Black Bear shoots a slippery meta-movie of on-set manipulation

Aubrey Plaza is an unpredictable powerhouse in writer-director Lawrence Michael Levine’s two-part negotiation of the untrustworthy power dynamics of a filmmaking couple.

Aubrey Plaza in Black Bear (2020)

Black Bear is released on digital platforms from 23 April.

Aubrey Plaza, Christopher Abbott and Sarah Gadon inhabit a number of roles in Lawrence Michael Levine’s meta black comedy, in which the pressures of the indie filmmaking business, creativity and the art of performance collide in explosive fashion.

The film is divided neatly in two, and as the second half begins the actors change roles, resulting in a shift in power dynamics that interrogates desire, gender and ethics. Add to that the fact that certain players are flagrantly deceitful, and it’s a film designed to keep viewers on their toes. The unpredictable nature of the characters makes it uncomfortable to watch; as they prod at insecurities and anxieties, the suspense and sexual tension bubble to boiling point.

In both sections, Plaza plays self-declared ‘difficult’ actress Allison, but in the first she is also shown as an assertive filmmaker who has retreated to a lakeside cabin to write her next great film – we see her scribbling words and crossing them out in her notepad between scenes as she ponders her next move.

In the second half, as the fourth wall is broken and the audience is taken behind the scenes of an intimate film set, she is placed in front of the camera, now working under a male director (Abbott), who is also her husband. Gadon switches between passionate, pregnant dancer and partner to Abbott in the first half to a mischievous actress colluding with him in the second to make Allison jealous.

Christopher Abbot and Sarah Gadon in Black Bear

In Part Two, now a woman subjugated by a man, Plaza turns in a powerhouse performance reminiscent of Gena Rowlands’s Myrtle Gordon in John Cassavetes’s Opening Night (1977), guzzling down a bottle of booze and threatening to upend production of the film-within-the-film on the final day of shooting. Meanwhile, Levine’s direction convincingly brings to life the chaos and hilarity of the personal and professional intersecting on set, with a playful spirit similar to that of François Truffaut’s Day for Night (1973). The frenzied and perfectly timed physical comedy not only adds levity, but acknowledges that moviemaking really is a collaborative effort.

Challenging the conventions of filmmaking and toying with influential films of the past are things Levine has experimented with throughout his body of work. He often collaborates with the writer, director, actor and producer Sophia Takal – to whom he is married, and to whom this film is dedicated.

Their previous project, Always Shine (2016), written by Levine and directed by Takal, referred to films such as Robert Altman’s Three Women (1977) and Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966) to draw parallels between the success of women as actors and their display of stereotypically feminine traits such as sweetness towards powerful men who offer them opportunities. In Always Shine, a struggling actress lets envy get the better of her on a getaway with a friend who is a rising star. Black Bear imagines how rivalries and frustrations engineered by a dominant male figure can play out in private and work settings.

Aubrey Plaza and Christopher Abbott in Black Bear (2020)

An awkward, riveting dinner party dominates the first half; the precisely written, passive-aggressive and ultimately furious dialogue is beautifully performed by the three central players. Plaza is given the opportunity to show off her range and it is glorious to behold, as she shifts from self-assurance to woman on the edge.

Given that Allison is the writer whose half-formed ideas are literally playing out on screen, it’s tempting to read her as the embodiment of multiple frustrations when it comes to conjuring agreeable female characters. Her refusal to fit easily into any particular archetype is what breathes life into a character whose actions don’t always match her feminist notions. Real life is full of contradictions and Allison, as the architect of the story, should have the freedom to craft her characters to reflect that.

The many layers of manipulation in the film speak to the artifice of filmmaking, yet the conclusion suggests something else is at stake, as it laments a loss of humanity and virtue in the pursuit of creating meaningful art. Allison is both enticed by the bear of the title and lives in fear of it wreaking havoc and heartache. The bear is always lurking ready to pounce, as the artist desperately attempts to make sense of reality and romantic relationships through her filmmaking.

Further reading

Sight & Sound May 2021

In our current issue, Barry Jenkins talks truth, justice and his powerfully resonant series adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. Plus Promising Young Woman and the virgin/whore trope, Martin Scorsese’s discovery of Joe Pesci, Dea Kulumbegashvili’s Beginning, and a classic Satyajit Ray interview. Available in print and digitally.

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