Allison (Aubrey Plaza), in a red one-piece bathing suit, sits on a dock staring out at a lake as unruffled as a mirror. She’s a writer/director and has come to a house in the woods to work on her next script. The house is owned by a couple, Gabe (Christopher Abbott) and Blair (Sarah Gadon), transplants from the city, who have a vision of their home as a haven for artists. Things don’t quite work out that way. On Allison’s first night, they all get drunk, even though Blair is pregnant, and Gabe and Blair fight in front of Allison, and eventually fight about Allison. Three is most definitely a crowd, and Allison’s strange behavior doesn’t help matters. Blair says to Allison, and it’s an accusation: “You’re really hard to read.” Allison deadpans, “I get that all the time.”
What’s this all about? Whatever you might guess is up-ended when the scenario rewinds, starts again, with the same actors, in the same location, only the circumstances are different, and the characters have been rebooted into another scenario. Maybe the rewind is Allison’s discarded script draft, her attempt to break through writer’s block, her experimentations with genre and story. Maybe none of it is real. “Black Bear” often “reads” like a horror film, but the second half goes full-blown hand-held Cassavetes, with nods to “A Woman Under the Influence” and “Opening Night,” where Allison, so drunk she can hardly stand, is required to “play” a scene in the fictional film she’s acting in, directed by her manipulative self-styled “auteur” husband (Abbott). The music—composed by Giulio Carmassi and Bryon Scary—is appropriate for a horror or a slow-burn thriller, highlighting the subterranean upheaval in all of this. It is not the end of the world when a couple bickers over nothing. It is not world-shattering to have a difficult time playing a scene when you’re an actress. But to the people involved, it can feel like the end of the world. This is what Levine captures.
Levine has explored destabilizing relationships before in the films he’s written, acted in and/or directed, in partnership with his wife Sophia Takal (“Black Bear” is dedicated to Takal). Takal’s first full-length film, “Green,” featured Levine and Kate Lyn Sheil as a married couple whose relationship is shaken up by the entrance of a third, played by Takal. In “Gabi on the Roof in July,” directed by Levine, Takal again plays a destabilizing force, this time for her painter brother, played by Levine. “Wild Canaries,” written and directed by Levine, is a murder-mystery featuring Levine and Takal playing a curious hipster Brooklyn couple investigating a murder (shades of Woody Allen’s “Manhattan Murder Mystery“). Takal’s wonderful film “Always Shine” (which I reviewed for this site), was written by Levine, who also played a small role. “Always Shine” starred Mackenzie Davis and Caitlin FitzGerald as actresses whose friendship—and selves—fracture during a weekend away. (For my column at Film Comment, I wrote about Sophia Takal’s work.) Takal recently directed “Black Christmas,” a remake of the 1974 cult classic, while Levine was working on “Black Bear.” This is a very interesting artistic partnership. The surface of life in these films, and in “Black Bear,” is often banal, polite, obnoxiously liberal and literate, while underneath roars a river of unmanageable “unacceptable” feelings like rage and envy. Social niceties conceal chaos. The films these two have made together often feature artistic “types”—writers or actresses or painters—or a director like Allison—entering an environment where they are out of their element. The unfamiliarity of the surroundings reveal cracks in everything they have established for themselves.