THE WORLD‘S OPINION– SEE IT
Beau Is Afraid is a new symptom of the inflationary slope on which Hollywood has embarked and is clearly losing its bearings. In response to ever more massive and impersonal blockbusters, a handful of super-auteurs are given carte blanche to produce monstrous films with demiurgic and overly bloated ambitions, such as Damien Chazelle’s babylonDavid O. Russell’s amsterdam and Andrew Dominik’s Blonde hair.
That high-level status is something Ari Aster, at just 36, acquired in the blink of an eye, following the admirable horror duo of Heredity (2018) and Midsommar (2019), which infiltrated the familial and sectarian repressions of contemporary America with a true sense of unease. Brought to you by the high-profile distribution company A24, which calls the shots in independent filmmaking, these brilliant and sophisticated forays have earned Aster the label of “elevated horror,” that is, a “highbrow” and legitimizing version of a genre that used to be seen as inferior.
This young prodigy’s third feature film was therefore awaited as a potential misstep, especially as it promised to be an all-encompassing work, close to three hours in length. In the end, the film is entirely circumscribed to the dimensions of its protagonist, Beau Wasserman (Joaquin Phoenix, once again seeking performance through physical transformation), a maladjusted old bachelor.
Beau is scheduled to visit his mother, Mona (Patti LuPone), for her birthday, but his extreme introversion and the severity of a new neuroleptic treatment seem to be pitting things against him. Unable to catch his plane on time and guilt-ridden by the disapproval of a fearsome mother, Beau struggles to get out of his apartment and embarks on a picaresque drift riddled with strange encounters and hallucinatory visions, which takes the form of a long waking nightmare .
Aster announces the tone from the outset by opening his story in a psychoanalyst’s office, where Beau is lying on the couch: The odyssey will be mental, and even Freudian, because it is the inextricable and devouring relationship to his mother that is to be explained throughout, namely how, in this figure, impulses of life and death merge to the point of vertigo. The first half is impressive. Aster projects the madness of his hero on the surrounding world, with the American reality appearing under this prism as a great open-air asylum.
The city, the starting point of the journey, is positioned as a public space at an advanced stage of dereliction, where haggard and aggressive individuals prowl, left to their own devices, foreshadowing imminent social chaos. From the dilapidated urban center, the character then moves on to a falsely radiant suburban area, then through the woods, in a departure from the path that punctuates the introspection. Through precise directing that finds its momentum in a series of disturbances, Aster remains for a while on this thin ridge that adds irony to fright and an element of the grotesque to the phobic apprehension of the world, largely decompartmentalizing the expectations of the genre.
But halfway through, the cerebral film begins to slip in its own meanderings, as if crumbling under the weight of detachment. Coveting the powerful subjectivity of Federico Fellini (8 1/2 and Juliet of the Spirits), Aster instead mostly operates on the territory of Charlie Kaufman (Synecdoche, New York and I’m Thinking of Ending Things), for whom the psyche is integrated into a metanarrative set piece. Passing through the forest, Beau comes across a traveling troupe in the middle of a rehearsal. And the film shifts into theatrical representation during a long animated sequence, which could dazzle if it did not display so much metatheatrical pretension.
The passage is a transition, after which the film succumbs to its negative side. The maternal relationship that was meant to be explored turns out to be rather hollow as an empire of castration. While the film should increase in mystery and abstraction, it only leads to poor psychoanalytical symbols, too explicit to be intriguing. The last hour, largely dispensable, confronts us with a curious phenomenon: The more the work fills itself symbolically, the more it dries up internally.