Fact is fiction: Black Bear reviewed

The crash limit of reality is where fiction begins.

This seems to be the thesis of Lawrence Michael Levine’s latest film Black Bear, a twin-speed story about the challenges of film-making, when the dividing lines between writer, director and actor suddenly evaporate, rendering life captive to fiction and fiction a hostage to reality.

When a film gets shot on the edge of a misty lake in the wood-covered hills of a nondescript part of North America, the cards are on the table. And when we’re watching a film about shooting a film in the selfsame location, the tranquil natural background becomes the only foothold in a wild game of mirrors and distortions.

Allison (Aubrey Plaza) is a young attractive woman who decides to spend some time in a cottage retreat owned by Gabe and her pregnant girlfriend Blair, an unmarried couple whose fractious relationship becomes immediately evident. And when fragile Blair surprises the two having sex in the lounge one night, her shock seems to cause her lose the baby, and she’s rushed, tragically, to the hospital in a truck. The story abruptly ends and we are ourselves rushed to the underworld of fact-morphing-into-fiction.

One may not bathe in the same water twice, but one can step into a movie twice. Deeper, where the edges of narrative threaten to burst open.

The lake, cottage and the three characters are still there, but the universe is utterly different. A re-enactment of the initial story begins, the same tale of fragility, desire and ambiguous fidelity threatening to destroy everyone.

Levine plays masterly with the implications of the story-inspired-by-true-events idea, but seems to suggest, quite pessimistically, that art is unable to rise over the debris of life and build a city on the rock. Instead, fiction descends into riotous chaos, and the only way out of the filmmaker’s Hell is to climb back up to the edge of the lake, the edge of reality, where all is silence, as the final scene indicates.

I’m not sure if there’s any good way to read this movie, or whether reading is the right approach at all. It is indeed hard to tell reflections in an endless hall of mirrors.

As nihilist Allison tells rationalist Blair over a bottle of wine, movies are not made of big ideas. They are just made. Whether they work, or please an audience, is a different matter altogether.

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