Black Bear review – Aubrey Plaza shows her volcanic side

The indie US film-maker Lawrence Michael Levine deploys Aubrey Plaza as both muse and mouthpiece in this tense dramedy about the ethics of the artistic process. If that sounds tedious, it’s not: Levine’s playful deconstruction of tortured genius is a witty and provocative send-up of tyrannical directors, diva-ish actors and over-invested voyeurs alike.

The film is organised in two acts. The first is a play-like three-hander in which minxy actor turned writer-director Allison (Plaza) embarks on a kind of writer’s retreat in upstate New York. She rents a room in a lakeside cabin owned by Gabe and Blair (Christopher Abbott and Sarah Gadon), a pair of unhappy “creatives” whose relationship she mines for material. The second act takes place on the disastrous last day of a film shoot, repurposing the lakeside location but rejigging everyone’s roles. This time, Gabe is the writer-director, Allison his unhappy wife and the film’s lead, while Blair is her co-star and real-life rival.

Plaza crafted an ingenious, inscrutable, deadpan screen persona in the cult TV sitcom Parks and Recreation, deepening it in the underrated 2017 comedy Ingrid Goes West. Here, as actor Allison, she’s surprisingly volcanic, set jaw betraying vulnerability, fury and a desperation to please. Suspecting an affair between Gabe and Blair, Allison gets drunker and drunker, her ego beginning to derail the shoot. There are shades of Gena Rowlands in John Cassavetes’s Opening Night and A Woman Under the Influence. At the end of the film, Allison is emotionally and physically spent. Yet it’s this that allows her to nail the performance.

As Blair, the Canadian actor Gadon has remarkable range and comic timing, shifting from defensive and insecure wife to cunning ingenue. She’s particularly fun to watch as the first Blair, a character who repeatedly and publicly undermines her partner (“He’s always saying how fucked up feminism is”). Abbott, too, is a delicious, finely tuned parody; sweary, mean, in a relationship but flirtatious, drawn irredeemably to terrible hats. Between scenes, a panama is swapped for a shrunken beanie.

The film is at its least self-conscious when operating as a comedy. Writer-director Levine has directed his wife, the film-maker Sophia Takal, in several mumblecore films, including Gabi on the Roof in July and Wild Canaries. He also starred in her 2011 debut feature, Green. Clearly he knows the world of indie film-making inside out. From the supporting characters, such as stoned script assistant Nora (Jennifer Kim) and diarrhoea-stricken first assistant director Cahya (Paola Lázaro), to privileged gentrifiers Blair and Gabe, whose cabin was inherited from Gabe’s family, the archetypes are pitch-perfect. Levine also has a brilliant ear for passive-aggression. “You’re really pretty!” says Allison upon meeting Blair. “You are too,” she replies, not missing a beat.

Levine is curious about the cost of authenticity and whether human suffering is a sensible price. The film’s bifurcated structure allows him to approach this question from two distinct vantage points. Each is given its own aesthetic. Part one unfolds more slowly, almost like a horror movie, tension underlined by a creepy, twinkly piano. At times, part two feels like a mockumentary, handheld camera weaving in and out of a film set in perpetual motion. The set’s frantic, high-stakes energy is matched by a hyperactive jazz score; it’s no wonder everyone keeps spilling their coffee.

The film is divided along gender lines too. When a female creator is the story’s agent of chaos it’s an opportunity for a genre exercise, but when ethical indiscretions are committed by a male director it becomes a cliche ripe for satire. It’s a fascinating ploy, but one that doesn’t entirely work. Levine bookends Black Bear with Allison sitting lakeside, contemplative in a Baywatch-red swimsuit. The image also recurs halfway through the film. As punctuation, it only emphasises the composite parts as thematically related thought experiments, rather than one cohesive work.

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