Fear of Flying (And Everything Else)
Ari Aster's Hereditary, when it came out in 2018, was that unusual thing: a film which clearly announced the arrival of a major talent despite being rather divisive. Many legitimate critics loved it. We (your correspondent, Former Next Desk Colleague, and Olinka) thought it was fairly risible once the credits had finished rolling, but we were all duly impressed by the queasy atmosphere Aster managed to generate. 2019's Midsommar was genuinely accomplished – Olinka, who is equally passionate about horror movies and psychotherapy, particularly enjoyed it. I haven't caught up with her for a bit but I imagine she will flip her chips when she eventually sees Aster's latest film, Beau is Afraid.
The film opens with Beau himself being born (at least, I assume it's him), which Aster naturally presents as a nightmarishly traumatic experience. (Tone is thus established.) Beau grows up to be Joaquin Phoenix, and a rather nervous and fragile individual. We see him visiting his therapist (Stephen McKinley Henderson), getting a new prescription, and going back to his apartment. Everything seems calculated to create maximum disquiet and unease, from the violent squalor of the neighbourhood to the fact the building is infested with venomous spiders.
Beau is supposed to be about to visit his mother (Patti LuPone), a successful businesswoman, but a series of bizarre events – basically, his keys mysteriously vanish – force him to cancel the trip. From here, things spiral increasingly out of control, involving mobs of aggressive homeless people, and Beau discovering an urgent family situation he needs to travel to address. Naturally, he ends up running out into the street naked and being hit by a passing truck.
You know, when I do this capsule synopsis thing, what I'm basically trying is to give you a sense of the initial conditions of the film and then a general sense of where the story ends up going. With Beau is Afraid this is tricky, because this is not a film which sticks to a conventional narrative structure and never goes in the direction you expect it to. There's something almost (and I hesitate to say this) Kubrickian about the way the film takes the form a number of different episodes, each of them quite different, with no particular connection beyond the fact that they happen to Beau and feature a distinctively grotesque sense of humour. It's like a very unsettling vision-quest, perhaps, a stream of consciousness journey into everything going on in Beau's head. The only obvious thing I can compare it to is Darren Aronofsky's mother!, though it is slightly more measured in its madness, probably conserving its stamina for a truly heroic three-hour run-time.
I'm sure I saw an interview with Ari Aster where he said that, after Midsommar, he would have said everything he wanted to say in the horror genre. This may still be the case, and Beau is Afraid is not genuinely intended as an actual horror film. Or maybe he's just changed his mind. Certainly he has described the new film as a 'nightmare comedy' (also as 'a Jewish Lord of the Rings') and it is shot through with that sense of humour I mentioned up the page – black and twisted though it certainly is. But on the other hand, it's not what you'd call comfortable viewing – it finds your psychic pressure points and kneads at them relentlessly, and at one point there's an appearance by a psychosexual monster sufficiently gobsmacking it would even give David Cronenberg pause (probably). You can see why it's been released as counter-programming to Fast X and The Little Mermaid; what's genuinely surprising is the fact that anyone honestly thought enough people would want to watch a film this extreme to make a $35 million dollar budget viable.
What makes the film particularly confounding is the fact that it's very difficult to work out on what level it's supposed to be functioning. Parts of it are relatively naturalistic, parts seem to be set in a sort of version of the 'real world' where certain elements have been heightened for dramatic or comic effect, other parts are so fantastical or surreal that – one assumes – at these points the film has to be operating on some sort of symbolic or allegorical level. And it slips back and forth between these modes without fanfare or signposting. You're expecting some kind of conclusion where everything resets back to a recognisable analogue of the ordinary, naturalistic world. But it never comes, and after a few final swerves through the realms of melodrama, horror and surreal fantasy the film reaches an end. Perhaps the bizarre wrong-footing-ness of the conclusion is part of the intended effect.
However, this is one of those films which isn't about what you take away; it's about the experience of watching it – upsetting, visceral, moving, blackly comic. Most of this comes from a typically committed and intense performance from Joaquin Phoenix, who is on-screen for practically the whole three hours non-stop; the film has come out at the wrong time of year and looks likely to lose money, but this aside it's the kind of performance that gets award attention. Having already made the comic book movie respectable in terms of being award-worthy, could Phoenix do the same for the horror film?
That said, it is Ari Aster who displays once again an almost casual mastery of composition, sound, and general mise-en-scene. 'I can't believe the imagination some people have,' murmured the only other visible audience member at the screening I attended, as we both sat in the theatre trying to process the experience of the preceding three hours. I'm still not entirely sure of what Beau is Afraid is actually supposed to be about – an exercise in experimental surrealism? A depiction of a mind in crisis as seen from the inside? The answer is not clear, and to be honest the film is almost overwhelming – the sheer length and strangeness of it becomes alienating and exhausting some time before the end. It's a fascinating experience but also a gruelling and possibly disturbing one. It may actually be a masterpiece, but I don't feel qualified to say so with certainty. But it's definitely a tour de force for both director and star.