A remote lake house becomes the setting for temptation, betrayal and artistic inspiration in Lawrence Michael Levine’s head spinning dark comedy Black Bear. Using a simple shot of Aubrey Plaza’s Allison sitting on a dock in a red swimsuit as a jumping off point, Levine’s film unravels in two distinct parts. Each one tackling how passion, jealously and sacrifice are essential to creating great works of art.
The first part focuses on Allison, a former actress turned filmmaker, who is suffering from a case of writer’s block. Seeking inspiration for her next film, she heads to a lake home owned by Gabe (Christopher Abbott) and Blair (Sarah Gadon) to unwind. Unfortunately, her presence only causes tension for the couple who cannot even seem to agree on whether their lavish lake house is an artist retreat, an Airbnb or something in between. What is clear is that the home was in Gabe’s family for years and the pair only decided to rent it out when they could no longer afford living in the city.
While some find renewal in cottage living, the isolation has only exasperated many of the couple’s unresolved issues. Expecting their first child, but not married, a point Gabe makes clear to Allison, they bicker over everything thing from Gabe’s patriarchal views to Blair’s controlling and condescending nature. As if cutting the wrong wire on a time bomb, the inclusion of Allison into their orbit will inevitably cause these tensions to explode. As Blair’s insecurities are heightened, and Gabe finds himself drawn to his new houseguest, Allison finds herself playing a dangerous game of her own.
The dangers that comes when playing with affairs of the heart, Black Bear flips the script in the second part of the film. Switching both the roles and the circumstances, we observe the same events, however played out differently. In this section Allison is a perpetually tortured actress married to her director husband Gabe. Working together on a new project being filmed at a remote lake house, Allison’s paranoia begins to set in as she suspects that Gabe and her co-star Blair are secretly having an affair. Becoming consumed with Gabe’s possible adultery, lines between reality and fiction begin to blur for Allison, ultimately impacting her performance in for scene of the final shoot.
This blurred reality allows Levine’s film to take a unique approach to its exploration of the stresses that come when couples work together. Much like the fog that hovers near the dock that Allison sits on, Black Bear is a film that often feels just out of reach. Deciphering the film’s various meanings is equally invigorating, perplexing, and frustrating. While Levine has several interesting things to say about human nature and passion shape the art we create, the film also simultaneously pokes fun at and indulges in the problematic ways abuse used is under the guise of achieving greatness.
Unfortunately, the notion of abuse for the sake of art, as well as many of the other themes in the film, are not explored in detail. While the film’s Rubik’s cube structure gives the illusion of depth one realizes, once you gets past the arguments that feel more suited for the stage than the screen and running gags about spilled coffee and explosive diarrhea, that the waters it swims in are rather shallow.
Though not as deep as it thinks it is, Black Bear has plenty in it that maintains one’s interest. At times Levine’s film is tense, darkly humorous, juvenile, and thought-provoking. However, its greatest strength is the fine work of its lead actress. Aubrey Plaza gives a tour-de-force performance that ranks among the best of her career. Shifting effortlessly from deadpan delivery to flirtatious to paranoid to emotionally broken, Plaza ensures Allison remains fascinating to watch no matter the situation she is thrown into.
Plaza is such a revelation that one wishes that the rest of the film matched her ferocity. An intriguing and perplexing work, Black Bear ultimately lacks the deep belly roar its artistic ambitions strive for.