Pre-review warning: This is a pretty difficult film to write about without spoiling. While I’ll try to keep that to a minimum, it’s really a film which works best going in blind.
It’s a regular point of debate when making movies about blending reality with fiction and how much is permissible? This could be something as inoffensive as changing some of the details, or order of events in a biopic to make the story more impactful. It can also happen in a production setting; there’s plenty of examples of behind-the-scenes tricks happening on set to get that more ‘authentic’ angle. The horror genres no stranger to this. Any fan of the Alien series will be keen to tell you about how none of the actors knew the chest-burster was going to explode like it does. Or if you want something more sinister, there are countless examples of films trying to hide a small budget, doing things for real in lieu of any GCI. Films like Cannibal Holocaust, with the infamous turtle scene, or in fact, pretty much anything from production Cannibal Holocaust!
As a central theme, this is what Black Bear is reckoning with. The film is split into two title-carded segments, Part One: The Bear in The Road, opens with film director Allison (Aubrey Plaza) arriving at a lake house with the intention of working on her writing and just trying to get away from it all. She’s staying in the house with the owners – a couple – Gabe and pregnant partner Blair (Christopher Abbot and Sarah Gadon respectively). Its immediately obvious that the two are in a relationship in decline. Constantly at each other’s throats, and the isolation of the setting has them desperate for company. Allison is inserted in the middle and to make matters worse it’s becoming clear that Gabe is getting ready to risk it all for a chance with her. Amidst the awkwardness, she becomes a Joker character in their fallouts, going back and forth with who to side with and acting as this jeering chaotic force between the two.
The film is really built around these three central performances and their dynamic together, while all great, Plaza is the star of the show. In this first section she plays the classic Aubrey Plaza character, known most from TV comedy Parks and Recreation: dry, deadpan, sarcastic, and all together with great comedic timing. While good, the latter half of the film allows her to take this template and run with it, it’s really entertaining watching. Very much a thriller, it allows her acting to explore a more serious side while still flirting with black comedy elements. Her winding up with the husband and wife is laugh out loud funny, coupled with an ominous and eerie soundtrack still feels like she’s really poking the bear.
To avoid spoilers, let’s say, events unfold. We’re thrown into Part Two: The Bear by the Boat House, which turns everything on its head. The three main characters are present, but they seem to have switched roles. Somewhat aligning with the events of part one, and with some parallels flipped. A relationship is still in decline, but somewhere else, taking a different form. This is where the line is blurred between the fiction of the film and the real world. Invoking shades of films like Inland Empire, the plot shift completely recontextualises the first half, and will get you questioning everything that’s come so far. It gives the idea that some of what you’re seeing is real, but you’re not too sure what.
Black Bear is a film that touches on a lot; an artist’s personal influence on their work, whether an artist must suffer for their work? Can you inflict that suffering on others? It borders on the arthouse without being pretentious or inaccessible, engaging and will actively keep you guessing trying to piece this together on a first watch. One of the few films that on finishing, has made me immediately want to go right back to the start and pick up anything I might have missed.
From the Glasgow Film Festival 2021