Saturday 24 April 2021

Shits in the woods: "Black Bear"

Black Bear is the highest-profile release to date from Lawrence Michael Levine, a writer-director who first emerged amid the mumblecore movement at the start of the last decade. It offers recognisable names and familiar faces, rather than friends of the filmmaker, in the leads, and a hook of sorts; what's exasperating about it is how mumbly it still is. The location, for starters, is a woodland retreat for artists - prime mumbleterritory, if ever there was. It's predominantly talk-driven, with long sequences in which the characters' jaws prove more mobile than the camera. And it's about people who are not unlike the filmmakers, working through the same issues - principally who's fucking whom, that abiding mumblecore concern. Allison (Aubrey Plaza) is herself a writer-director (and sometime actress) who arrives in these parts with an eye to sketching out the basics of her next project, only to find she's a guinea pig - the retreat's first occupant before it goes fully public. If she's hoping for peace and quiet, she's very much mistaken. Her hosts Gabe and Blair (Christopher Abbott and Sarah Gadon) are a married couple, expecting their first child; yet their favoured mode of communication is the passive-aggressive snipe, as if they've reached the very limit of their patience with one another. (Five minutes in their company, and you understand why.) A natural flirt and born provocateur, Allison is but one factor that starts to mess with the couple's dynamic; another, as signalled by the rubbish scattered around the retreat's bins and the growling heard coming from the woods at night, is that there's apparently a hungry, angry bear on the loose. Emoji shrug; new para.

The difference between Mumblecore 2010 and Mumblecore 2020 is that these characters are now in their thirties rather than twenties, and (with the exception of the bear) established creatives: for one thing, they have the money to attend artistic retreats, or to set up an artistic retreat in an inherited family property. What Black Bear suggests is that mumblecore has mutated (or grown up): this is bourgie mumblecore, aspirational mumblecore, no less self-absorbed than its predecessor but altogether better dressed, and with some light jazz over the closing credits. But - wait - there's also a twist. The story Levine sets out over the opening half-hour turns out to be but a first draft: at a pivotal moment, everything resets, as on a film set - and (aha!) we find ourselves on a film set, with the same performers deployed in different roles and situations. We're meant to be wowed by this pullback, and - who knows? - in 1998, when this kind of postmodern flourish was a relatively fresh idea in American movies, I might well have been. Here, I just felt badly shortchanged: I'd forced myself - god, how I'd forced myself - to invest in the awful human beings Levine introduced me to in that first third, and now he wants to bombard us with a whole new set of tossers? The film-within-a-film business somehow contrives to be even more unbearable, struggling to make mountains from the molehills of moviemaking microaggression. Of course it's a script actors would leap at: it speaks to their own experiences, and allows them to demonstrate the old versatility-'n'-range in playing two or three roles over 105 minutes. And these are good actors, too, prepared to commit absolutely to the thinness of Levine's bit. Plaza, I fear, isn't going to get a movie showcase like this again - a part that encourages her to play mysterious, flinty, vampish, unhinged and bottomless-blotto. But all that effort gets wasted on a non-story that starts out relentlessly clever-clever and then gets so far up itself there's entirely no need for anybody else to get involved. The only possible takehome from it all is that artistic retreats and low-budget film sets attract the ghastliest people; I only wished the bear had been even hungrier.

Black Bear is now available to rent via Curzon Home Cinema and Prime Video; it will become available on BFI Player from Friday.

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