Though taking place within the same location and cast, Black Bear tells two distinct yet thematically linked narratives. In the first portion, the film follows Blair (Sarah Gadon) and Gabe (Christopher Abbott), a married couple who welcome Allison (Aubrey Plaza) into their home for the weekend. Temporarily renting a room online in their lakehouse, Allison inadvertently ignites a powder keg of mistrust between the couple and her quiet weekend spins out of control. In the second tale, Gabe (Abbott again) is a filmmaker and married to Allison (Plaza). When their project nears completion, Allison begins to suspect that her husband is having an affair with her co-star, Blair (Gadon).
Written and directed by Lawrence Michael Levine, Black Bear is a fascinating piece that becomes one of the more unique film experiences of 2020. By juxtaposing the two parallel but twisted tales against one another, Levine creates a sort of warped mirror experience where both films interact with one another without actually connecting. In doing so, Levine also somehow gives both projects more meaning as they play with the concepts of obsession, infidelity and toxic gender issues.
However, despite its distinctive style, it’s ultimately the performances within the film that give Black Bear its teeth, especially from stars Gadon and Plaza. As both women are challenged with taking on the roles of faithful wife and potential paramour, each finds their own way to engage the material. Continuing to build up a solid body of work, Gadon may be one of the more underappreciated stars working in the industry today as she consistently invests herself in each role with focus and intensity. At the same time, Plaza’s work here may be some of the best work of her career. While Plaza is best known for her comedic work, it’s moments like this that showcase her ability to bring dramatic integrity to her work when given the opportunity.
Held up against one another, the two films fascinate for their ability to flip the relationship roles and responsibilities of everyone involved. Though both segments include marital infidelity, the journey towards that unfaithfulness is clearly marked well in advance. As humility and authentic care towards one another gives way to a battle for control, the carnage that ensues is not surprising. In both pieces, insecurities about themselves and their successes (and failures) lead characters to lose faith in their partner and intentionally drive wedges within their relationships.
Whereas the first half showcases the increasing [and almost forced] distance that occurs when trust is lost between partners, the latter portion demonstrates the damage that can be done when that trust is abused. In Black Bear, love is a cruel game where those involved feel threatened by traditional gender roles yet also yearn for signs of mutual respect and support. (Interestingly, while Levine’s primary metaphor within the first half seems to be the desire to create a perfect relationship, the second half focuses more on the creation of a perfect film, drawing a connection between authentic connection between people and simply creating a performance.)
While it could be argued that the film’s two distinct portions prevent Black Bear from ever fully delving into its characters or story, that would do the film a disservice. Through his creative use of mirrored storytelling, Levine provides Black Bear with a richer sense of texture that highlights the cracks and flaws that appear when relationships become self-serving in nature.
To hear our interview with director Lawrence Michael Levine, click here.
Black Bear is available in select theatres and on PVOD on Friday, December 4th, 2020.