June 1, 2023


Without Art It's Really Boring!!!

Ari Aster’s movies are united by one big idea.

17 min read

In this article, Beau is a-spoiled.

In an Ari Aster movie, the best thing that can happen is losing your head. Not literally, of course, although the Midsommar auteur is notoriously fond of literally cutting his characters off at the neck. In 2019, he said that “head trauma will always have a place in my movies,” and his latest, Beau Is Afraid, holds true to that promise. Early on, just after Beau Wasserman (Joaquin Phoenix) cancels a planned visit to his mother, she is decapitated by a falling chandelier. (One observer says it’s as if her head just “evaporated.”) But alongside the characters who get their skulls crushed and faces smashed are ones who desperately need a respite from the buzzing of their brains—who would give anything if they could, even for a minute, just stop thinking. Toni Collette’s character in Hereditary comes from family with a long history of mental illness—a mother with dissociative identity disorder, a father with psychotic depression, a brother with schizophrenia—and is plagued by the feeling that she and her family are the object of a sinister conspiracy. Midsommar’s Florence Pugh is already taking medication for anxiety before her sister kills herself and their parents, and after that she’s wracked with grief and haunted by visions of her dead sister and mother.

Neither of Aster’s previous protagonists, however, are quite as tortured by their own thoughts as Beau is. From the moment he exits his mother’s womb—an event the movie shows us from his point of view—he experiences the world as an endless string of terrors, real and imagined, and he’s trapped so far inside his own anxieties he has no way to tell which is which. Although Beau Is Afraid eventually diverges from the pattern set by Aster’s previous movies, it shares with them the idea that the world behaves according to rules his main characters don’t know exist, and the sense that even knowing them wouldn’t be enough to change their fates. That being the case, wouldn’t it be better to go to your doom blissfully unaware, rather than shrieking and flailing your way toward an inevitable end?

Beau Is Afraid, Aster said in a recent interview, is “so obviously about guilt that it’s not even worth saying that.” But the movie’s sheer, over-the-top bluntness is part of the point. If Aster’s previous movies prompted viewers to scrutinize every frame for hidden clues—the Satanic cult symbol carved into a fateful utility pole in Hereditary, the tapestries detailing the gruesome rituals to come in MidsommarBeau throws them in your face, cramming the screen with more signs and symbols than it’s possible to take in at a glance. But reading those signs will only take you so far. It’s a movie framed by therapy but frustrated by it, set at the point when self-analysis becomes counterproductive and you need to stop exploring the inside of your head and just get out of it.

The movie’s basic plot is, at first glance, straightforward, or at least linear. As Beau embarks on a torturous journey to make it home for his mother’s funeral, he’s waylaid by a series of increasingly daunting obstacles, from misplaced housekeys to a deranged Army veteran intent on hunting him down. But the physical challenges are compounded by psychological barriers: his pervasive indecision and self-doubt, and a nagging sense that he will be at fault no matter what choice he makes. When Beau’s psychotherapist asks if he experiences any remorse about how long it’s been since he visited his mother, Beau insists he doesn’t. (It’s only been a few months, after all.) But in his notes, the therapist jots down just one word: guilty.

There is, in fact, a sinister conspiracy running through Beau, revealed when he finally reaches his mother’s house. (This is the point at which the spoiler-averse should make themselves scarce.) Beau’s mother, played by Patti LuPone, is actually alive. Not only that, but she’s been watching him the whole time, and possibly for his entire life. The evidence is scattered throughout the film, some of it in plain sight, some buried amid a riot of competing audiovisual inputs, and some of it incomplete or contradictory. There’s a story here, but it’s not the whole story.

Mona Wasserman, Beau’s mother, is the architect of a “super-business” called MW, a pharmaceutical company, according to the earliest ads displayed on the timeline in Mona’s office, that also has sidelines in TV news, real estate, navigational systems, and convenience stores, among a potentially infinite array of other areas. Basically, if you can think of it, and especially if it is something that touches on Beau’s life, there’s a good chance MW is involved. (MW’s logo, which looks a little like an infinity sign cut in half lengthwise, is also the logo for the film’s production company, Mommy Knows Best.) The company is almost exactly as old as Beau himself, and its business seems to have evolved alongside him. When Beau is a child, he’s featured in gauzy ads for allergy medication, inhaling the scent of a flower with no sign of a runny nose or bleary eyes. As he reaches adolescence, the ads shift to acne treatments, and there’s Beau, applying a patch to a pesky blemish. An easel in Mona’s office displays a architect’s rendering for the apartment building where Beau lives as an adult, identifiable by the Erectus Ejectus sex shop in one corner. (Why a sex shop is part of the initial concept is, um, unclear.)

Not only does Mona own Beau’s building, but he seems to be living off her entirely. It doesn’t seem like a coincidence that his credit card stops working the moment he cancels his plans to come visit her, and towards the end of the movie he complains that Mona consistently undermined his attempts at independence: “When I was just starting to like my own stuff and do my own things, she’d take all those changes very personally and make me feel bad about it until I stopped.”

She’s keeping an eye on him, too. The spiral staircase in Mona’s house—which, at least in this context, evokes one half of a DNA strand—is lined with posed photos of the young Beau, but the only one of him as an adult is a random shot of him standing in the middle of his apartment, from an angle that suggests a security-camera screengrab. Across the street from Beau, there’s an MW convenience store whose “24–7” sign suggests her unceasing presence. Even after she’s dead, or Beau thinks she is, he gets a call from her lawyer (Richard Kind) telling him to hurry home for the funeral, because “Your mother’s body is being watched at all times.” In addition to having security cameras in his apartment—in a neighborhood so high-crime it’s practically dystopian, perhaps chosen to enhance Beau’s fear of going outside, or to punish him for choosing not to live closer to home—she’s paying his therapist to send her recordings of their sessions, and to ask leading questions like “Do you ever wish your mother were dead?” (Beau dodges that bullet at least.) But for all her surveillance, Mona isn’t omniscient or omnipotent: She’s dead certain that Beau is lying when he explains why he can’t make his flight home, but his excuse, though preposterous—his keys and his suitcase were stolen when he ran back into his apartment to retrieve some forgotten dental floss—is true.

Mona’s goal, like any parent’s, is to keep her child safe: The sign introducing MW’s corporate timeline proclaims “Your security has been our priority for 40 years.” But she has a peculiar way of doing it. Rather than setting her son up in the lap of luxury, her strategy seems to have been to keep him in a state of perpetual fright. As she tells him at the end of the movie, the questions that consumed her as a mother were “Is my baby hungry? Is he healthy? Is he scared enough of the world?” She can’t keep an eye on him all the time, so from the time he was little, she’s been telling him lies to keep him isolated and in fear. (She’s the Mother Gothel to his Rapunzel.) The biggest is that his father is dead, and that he died, like Beau’s grand- and great-grandfathers, at the moment his child was conceived. Like them, she tells Beau, he has a heart murmur that makes sexual climax a fatal indulgence, and physical intimacy of any kind a risk that’s not worth taking.

Exactly why Mona goes down this road is something of a mystery; perhaps we’re not meant to understand Beau’s mother any better than he does. But she does try to explain herself in a bravura monologue Aster gives her near the end of the movie.

My own mother wouldn’t even touch me. Not if it was simply to stamp me out if I was on fire. I wasn’t worthy of her love. I hadn’t earned it. And I never earned it. No matter what I did, no matter how much of my deepest real self I denied and buried and smothered until it was dead, none of it mattered. She blamed me for everything her mother did to her. Then I had you. I promised, “I will never do that to him. I will give him all the love I have.”

The trouble is that in return for all of her love, she wanted all of Beau’s love, which meant never sharing him with another woman. There’s a deliberately seductive vibe to the way Zoe Lister-Jones plays the younger version of Mona, particularly in a flashback set on a cruise ship where the younger Beau (Armen Nahapetian) encounters a young woman named Elaine (Julia Antonelli). Elaine is every bit as much of a weirdo as Beau—her eyes practically light up when she tells him there’s a dead man floating in the ship’s swimming pool—but she’s less repressed and more impulsive, running a finger through the buffet’s chocolate fountain and sticking it in Beau’s mouth before he even knows what’s happening. “We’re allowed to kiss, but only for the next 10 seconds,” she tells him, and just as the countdown is about to expire, Beau lunges forward and puts his lips on hers—until Elaine’s mother hurriedly interrupts them. That night, as Beau lies in bed with his mother, both of them under the covers, Elaine barges through the door, and, as her mother shrieks and tries to pull her away, Elaine extracts from Beau a promise to wait for her, no matter how long it takes. Based on the Polaroid of Elaine that Beau cradles in the movie’s first section, he’s been waiting for decades.

That’s not the first time we see Elaine, though. Before we even know her significance to Beau’s life, the adult Elaine (Parker Posey) turns up in a TV news report about Mona’s death, identified as an MW employee. Could she have been working for Mona back then, too? If she’s “allowed” to kiss Beau, who’s doing the allowing? Even in a movie as absurdist as Beau, it strains the boundaries of logic to think that Mona would hire a teenage girl to put the moves on her son in the hopes that he might stay hung up on her for the rest of his life. (And besides, as we find out when the adult Elaine turns up at Mona’s house and seduces him, it’s not Beau to whom orgasms are fatal; it’s her.) But the movie seems designed to tempt us with such paranoid readings, and to make us reckon with the ways they make sense of the world and where they fall short.

The movie seems designed to tempt us with such paranoid readings, and to make us reckon with the ways they make sense of the world and where they fall short.

Take the movie’s second section, in which Beau takes refuge at the home of cheery suburbanites Roger (Nathan Lane) and Grace (Amy Ryan). Roger is a surgeon, or at least claims to be, but the employee photo on Mona’s wall tells us that he, too, works for MW. And there’s a hint that Grace is also in on it, somehow. We hear her on an offscreen phone call complaining that something “wasn’t part of the original contract,” and telling the person on the other end, “I’m a mother myself, you know.” But what exactly were they contracted to do? Beau is at their house in the first place because Grace hit him with the truck she and Roger use to ladle out soup to vagrants across the street from Beau’s apartment, as if they’re doing Christian charity work. But what if they’re actually there to keep an eye on Beau? Hitting Beau with the truck might have been an accident, but it could also be a frantic attempt to protect him from the crazed serial killer, known as “Birthday Boy Stab Man,” who is running amok in Beau’s neighborhood, and who actually manages to stab Beau several times in the side and hand before he’s rescued. (Speculate on the Christlike nature of Beau’s injuries on your own time.)

There is something unnaturally heightened about the stilted enthusiasm with which Roger and Grace welcome their convalescent guest, as if they’re amateur actors suddenly thrust into the spotlight. They’re certainly being watched, as Grace reveals to Beau with a whispered hint to switch the TV to channel 78, which shows a live feed of Beau standing in their living room. (She also surreptitiously passes him a napkin with the scrawled warning “Stop incriminating yourself.”) But when Beau pauses the security camera image, he’s able to both rewind into the past and fast-forward into the future, stepping through images of scenes that haven’t taken place yet, all the way to the movie’s conclusion. There’s no way to make literal sense of this, but thematically it ties into the determinist nature of all of Aster’s movies, the idea that his characters’ fates are set the moment the story starts, and all they can do is accept that fate or wear themselves out struggling against it.

Grace and Roger’s teenage daughter Toni (Kylie Rogers), who is enraged by this intruder’s presence in her home—and especially that her parents have put him up in her bedroom—eventually screams that Beau has “already failed your stupid test,” the closest the movie gets to explicitly stating that this is all part of Mona’s master plan (although again, at this point in the movie, we have no idea she’s still alive). Once Beau canceled his plans to fly home, Mona decided to evaluate just how disloyal a son he is, faking her own demise and engineering a series of challenges to see just how much effort he would put into honoring her.

The guilt of Beau’s delayed homecoming is deepened by the fact that every moment Mona’s body remains above-ground—and her will stipulates that she cannot be buried without him present—makes him not just a bad son, but a bad Jew. As Mona’s lawyer reminds Beau, Jewish law requires that bodies must be buried within 24 hours: “It shall not remain all night,” he says, paraphrasing the book of Deuteronomy. “Sound familiar?” (The look on Beau’s face suggests that it does not.) Of course, by the time he awakens at Grace and Roger’s, it’s two days after Mona’s supposed death. He’s too late before he even starts.

After fleeing Grace and Roger’s, Beau stumbles upon a traveling theater troupe in the forest, a group of self-styled “orphans” who have created a found family of their own. He meets a kindly pregnant woman named Penelope (a none-too-subtle reference to The Odyssey) and watches a play which somehow becomes a fantasy of a life Beau could have had. Stepping into the world of the stage, and into an idyllic interlude which blends live action and animation, Beau imagines himself into a story in which he is married and has children, is separated from them and spends his whole life trying to return—a reverie broken only when one of his three sons asks how it was possible for him to have children when he’s never had sex. Snapped back to the real world, Beau meets a sharp-faced man who tells him that his father is still alive, which the man knows because he used to work for Mona, feeding him. Beau assumes the man actually is his father, and he does indeed look like the double-exposure photo hung in Beau’s apartment in the opening section, but before he can ask any more questions, their conversation is interrupted—by the rampage of a PTSD-scarred army veteran who served with Grace and Roger’s dead son—and we never see the man again.

Eventually, Beau does make it home, grabbing a lift from a motorist using an MW navigation system, and confronts his mother. He knows that she faked her death, and did it by paying Beau’s nanny—the only person we see lavish him with genuine affection—to get smashed by the chandelier in her place. And he knows his father is still alive. Very well, she tells him: If you want the truth, take a look in the attic. We’ve already seen a young Beau go up into the attic—which, like the one in Hereditary, is accessed by a ladder that folds down out of the ceiling—in a recurring dream in which he seems to be watching himself from the outside, cowering in the bath while his mother pushes another version of him up the ladder and closes the attic door forever. But, Mona tells him, that isn’t a dream. It’s a memory.

This is where Beau Is Afraid is both at its most literal and most opaque. In the attic, Beau finds two figures. One is a balding man shackled to the floor, timidly holding out an empty bowl, waiting to be fed. And the other is, well, a giant dick. More specifically, it’s a 10-foot-tall anthropomorphic penis with giant testicles and praying-mantis claws. “That was your father!” Mona screams after Beau throws himself back down the ladder face-first. But does she mean the penis or the man, and either way, what’s the other one doing there?

Throughout Beau Is Afraid, there are hints that Beau was not Mona’s only child. At her funeral, a recording of which is playing when Beau finally gets to her house, he’s referred to as her “sole surviving son.” And there’s the dream, in which Beau seems to be looking at a stronger, more assertive version of himself—one who paid a steep price for daring to defy his mother. The man in the attic certainly looks like Joaquin Phoenix, and in the credits he’s identified as “Beau’s Twin in Attic.” (The part is listed as being played by an actor named Julien Fortin.) That would make the giant penis his father, and, well, we’ll let the Freudians take it from there.

In the movie’s final scene, Beau goes on trial for his life. Still in shock from the revelations about his parenthood, Beau strangles his mother, who seems to die for real this time, and flees the house in a motorboat. But instead of escaping, he winds up in a lake in the middle of a stadium that’s filled with onlookers—the last image glimpsed in the flash-forward on the TV in Grace and Roger’s living room—and is presided over by his mother (who still has the bruises on her throat) and her lawyer. The lawyer accuses Beau of being a bad son and a bad person, betraying his mother and the world, and although we’ve seen enough to know some of the accusations are untrue, Beau is helpless to defend himself. (He does have a lawyer of his own, a distant figure with a barely audible voice who’s eventually thrown over the railing and dashed to death on the rocks, ättestupa-style.)

But the truth is, it doesn’t really matter what Beau has or hasn’t done. Like all of Aster’s characters, he’s guilty just by reason of existing. As Toni Collette puts it in Hereditary, “I sometimes feel like it’s all ruined, and then I realize that I am to blame—or not that I’m to blame, but I am blamed.” “I’m sorry,” Beau scrawls on the bottom of the Madonna and child statuette he purchases as a gift for his mother. “This is the anniversary of dad’s death. Thank you. I’m sorry.” The characters in Beau are constantly apologizing, even if they don’t know for what. If you did a shot every time a character in Beau Is Afraid says the words “I’m sorry,” you wouldn’t be able to walk out of the theater.

The ultimate gag of Beau Is Afraid is that it’s about a character who is tortured by his own thoughts in a situation where thinking does him no good. In fact, the thoughts themselves may be the problem. Beau doesn’t actually forget his dental floss at the beginning of the movie—when he’s packing, his hand hovers over it and he makes a conscious choice to leave it behind. (“There’s a key there,” Aster has said.) It’s going back on that decision that starts him on the road to hell. It’s as if he’s trying to conquer his anxieties not by processing them but by simply forcing himself to act as if they didn’t exist, modifying his behavior as a way of changing his outlook. (One way to look at the movie is as the story of a man who needs to stop doing talk therapy and shift to CBT.) If Beau could find a way to act without thinking, the way he does when he kisses young Elaine on the cruise ship, he might stand a chance.

Perhaps the Hårga have the right idea. The fictional villagers of Midsommar have built their society around a set of elaborate rituals, arranging their gatherings in the shapes of ancient runes and dividing their lives neatly into quarters. But when it comes to true wisdom, they turn to the village oracle, a deformed product of deliberate inbreeding whose mind, a village elder explains, is “unclouded by normal cognition.” Florence Pugh’s Dani doesn’t quite follow the oracle’s lead, but she gives it her best shot, slowly surrendering her connections to both logic and the outside world. By the end of the movie, she’s been nonverbal and practically catatonic for almost 20 minutes, but she’s the closest to happy we’ve ever seen, surrendering to what the screenplay calls “a joy known only by the insane.” Beau doesn’t quite stop talking, but after he’s hit by the truck, his speech grows more and more slurry, until by the time of his trial he’s reduced to unshaped vowel sounds. One way to read the movie is that as Beau moves toward his mother, he’s developmentally regressing, so that when he’s finally drowned in that lake, it’s as if he’s returning to the womb he once exited screaming. (Or maybe he’s just fulfilling the destiny of his surname, which translates as “water man.”) Instead of escaping his thoughts, he’s gone back to before he had any, and if that’s not happiness, it’s as close to peace as he’s ever going to get.

Copyright © All rights reserved. | Newsphere by AF themes.