Black Bear (2020)

There have been a few truly great entries in what I call the Writer’s Block Thriller genre in recent years, a canon once populated only by Charlie Kaufman screenplays. Titles like Staying Vertical, Sybil, and Ismael’s Ghosts haven’t exactly dominated the pop culture discourse, but they’re fantastically frustrating headtrips for the few audiences who discovered them in their film festival & Netflix algorithm burial grounds. These are films in which a creatively constipated artist stares at the blank page until they go mad, eventually getting further & further wrapped up in pointlessly absurd, go-nowhere conflicts created mostly by avoidance of completing their own work. The Writer’s Block Thriller is often a meta, heavily neurotic genre that’s mostly about their off-screen creators’ personal & professional anxieties more than they are about characters or plot. Even when done well, there’s an embarrassing layer of narcissism that weighs down the exercise, which can feel like reading a stranger’s tell-all diary. When done poorly, it can feel like reading an exceedingly boring stranger’s diary, which doesn’t at all help with the second-hand embarrassment.

Black Bear fits very snugly in the Writer’s Block Thriller genre, if not only because it plays more like an academic writing exercise than it does a complete work. Aubrey Plaza, Christopher Abbott, and Sarah Gadon co-star in this meta mental-breakdown thriller as narcissistic filmmakers & artists who are bad at their jobs and bad at their relationships. They start the film as Brooklynite hipsters staging a Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? type dinner party from hell while on an artists’ retreat in the woods. Then, their character traits are scrambled & reassigned for a second, paralleled scenario in which they all continue to manipulate & berate each other in feel-bad Edward Albee tradition – this time for twice the length. These two lopsided segments are rigidly separated by chapter breaks & a repeated image that resets the stage like a rotary dial: Aubrey Plaza sitting at a writing desk, frustrated by the blank page. It plays as if writer/director Lawrence Michael Levine had access to a nice woodland cabin location & a few talented actor friends for a long weekend, but no clear idea of what he wanted to accomplish with those resources. You can practically see him sitting at his own writing desk, unable to get any work done because petty arguments with his friends & lover are looping loudly in his own neurotic skull. The result feels labored, uninspired, self-indulgent and, worst of all, pointless.

If there’s anything useful that came out of this Creative Block writing exercise, it’s in gifting the three central actors a lot of archly hyper-emotional dialogue to play around with. I’ve seen some claims that this is Aubrey Plaza’s best work to date, which can only be assumed if you haven’t been paying attention to her work in recent years; she’s been just as great in much better films (Ingrid Goes West, The Little Hours, Joshy, hell even The To Do List & Dirty Grandpa). Still, it’s true that the second, overreaching segment of the film allows her to run wild & manic in a way we only really get to see from Elizabeth Moss in recent years (an unavoidable comparison, given the central premise’s parallels with Queen of Earth), a mode that Plaza is deliciously sinister in. As frustrating as Black Bear‘s structureless meandering can be in a narrative sense, it is consistently impressive as an actors’ showcase. That feels like an intentional feature of the writing too, which loosely sketches each character as an over-the-top stage play archetype rather than a real person. In the film’s best scene, Plaza is trapped at a dinner table listening to a couple systematically contradict every one of each other’s statements in an absurdly endless flood of bickering & snipes – the one time both the writing and the performances seem in sync instead of circling each other in search of a purpose.

The most frustrating thing about Black Bear‘s shortcomings is that it’s totally aware of its own pointlessness. In the opening segment, a character openly asks a filmmaker “How you can you make something if you don’t have anything to say?” with the incredulity of someone who just sat through a screening of Black Bear. Levine even works in a parody of a Kubrickian asshole director who allows his creative hubris to drive his collaborators into the ground with endless takes & headgames in empty pursuit of some unattainable intellectual exercise that’s above everyone else’s heads. By all accounts, Kubrick was a total nightmare to work with, but at least his films all felt like they had a clear vision & sense of purpose. By contrast, this movie feels like a placeholder for an idea that never fully formed by the time production wrapped. If the best Writer’s Block Thrillers feel like reading a filmmaker’s personal diary, Black Bear feels like flipping through an abandoned, forgotten sketchbook. It’s all very lopsided, unfinished, and not quite ready for public view.

-Brandon Ledet

Sibyl (2020)

I’m becoming increasingly tickled by the Charlie Kaufman-esque story template in which Writer’s Block leads an increasingly unraveled protagonist down an absurd rabbit hole at their own peril. Between Ismael’s Ghosts, Staying Vertical, and now Sybil, France has gradually emerged as the #1 exporter of these bizarro psychological thrillers about frustrated writers, which rarely earn great critical accolades despite constructing some of the most unpredictable, confounding plots in cinema. Overall, Sibyl doesn’t revolutionize the structure or purpose of the Writer’s Block thriller in any significant way, but it does reshape the (admittedly loose) genre’s usual tone by casting a woman in the central writer’s role. Typically, these post-Kaufman psych-thrillers profile Macho Academic types in a moment of Mid-Life Crisis, so it’s a relief to see the genre shaken up with a woman’s internal fixations & sexual urges for a change. Otherwise, Sibyl behaves just as you’d expect given the Writer’s Block-driven downward spiral its protagonist suffers. It’s just an acquired taste I’ve personally acquired with glee.

The titular Sibyl is a frustrated psychiatrist who’s decided to pull back from the professional demands of her clientele to re-focus on writing novels – only to be confronted by the dreaded Blank Page. She’s then pulled back into her psychiatry practice by a new patient in crisis, an actress whose affair with a famous co-star is causing an on-set meltdown (as the man is also sleeping with the film’s director). Sibyl verbally protests that she cannot become involved in this young, chaotic woman’s life, but she’s clearly addicted to the drama that unfolds. Her avoidance of writing a new novel fades as she chooses to write about this soon-to-be-famous (or soon-to-implode) actress under a pseudonym, becoming more & more involved in the young woman’s life under the guise of “research.” It’s clearly addictive behavior that’s linked directly to her addiction to work, her addiction to past sexual partners, and—most explicitly—her alcoholism. At the start of their relationship, the psychiatrist is protesting that she cannot become involved in the actress’s personal drama. By the end, she’s practically directing the movie herself as her life falls apart outside the boundaries of her newest, singular obsession.

As with the best of these Writer’s Block psych-thrillers, Sibyl is excitingly playful in its style & narrative structure. It begins with a chilling piano score & 70s grindhouse typeface, as if it were a remake of Halloween instead of an intellectual drama. It also later teases swerves into De Palma-era erotic thriller territory, but those genre throwback touches are more stylistic flavor than they are narrative substance. The narrative itself is more guided by tabloidish obsession with “celebrity” criminals like Robert Durst & Casey Anthony than anything recalling De Palma or Carpenter, to the point where Sibyl’s only connection to those genre traditions is in her shameless voyeurism (most amusingly depicted in her late-night laptop binges on junky clickbait headlines). The movie itself is tickled with the farcical adultery configurations of its central cast, but it’s most concerned with creating a fractured portrait of its doomed alcoholic writer as she spirals out. The sordid details of her involvement in her patient’s life is less important than the addictive, self-destructive impulses that lead her there – freeing the movie to have a laugh at her exponentially absurd downfall even when it’s at its most excruciatingly grim.

The only major fault with Sibyl is that you could name several movies that push its basic elements way further into way wilder directions. Beyond its obvious Kaufman ancestry, Double Lover & Persona both come to mind. Otherwise, it’s an admirably solid Movie For Adults, the kind of thoughtfully constructed erotic menace that used to be produced by Hollywood studios at regular intervals but now only seeps quietly through European film festivals. The movie works best when it’s clearly having fun with the absurdity of its unraveling premise, like when it frames Sibyl pensively vaping out a window in a Writerly way or in its casting of Toni Erdmann star Sandra Hüller as scene-stealing comic relief. It also takes the sexual urges & self-destructive behavioral patterns of its protagonist seriously enough that its central conflict never implodes into comic oblivion either. We’re fully invested in the manic downfall of this frustrated writer, even if not quite as much as she’s involved in her patient’s.

-Brandon Ledet

Staying Vertical (2017)

Every now & then you’ll encounter a strange picture about writer’s block written by someone who’s obviously suffering writer’s block. These movies are usually penned by Charlie Kauffman, but in this case it’s Stranger By the Lake’s Alain Guiraudi who’s driven mad by the blank page into making something deeply, surreally frustrated. Staying Vertical is an abstract nightmare of mistakes & obligations haunting a frustrated writer as he avoids his professional responsibilities at the expense of everything he holds dear in life. Our creatively stumped protagonist starts his journey with a nice job & total freedom. His biggest worries are being rejected while cruising for sex or becoming consumed with boredom. By the conclusion, just a year later, he’s homeless, destitute, a public pariah, an estranged father, and literally surrounded by wolves. The events that lead him down that path can be logically explained in a linear progression, but that logic falls apart once you apply them to a larger metaphorical meaning. It seems to be solely the result of Guiraudi needing to put something, anything on the page. As with Kaufman’s similar works, that back-against-the-wall creative necessity leads to some . . . interesting choices.

I have no problem admitting that some of Stranger by the Lake’s immediate appeal was its explicit depiction of casual gay sex, a kind of shock value transgression that paired wonderfully with its emotional thriller beats and thematic explorations of dangerous intimacy & loneliness. Staying Vertical boasts a lot of the same in-your-face vulgarity, including hardcore intergenerational sex, close-up shots of genitalia & human birth, and bizarre dialogue like, “Even if I wanted to, I can’t sleep with my son’s grandpa.” It’s far from a nonstop bacchanal of Kuso-esque perversions, though. Mostly we watch our writer’s block-afflicted protagonist drift through the French countryside, a major city, and a village in-between, racking up a mounting weight of responsibilities & obligations as he avoids the one thing he should be doing at the outset. In his aimless wandering through an unfulfilling life he establishes an absurd scenario where there’s essentially five people in all of France and they all want something from him that he’s unprepared to deliver. His obligations surround him like a pack of wolves, a point that’s driven home when he’s literally surrounded by a pack of wolves.

Of course, this kind of purposeless, for-its-own-sake shock value & absurdity is going to strike many people as incoherent nonsense. The sequence of events in Staying Vertical has a self-driving rhythm & inevitability to it that almost distracts you from the fact that it has no destination or grand scale metaphor in mind. The film functions as an abstract window into Alain Guiraudi’s peculiar anxieties as he pushes a barebones story essentially about Nothing to its furthest extremes, just for the exercise. These experiments in meta attacks on the author’s own writer’s block can lead to fascinating places both visually & philosophically, though, as long as you’re willing to meet the work halfway as an exhibition and an act of self-therapy. I can’t say I wouldn’t have rather have Guiraudi’s fearless, straightforward story about wolves, sheepherding, and the state of farm life in the face of modernized industry, but the extreme, absurdist self-reflection he delivers in Staying Vertical instead is fascinating, occasionally haunting stuff. I just hope he’s okay.

-Brandon Ledet