Thursday 8 June 2023

Them's the vagaries: "Beau is Afraid"

You have Film Twitter to thank and/or blame for this. Ari Aster was praised to the rafters and beyond online for his opening one-two of 2018's 
Hereditary and 2019's Midsommar, the kind of aggressively calculated trolling with memeable elements by which directors can now make an impression in our ever noisier world. Both films overperformed commercially, relative to their modest budgets, and so Aster has been given the all-clear for a big swing - a three-hour psychodrama, apparently drawn from deep down inside a troubled soul, which represents this filmmaker's Magnolia and his Punch-Drunk Love. (The UK trailer was cut to long-time Paul Thomas Anderson faves Supertramp; Anderson remains the model of how to sustain an independently minded career within an industry that displays scant stomach and tolerance for non-formulaic material.) I think it would be fair to say Aster had a pretty bad lockdown, if we were to take Beau is Afraid at face value. Where his fellow filmmakers (not least Anderson, with last year's giddy Licorice Pizza) used the hiatus to revisit varyingly idyllic childhoods, Aster appears to have retreated inside himself, and been driven to abject nausea by the sight. The new film is at heart an extended riff on that old you-can-never-go-home saw. After a prologue depicting an unhappy escape from the womb, our ironically named protagonist/director surrogate Beau (played by Joaquin Phoenix as an unloved, perhaps unlovable middle-aged schlub) misses a flight back to his mother's birthday celebrations, finds himself locked out of his own apartment, and then learns he may no longer even have a mother to whom he can return after all. His subsequent quest for lost bearings involves crossing an accursed cityscape, stuffed with the most dreadful things a born catastrophiser can imagine, and carries him out into an American wilderness, where worse awaits in the bushes. From the off, Beau is Afraid explains just why Ari Aster was initially drawn to horror: it's the genre in which the worst reliably - and perhaps therefore reassuringly - comes to pass.

We're not watching a run-of-the-mill drama, then, so much as confirmation bias running rampant. Seemingly liberated from his mother's clutches - and thus at least some of his woes - Beau is handed a second chance at life, only to mess things up all over again. (There are elements of a doomier Groundhog Day: death presents not as a waystation, but as the only way out of a cycle of defeat.) Sprung from his bathtub (read: manmade womb) by an intruder clinging spider-like to his ceiling, Beau is hit by a bus and stabbed while he's down; adopted and nursed back to something like health by an outwardly doting couple (Nathan Lane and Amy Ryan), he makes an enemy of the daughter he displaces and a mortal foe of a burly Army vet (Denis Ménochet, of all people) who surely represents all those alpha jocks who once shoved Young Ari into a high-school locker. If something can go wrong, it will go wrong, which again isn't great from a dramatic point of view, but how things will go wrong proves less predictable, and you can still (sort of) admire the movie's cascading concatenations of misery: Aster sets up Beau's humiliations like Rube Goldberg machines, such that even a humdrum change of medication provides the trigger for his protagonist being evicted from his flat and replaced by wilding derelicts. Beau is Afraid never lacks for new disasters - it's self-evidently the work of an overactive, hyper-agitated imagination - but it's really all part of the same disaster, which is to say this one poor chump's so-called life. There isn't a situation Aster can envision where Beau doesn't fumble the ball or screw the pooch. A potentially healing retreat into art - via a theatre group he finds encamped in a forest - is bloodily interrupted when his past catches up with him; his closeness to his mother (represented by a pieta trinket he clings to) results in a series of disasters with the opposite sex; and a last-reel reunion with his childhood sweetheart leads to a bad end all round. Cut to black - or, rather, cut to blacker still.

If I found Beau is Afraid preferable to what's gone before, it's because Aster himself is operating in a lighter, more overtly comic mode (funnily enough), where Hereditary and Midsommar - for all their bratty formal virtuosity - bogged down in the no-man's-land between mainstream horror and von Trier-like wind-up. For a self-confessed wretch, he's getting along far better with his actors nowadays; these characters aren't quite the crash test dummies of those earlier movies, no matter that Phoenix, forever more done to than doing, has merely to take a succession of custard pies to the face. Bringing in Lane to tapdance over Beau's miseries for an hour is a nice, fun idea, and you know Aster is on something like the right HR track when he sends Parker Posey and Richard Kind on with an hour to go: here are people you're relieved to see. (Even if they're sent on to finish what remains of Beau off.) It's also intriguing - dare I say encouraging? - to see Aster's much-feted technique being turned towards therapy of a sort; Beau is Afraid occasionally resembles The Fabelmans pushed some distance beyond Spielberg's PG-13 comfort blanket. The funniest thing here may be that Aster has gone from aggravating the audience to taking a big swing at himself, bashing away at his Phoenix-piñata until the screen is chock full of doubts, fears and neuroses: it's oddly touching to find that a creative who's enjoyed such vast praise and success still feels like an imposter or failure, like the world could cave in on him at any given moment. (The movie is sincere in ways Hereditary and Midsommar weren't.)

You will of course need to maintain some level of interest in a comfortably appointed Caucasian filmmaker's abiding hang-ups. Beau is, in the end, very much Film Twitter's Stardust Memories, the kind of confessional project only certain creatives have typically been empowered to undertake, and its closing 45 minutes, which see Aster raising any number of red flags while his trousers and undergarments slowly slip to his ankles, exposing his arse to the breeze, really need referring to a specialist, not the multiplex audience. Yet in its own perverse fashion, Beau is Afraid goes some way to explain why Western movies are now in the state they're in. In the past, American creatives strode confidently through the world, meeting life's vicissitudes with a robust good humour. Now, if Aster's film is anything to go by, they're pill-popping neurotics, prone to awkward cringes and deathly shudders when they're not simply cowering in the corner with their heads in their hands and their fingers in their ears. Comic books provide an obvious retreat into the comforting certainties of childhood, for them as for us - that, and the doubtless staggering cheques involved, explains why so many directors have gone back down that route. It's well-paid therapy, even if the work that results from it is so rarely good to watch. But perhaps we have no right to expect good movies - movies worthy of our finite time, movies that make us feel a little better about that finite time - when the folks making them, even those folks (like Aster) granted a little more independence than most, are apparently such sorry, pitiful wrecks.

Beau is Afraid is now playing in selected cinemas.

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