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The Dark Art of Manipulation – Black Bear (Film Review)

3 min read

Art doesn't flow from a never-ending pool of creativity, at least good art doesn't. It comes from a process one would assume impossible, the process of having a thought nobody has ever had before. Getting in the headspace to traverse infinity isn't easy for everyone, and that is what Lawrence Michael Levine's Black Bear is about, the ways in which artists find the means to conceive and execute their art. As such, it's a complex and confronting piece of work, one choosing to tackle writer's block and emotional manipulation with an unwavering lens seeking dark truths about artistry. 

The film is a tale of two acts with unclear links except for the cast and thematic undercurrents. The first is entitled “The Bear in The Road”, and it follows indie writer/director Allison (Aubrey Plaza), desperately seeking inspiration for her next feature in a remote cabin retreat in the Adirondack Mountains owned by a pregnant couple, Blair and Gabe (Sarah Gordon and Christopher Abbot). From the onset, things are far from comfortable as Allison and Blair trade the least genuine compliments ever to be heard, and things only get worse. You see Blair and Gabe aren't compatible at all. The smallest of conversation topics explode into full-fledged arguments and any attempts to avoid those fights result in simmering passive aggression ready to light the next fuse. 

However, a lost filmmaker can find themselves absorbed and inspired at the sight of a quarrelling couple, and this is where Allison's mischief comes in. By her own admission, Allison is a liar. She wilfully throws herself into contradictions so she can appear as a puzzle and it catches Gabe hook line and sinker. He seems instantly enchanted by her and the way she is everything and nothing at the same time. She claims to be married and single, a good cook and a terrible cook, to have a living mum and a dead mum, and we never know the truth, even when it seems she is outright telling us everything, she cannot be trusted. This is because she periodically goes back to her secluded room to write in her notebook, and we are never allowed to see what ideas she is cooking up as she scribbles, bathing in the . Gabe eventually falters in what little commitment he has to Blair, and from there, things get crazy but just as everything reaches a climax we reset. 

Act two, named “The Bear by The Boat House” sees all the same characters and actors back at the cabin however they aren't who they were before, and it isn't a remote artist's retreat, it's a movie set. Allison is now the lead actress of the movie within the movie and Blair is her co-star with Gabe being the film's director, however, now Gabe is married to Allison, and it is their relationship burning under the microscope. Fidelity is a central theme of the entire film, but it is darkly twisted in Gabe and Allison's marriage. Their project echos, often word for word, moments from the opening act, as if Allison had written herself as Blair and had written their arguments down verbatim, the difference is that we can see it's fake now. Gabe can see it's fake too and begins to manipulate a performance out of his wife by making her question his relationship with Blair. 

The resulting climax is thrilling and deeply impactful, showcasing one of Aubrey Plaza's finest performances. The entire film boasts superb acting, which helps to compensate for the brief moment at the start of act 2, which is a rather debilitating reset after an intense moment. Levine manages to evolve and stabilise the second act, however. He masterfully constructs the parallels between the two acts and clarifies that whilst we may be able to guess what's going on, that isn't the point. 

Maybe Gabe and Blair aren't even real, and Allison wrote the script whilst on her retreat alone and made them up, perhaps none of it is real, perhaps all of it is real, it doesn't matter. What matters is the torture of art and the legitimately scary power of manipulation. 

Dir: Lawrence Michael Levine

Scr: Lawrence Michael Levine

Cast: Aubrey Plaza, Sarah Gadon, Christopher Abbott

Prd: Jonathan Blitstein, Richard J Bosner, Julie Christeas, Marina Grasic, Jai Khanna, Lawrence Michael Levine, Aubrey Plaza, Sophia Takal

DOP: Robert Leitzell

Music: Giulio Carmassi, Bryan Scary

Country: USA

Year: 2020

Run time: 104  minutes


Black Bear is in cinemas and digital from 23rd April

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