Day 2 of Sundance: The Assistant and Black Bear expose manipulative and abusive film business

January 27, 2020
Day Two of the Sundance Film Festival offered twice the opportunity to reflect on the darker side of filmmaking, with two films of vastly different approaches, that expose abuse and manipulation in the movie business: The Assistant by Kitty Green and Black Bear by Lawrence Michael Levine.

The chilling drama The Assistant takes a microscopically focused lens to a day in the life of a female assistant, “Jane” (played by Julia Garner, with the same calm determination but a different moral lens than her character on Ozark), who suffers the indignities of working at a film production company where the CEO is a narcissistic, predatory, bully tyrant à la Harvey Weinstein, and her co-workers are equally as manipulative as him.

Australian filmmaker Kitty Green’s background in documentaries comes in handy, creating a captivatingly realistic portrait of workplace abuse that thrives in such competitive environments as the film industry. Like an observational documentary, the camera patiently follows its protagonist in painstaking detail using minimal dialogue to tell the story. Never has such menial tasks as photocopying, making the coffee, cleaning the crumbs off coffee tables (and the stains off the casting couch), become so mesmerising and meaningful as in this film; showing how such a demoralising job has created a new kind of modern-day slavery where the psychological humiliation stings just as much as the inevitable paper cut.

The film intentionally obscures the voices on the other end of phone conversations, and the images behind window curtains, to only hint at the abuses taking place, so that the audience have to make their own assumptions. Similarly, Jane tries to file a complaint for what she assumes is sexually abusive behaviour but without any hard evidence, to which the human resources manager (played by Matthew Macfadyen, with the same duplicitous condescension as his character on the TV show Succession), talks her out of it by threatening her job security. Like in horror movies where the monsters are much scarier when they are not seen, the film’s villain doesn’t ever make an appearance, although his toxic influence is seen throughout the film,  leaving the audience to imagine him as any of the number of real-life power-players accused of such abuses in the #MeToo era.

If this film were designed to look like it was one take, I would compare this film to the thrilling and emotional experience of watching Sam Mendes’ real time film 1917 except this War being portrayed is the Gender War or Class Warfare.

While The Assistant has all the loaded messages of an urgent protest march, Black Bear is more like a frivolous game of Twister. Yes, there is manipulation and psychological abuse, but it comes from all three of the mercurial main players in this montage-a-trois.

Black Bear enjoys a leisurely pace and observes some minute details, but it is not to recreate reality like The Assistant does so well, but rather to simulate a more stylised reality that is seen from the viewpoint of a troubled actress named Allison (played by Aubrey Plaza, in yet another version of the same weird, sarcastic and mentally-unstable character she always plays). At one point a character says to Allison, “You’re hard to read. Are you joking right now?” It was almost a meta-moment in which she could have been asking that question to Aubrey herself. But as usual, Plaza still finds the emotional truths within the absurd situations. Whereas The Assistant is laconic in its lack of dialogue, Black Bear offers a loquacious approach, featuring playful dialogue in spades. Such lines as Sarah Gadon’s character Blair saying to Christopher Abbot’s Gabe, “I don’t have a problem with you having ideas about the world, I have a problem with the ideas you have about the world,” and the debate about the term solipsism, demonstrates how much the director Lawrence Michael Levine is in love with words and writing.

Black Bear is wildly creative and unpredictable as it shifts tones all over the place, starting as a darkly comedic psycho-sexual drama and veering closely to a slapstick farce. The film is a bit like David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive for the Mumblecore generation – exploring dual realities, looping storylines, quirky side characters, and a blonde actress who is a dead ringer for Naomi Watts’ character Betty. It gives plenty of red herrings and clues for fans to analyse and interpret including the black bear, which is either an important metaphor or just a big furry MacGuffin.

Next time you are watching the end credits on a movie that say “No animals were harmed in the making of this film,” consider why there is no required statement that says “No people were harmed in the making of this film.”

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