Black Bear

****

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Black Bear
"Black Bear is a tremendously pretentious film but Plaza feels real and keeps it interesting, delivering one of 2020's most impressive performances." | Photo: Rob Leitzell

Gabe (Christopher Abbot) and Blair (Sarah Gabon) have decided to start letting out a room in their lakeside cabin, preferably to artistic types, given their own ambitions. First up is Allison (Aubrey Plaza), a film director who tells them she's working on a script. As they share an evening together, power shifts uneasily between the three, casual chat giving way to argument, Gabe's ability to say the wrong thing and alienate the guest gives way to an intense connection that convinces the unhappy Blair that something is going on between them. Is it? 40 minutes in, the whole premise of Lawrence Michael Levine's dramatic riddle shifts, throwing everything into doubt.

In Native American mythology, the bear is a bringer of order and justice but, not uncommonly, a target for tricksters. This is a deliberately tricksy film – so self-consciously so that many will find it alienating. Its second half repositions what has gone before as a film within a film. Gabe and Allison are now married; he is the director; she is his star. To get the performance he wants from her, he decides to let her think that he's having an affair with her co-star, Blair. Is this a double-bluff? Can he cope with the consequences of what is, either way, a significant betrayal of trust?

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Notably, we never get to see a third act in which Blair and Allison get together and dump Gabe after recognising that he's a colossal waste of space.

Levine has fun with the twists and turns but they don't ultimately contribute much to the film at an emotional or thematic level. If his principal point is that the filmmaking process often involves abuse and cruelty, well, we knew that. There are a lot of in-jokes here which are very funny if you know the industry well but will be lost on the majority of viewers. Fortunately they're not the only source of humour – and then there are the performances.

The strongest component of the film is the acting, with Plaza the standout, seemingly giving everything to her role. This makes for compelling viewing, even though all three leads have to cope with thinly written characters and dialogue which sacrifices natural emotion for the sake of wit. Black Bear is a tremendously pretentious film but Plaza feels real and keeps it interesting, delivering one of 2020's most impressive performances.

Whilst many viewers will be irritated by its contrivances and dubious about its ability to satirise the industry in light of its own glaring failings, its boldness will fascinate others. This is filmmaking as play, and if you're in the mood to join the game, you may well love it.

Reviewed on: 03 Dec 2020
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At a remote lake house, a filmmaker plays a calculated game of desire and jealousy in the pursuit of a work of art that blurs the boundaries between autobiography and invention.


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