The Poppies of Terra #3 - My Little Assistant Health Monitor
By Alvaro Zinos-Amaro
The age-old question of what happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object may have at long last been answered, courtesy of Ari Aster’s new feature film, Beau Is Afraid. The implacable force is an unrelenting three-hour anxiety fest, rendering potential theater-goers–who might have vague recollections of a bizarre trailer offering no clear promise of genre, tone, or narrative framework–the immovable object. The force wins, which is to say, the movie loses.
I, for one, couldn’t believe that Beau Is Afraid would be shown, of all places, at my local IMAX theater.
I’ve seen thousands of films in theaters, and a percentage of those in upscale presentations like IMAX. Last year’s Top Gun: Maverick, for example, pulled some serious G’s for the format.
Even before watching Beau Is Afraid, I knew it would be unlike any other IMAX experience, because the movie clearly lacked the elaborate action sequences and panoramic set pieces that tend to characterize such fare. Heck, it seemed to lack most elements of films shown in commercial movie theaters in general.
I immediately purchased tickets on my phone, and nervously refreshed the app containing them every morning, waiting for the fever dream to lift and the screen to display its inevitable message of “Showtime Unavailable.”
On the Appointed Day, I grabbed a salad at a restaurant near the multiplex. A friend with whom I was going to watch the movie texted me that he was five minutes away and really wanted a pretzel. Lo and behold, as he walked over to my restaurant, a stand materialized, offering free pretzels. Signs and wonders, folks.
At last, we ushered into the gigantic IMAX theater. This particular cavern is 90' wide by 65' high–approximately six and a half stories tall. It seats 580 guests. In theory, that is. In practice, it sat about ten of us.
That’s a lot of what a critic might call negative space.
“This doesn’t make any sense,” I told my friend, and mind you, that was before seeing the picture.
Trailers played, the special IMAX technical wizardry dazzled us with its beguiling visuals and rumbling sounds, and then the studio logo appeared.
“Well,” I thought, “I’m sure in some way that’s what Ari Aster is hoping for–but isn’t Beau Is Afraid an A24 project?”
Sure enough, after the Illumination logo, the film proper began.
An animated evil creature advanced towards a castle.
The Super Mario Bros. Movie powered up.
“I knew it,” I muttered.
“Who’s here for Beau?” someone yelled out.
“It’s supposed to be Beau, right?” someone else said.
“I’ll let them know,” a true cherub of courteousness volunteered, and started to make the long descent toward the corridor leading back to sunlight and some semblance of the real world.
As the minutes passed and the Mario Bros. movie confounded its scattering of unexpectant viewers, some grew antsy and rose, as if to leave.
Just then, the divine messenger returned, the screen went black, and we got our Beau Is Afraid.
Three hours later, a perceptibly sapped audience quietly departed.
Where, one might reasonably ask, did the energy go?
Maybe, trying to “locate” the type of movie on display–to no avail, since the film pivots in major ways, never settling down to be “the thing” you might expect. Or, possibly, attempting to determine what is “real” vs. “imagined”–which ultimately doesn’t seem to matter. Or, perhaps, waiting for Beau’s agency to kick in–good luck–or searching for his growth (bring a microscope). Most definitely, absorbing waves of IMAX-enhanced trauma, and endeavoring, with glorious futility, to brace for the next oncoming disaster.
Beau Is Afraid relishes abusing its central character. Is he bringing it all on himself? Self-sabotage is one thing, but what if your very existence is the spanner in the works?
Beautifully crafted, almost hypnotic in its various conjurations of casual suffering, baseline cruelty and constant intoxication, the movie brims with rejection. It seems engineered, with manic finesse, to anticipate and then rebuff every conventional impulse to access it. Just as Beau’s tenement hellhole appears to represent a deliberate rejection of his mother’s wealth and luxury, the film he inhabits spurns handsome three-act storytelling. Beau’s world waits for him to get his head on straight. The joke is on it, for Beau is damaged goods, beyond repair. The World held its breath for Ari Aster’s new film, and Beau Is Afraid likewise mocks the expectations of its own significance, parodying explicit elements in Aster’s previous two films (a decapitation here, a body plummeting onto a rock there), while caustically and repeatedly poking at any suspension of disbelief with hyperbole, artifice and macabre, misanthropic, meta-humor. Ari Aster’s third outing might well be his In Utero. The birth opening, the closing water sequence, and even Beau’s last name (Wassermann), spell out an amniotic dream.
The film seems to celebrate its own self-cannibalism almost as much as it does Beau’s constant and abject failure. It is exuberant in its withholdings. You want release? No. You want catharsis? Look elsewhere. Character arcs? Go away. There’s something quite energizing, in a transgressive, punk way, about this colorful affirmation of denial, specially as it is so masterfully designed and impeccably acted. It is not difficult, by searching out interviews and commentaries, to identify filmic nods and influences: Robert Bresson, Masaki Kobayashi, Jacques Tati, Jiří Menzel, Karel Zeman, Guy Maddin, Cristobal León & Joaquín Cociña, dozens of others. Beau Is Capacious.
One of Beau’s devotions is to the protocols of the picaresque, here disguised as an absurdist Odyssey. Our character’s biography is encased in falseness and self-deception; he will not learn and will not evolve; his condition becomes his fate, and any attempts at improving his situation, let alone station, are doomed; the worldview is pessimistic; the structure is itinerant, peripatetic; there are elements of satire.
Coming back to our irresistible force and immovable object: consider, if you will, Beau’s inability to handle the world as the force, and reality as the object. This time, the object wins. Our experience of Beau’s perceptions is a map of his inner entrapment. No amount of delusion, retreat into memory, fantasized faux-parables, or even pleading, can save him. Colluding with ornate alternate realities will not spare him the bluntness of being broken down.
In hindsight, even the title of the film seems ironically optimistic, a dark joke, for fear is typically a temporary response, whose purpose is at least theoretically to maximize the odds of survival. Fear does not recognize predetermined outcomes; instead, it is seeded from the notion of its own eventual reprieve. Conception is an important part of Beau. Though he was born, his mind has never fully gestated. He has resigned himself to a natal, latent existence. Beau does not live with the implied hope of temporary fear; Defeated, Beau Is.
After Beau wakes up in the home of Grace and Roger, he sees an ankle monitor strapped around his foot and asks what it is. “That's my little assistant health monitor,” Roger says.
This seems like a rather flagrant lie, but Beau surrenders himself to it nonetheless.
As do we, to the endeavor we call art, seduced by the possibility of finding a pulse.