VIFF 2020 Review: Black Bear
It’s funny I didn’t see my first American live-action film at the VIFF until the second-last day of the Festival. Black Bear was that film. It was quite a story.
The film begins with a woman in a swimsuit out by the dock near a lake in the Adirondacks region and just meditates by the water instead of swimming. We later see that woman walking down a road in what appears to be a remote area of the woods. She has a lot of baggage. A man stops to ask if she’s lost. She says she’s an actress-turned-director names Allison. He introduces himself as Gabe. He is actually the director who will be working with Allison on an upcoming production. Allison is willing to accept Gabe’s offer to bring her luggage to the place. During the walk she reveals she chose directing because she’s hard to work with. She’s known for emotional outbursts. She hopes to spend some time at the cottage in hopes that the natural greenness with help her unblock her creativity and help her to produce her next project. They arrive at their cottage near the lake with his pregnant wife Blair waiting. Gabe tries to introduce Blair to Allison, but you can sense the jealousy in Blair’s body language, even though she tries to hide it.
During the dinner, things really get heated. Blair talks of how they moved from Brooklyn to the Adirondacks; because Brooklyn was too expensive and they were getting nowhere in the film business. Blair soon gets all confrontational with Gabe. She even gives him a hard time in front of Allison about a comment she perceives as his male chauvinisms. Allison sides with Gabe, adding more suspicious feeling from Blair. The dinner leads to more friction from Blair about Gabe and how she can’t stand the world he creates. Late at night, Gabe finds Allison alone. The two develop a good conversation. Then it leads to a lot more. It turns out Gabe has had a thing for Allison since they first met and she has a thing for Gabe too. Right while they are about to have sex, Blair physically attacks both of them. She knew it all along and she’s infuriated. She even chases Allison out, but it leads to an area in the woods where Allison is confronted by a black bear. The bear doesn’t attack Allison at all.
The film then progresses forward weeks or months later to the wrapping up of the film. The shooting is taking place around the cottage and the dock. The crew is setting up. The directors are having confrontations of how to have the next scenes shot. Gabe and Blair are cooperating well for this project. It’s possible they’ve decided mostly for the sake of the film to put all personal feelings aside. But for the last scene, Allison appears to be out of it. The calm, cool Allison from that time before is not there. She appears angered or hurting inside. However the final scenes still need to be shot.
As Allison becomes more uncooperative with the actors and crew on the set, she finds a place to withdraw herself. Problems arise all over the place. The crew have their issues of setting up and one has a severe stomach problem. The directors have an ego clash over what is to be done. Gabe and Blair have talks about the film that appear to be more about their relationship, or fading relationship. The actors squabble with each other. However it’s Allison who’s the biggest of the problems. She’s just become an emotional time-bomb. It’s unclear why she’s that way but any attempt from anyone to get her to work properly on the scene, especially from Gabe, only succeeds in making her even more confrontational. Eventually she does agree to the scene, but it appears things could go better. After the shootings done, she leaves the cottage where she comes across the bear again. Again the bear doesn’t attack and Allison smiles for the first time today.
This is an interesting story about a bizarre love triangle and how it intermingles with film. An actress who wants to venture into film decides to meet with the director of her next film. She makes the way into the house and the wife suspects something. Everything falls apart from that point on. Blair starts friction with Gabe while Allison appears to coax him. It results in an affair that drives Blair angry. Three weeks later, work on the film happens and Allison can’t take it anymore. She becomes an emotional timebomb. You’re left wondering why? She said at the beginning of the film she was confrontational on the set. Is that the reason why Allison is acting like a time bomb? Or could it be she still has feelings for Gabe? Or is something deeper than that? Even of a natural sense? You’re left to wonder.
Despite how interesting the story is, it does get confusing. The first story appears to set up for the second story. I can understand how films don’t try to reveal everything mainly so the audience can make their own decisions, but there’s still too much that’s unclear. One of the things that’s unclear is whether the marriage between Gabe and Blair ended. They get along better while shooting. You’re left to wonder did they patch things up or did they split and are now getting along better? Another is Allison. I know I mentioned how Allison’s behavior on the final day of shooting get you wondering. If you saw the scene yourself, you yourself would find it hard to decide the biggest reason why she’s acting that way. Also confusing is the role of the bear in the film. The film’s two scenes are titled Part One: The Bear On The Road and the second scene is Part Two: The Bear By The Boat House, but you don’t see the black bear until the very end. The bear doesn’t attack Allison in either scene and the appearance of the bear causes Allison to smile at the end. You’re left to wonder what’s the symbolism of the bear? Allison coming to grips with her mentality? Her tranquility with nature finally reached? You’re left wondering.
Despite the confusing story, this is an ambitious film from writer-director Lawrence Michael Levine. This is the sixth film and third feature-length film he writes and directs and the first of his films he doesn’t act in. The film is impressive that it is a psychological film about human nature and how personal problems, especially among people in the arts, cause the friction, but its imperfections are noticeable. The best work from the film comes from the actress Aubrey Plaza. She goes from an actress who doesn’t appear to be the type to call a time-bomb at first to one who fits the description of ‘time-bomb’ perfectly. Her transformation was excellent because she was portraying two different Allisons and it worked excellently. Christopher Abbott was also good as Gabe: the director left confused in all of this. Sarah Gadon was excellent with portraying Blair as one who does not shy away from letting her personal feelings show. Additional technical efforts that highlight the film are the cinematography of Robert Leitzell, the cinematic score of Giulio Carmassi and Bryan Scary, and the images of pencil and paper of going from scene to scene and the end credits.
Black Bear hasn’t won too many awards on the film festival circuit. It was a nominee for a NEXT Innovator Award at the Sundance Film Festival and a New Vision Award at the Sitges – Catalonian Film Festival. Nevertheless those who saw it have talked a lot about it and its story and it has become a major attraction at film festivals.
Black Bear does make for a drama about a bizarre love triangle. It’s a story of the affair and the aftermath. The problem is there’s too much in the film that is unclear, including the inclusion of the bear.