicity and treachery between a wife, a husband and another woman) in radically different variants, without our ever being certain which is the master narrative and which the slave, or indeed whether either is anything more than a blocked writer’s fancy.
In other words, Black Bear is – like the Coen Brothers’ Barton Fink (1991), Spike Jonze’s Adaptation (2002), François Ozon’s Swimming Pool (2003) and Megan Freels Johnston’s The Ice Cream Truck (2017) – a portrait of an artist trying to reconstitute her surrounding reality and relationships as art, and a film about filmmaking which dramatises the creative process itself. It is as self-reflexive as it is solipsistic (the latter a key word in the dialogue), even as its fractal parts require considerable versatility from a cast who keep borrowing one another’s lines and swapping one another’s rôles. For they are engaged in a triangular dance around an evasive truth that is indeed hard to read, and possibly never even put down on the page.
[possible spoiler] As the film’s title, and the subheadings of its sections, all suggest, there is a black bear around (both) these Parts, prowling at their margins before eventually appearing to create havoc. ‘Bear’ is also the nickname that at least one of these versions of Allison uses several times for her errant husband, hinting both at the real source of her anxiety, and at the way that this anxiety has been expressed in Allison’s different scenarios as something wild and destructive enough to bring the chapter(s) of a bigger story to a sudden, wrenching stop. After all, while Allison is, in both Parts of this adultery tale, a married woman, in the beginning and in the end she is conspicuously alone. Meanwhile, it is left to us to find our way back through this smart, sophisticated film.
© Anton Bitel