Writer-director Lawrence Michael Levine’s Black Bear is challenging, engaging, rewarding and multi-layered – and hinges on an end-of-act-one narrative turnabout means you might want to skip reading these notes until you’ve seen the movie. The film offers a great deal of rich material which needs to be tilled, including the extra-diegetic facts that Levine dedicates the film to his partner Sophia Takal (who has directed his scripts) and star Aubrey Plaza is in a relationship with Jeff Baena, who directed her in Life After Beth.
It opens with Allison (Plaza) in a red swimsuit sitting on a jetty looking out at a foggy lake in the Adirondacks, a scene which we return to throughout – at one point, she notices the title black bear – though it’s possible there are three or more Allisons at different levels of reality within the film, which sticks to its specific setting but throws all else up in the air over and over. In the first act, Allison is a writer-director who used to be an actress but admits she now makes films because she’s too difficult to work with – she’s come to the retreat, which is owned by NYC refugees Gabe (Christopher Abbott) and Blair (Sarah Gadon), in the vague hope of recharging her creative batteries. All three characters bristle with hostility – these people can’t say anything to each other without needling, and deploy lies, barbed complements, theoretical arguments that are blatantly personal, and flirtation to get at each other. I was reminded of the way Queen of Earth channeled Let’s Scare Jessica to Death, and Levine makes it all genuinely suspenseful – that bear, established in the title, signifies a menace which is sure to intrude. It’s a perfect mid-length short film, with a crisis climax …
… then comes the next act, and Allison is an actress married to director Gabe with Blair as a co-star in a film being made in the same retreat, with Gabe and Blair pretending to have an affair as a way to push Allison into giving a deeper performance in a film which isn’t the story we just saw though it overlaps with it. The first section plays on the isolation of the woods, with the trio stuck with each other far from civilisation, while the second goes for a different version of embarrassment and danger as Allison – and Plaza, who has been great in a run of things lately, is extraordinary – gets drunk in order to play a drunk scene while a bustling crew with their own glimpsed sub-plots and issues and stories – first AD Cahya (Paola Lazaro) has explosive diarrhoea after bad craft services food – are inescapably all around, getting in the way or facilitating. A few filmmaking details suggest that even this section is a first draft of the script Allison came here to write – this low-budget production has scheduled the key dramatic sequence for the last day of the shoot.
It’s relatively easy for actors to play multiple roles in films where the parts are strikingly differentiated – think of Alec Guinness in Kind Hearts and Coronets or Karen Black in Trilogy of Terror – but Plaza, Abbott and Gadon are asked to play characters who remain essentially themselves even as their relationships, physical circumstances (Blair is pregnant in part one) and situations are different. I did think of a few parallels, but they’re all partial … Robert Altman’s Images, Tom DiCillo’s Living in Oblivion, Darren Aronofsky’s Mother! Outside of Plaza’s star turn, which is up there with her work on Ingrid Goes West and Legion, the thing that impressed me most is that Levine plays both parts – icy conversational indie drama and behind-the-scenes movie biz satire – for suspense, in that the literal car crash of a relationship tangle in part one and the will-the-leading-lady-break-before-the-big-scene-is-in-the-can set-up of part two both generate nailbiting tension.