Writing by Georgia Bennett. Illustration by Heather Baillie
Samuel Beckett’s two-act absurdist play, Waiting for Godot was famously described by critic Vivian Mercier as a play in which 'nothing happens, twice'. The film Black Bear echoes this two-act, absurd structure, however, it inverts this quote by being a film in which everything happens, twice.
Lawrence Michael Levine’s Black Bear tells the story of a young writer, Allison (Aubrey Plaza), who comes to an isolated lake house to overcome her writer’s block. Here she stays with a couple expecting a baby, Gabe and Blair. As their relationship unravels, the sexual tension between Gabe and Allison crescendos and chaos unfolds until it arrives at a fatal fever pitch. Then, the film jumps to the lake house, suddenly transformed into a film set. But it isn’t Allison’s film, it’s Gabe’s and the audience finds no soothing continuity from the previous act aside from the characters’ names remaining the same. Rather, Allison is now Gabe’s wife and lead actress, whilst Blair is the temptress figure who also stars in his film. An inverted version of the affair from the previous act reoccurs, as does disaster, with a lurking black bear again at the heart of the mayhem. So, if this game of musical chairs in which roles, power, plots and archetypes change nothing, what does it suggest about the freedom of the society we live in?
Gender is at the heart of this film’s exploration of freedom. One disturbing metaphor for the grip of gender on freedom is the costuming of the film. One eerie emblem of the loss of liberty is the dress Blair wears as the mother figure in the first act, and that Allison wears as the wife figure in the second. This dress is a smock; it is dark grey with a pilgrim-esque pattern and fit reminiscent of something out of American Gothic. It has a weighted, cursing effect on whoever dons its drab, sexless shape. It covers them down to their wrists, ankles and even crawls up their neck slightly, and proves fatal to whoever wears it. However, equally damning is the red swimsuit Allison wears as the temptress trope in the first act which proves to be just as fatal. The examination of the Madonna-Whore complex through allowing both actresses to play both parts and wear these symbolic costumes, and be none the better for it, shakes the complex to its gruesome core.
In its reckoning of female sexuality, we also see independence and freedom inhibited by motherhood too. The moment we meet Blair as the mother figure in the first act she is being scolded for moving bins due to her pregnant state. Provocative as this moment is in trialling the freedoms of pregnant women, the pendulum then swings uncomfortably as the question of autonomy over the pregnant body is pushed to its limit as Blair drinks more and more wine.
Ultimately, the way gender envelops freedom in the first act is only solidified by the second as history repeats itself despite so many other differences. However, the brief moment following the two acts that conclude this film, seems to have something to say about this. After Allison’s trance that brings her into the path of the bear, we return to the first Allison we meet. The one attentive to her notebook, a writer and a filmmaker. But whilst we are lulled into a false sense of security in seeing a shot of her writing we have seen multiple times before, she suddenly looks up and into the barrel of the camera, breaking the fourth wall and ending the film. But the question is not, did she hold power the entire time, but whether we are convinced by this.
For me, Black Bear was still a slap in the face that shows the underlying cataclysm of domesticity in our supposedly modern world. Moreover, Lawrence Michael Levine’s dedication of the film to his own muse and wife Sophia, who much like Gabe and Allison worked together on either side of the camera, only unsettles the audience further. It feels like a wry, bittersweet joke capturing the brutality and beauty of filmmaking and life. It is both comedic and horrifying in demonstrating the grip of gender, marriage and society on our freedoms and fates and forces the viewer to question how much times have really changed.