Beau is Afraid (2023)

Dan is exhausted

Ari Aster’s first two movies, Hereditary and Midsommar, didn’t set my world on fire, but were both solid bits of direction undone by uneven plots stretched thin. Thus I approached Beau is Afraid, which promised Aster’s semi-autobiographical story of arrested development, a novelistic and cuckoo-bananas opus with… well, maybe not anticipation, but certainly deep curiosity. Movies get called “divisive” a lot, but even for movies that get labeled such, there’s typically a lot of consensus in the circles I follow, with maybe a few dissenters. But reactions to Beau is Afraid have genuinely been all over the map: two trusted friends, Andrew and Hunter, gave the movie five stars and a half star on Letterboxd, respectively. Now that’s a film!

From the start, it’s obvious that this is a fucking swing. The first 45 minutes or so are even terrific, I’d say, a gradually escalating nightmare of guilt and paranoia that’s tense and unique, defined by its slow curdling pace. A stressful but compelling watch in an exaggerated urban hellscape.

Then the film slams into its first of many act changes. The storytelling texture of the film abruptly shifts tenors from anxiety dream to suburban dystopia in a way that disconnected me from the film entirely. Each subsequent act shift — play-within-a-film, sex nightmare, etc. — offers the same whiplash, and the lack of meaningful linear progression means the film is more noisy and episodic than anything else, a gnarly anthology in disguise. Beau is Afraid is long, busy, and filled with cinematic ideas, but it only fleetingly pulled me back in.

On the other hand, I do enjoy big swings, and this one is a real doozy: a picaresque of Homeric scope and half-Lynchian, half-Daniels absurdism that finds every excuse it can to throw in a Freudian symbol or five. Alas, Aster is so wrapped up in his ambition that he forgets to make any of it human. I can’t imagine an audience feeling much of anything watching this except perhaps exhaustion or bewilderment.

Joaquin Phoenix in the title role, too, I’m quite ambivalent on: He is all-in, totally subsumed in the role, doing exactly what the script asks him. But Aster has carved out such a proto-human man-child protagonist that is nothing but neuroses, tugged around from one inscrutable scenario to another, that it’s more flop sweat than actually insight. The film is an enabler of Phoenix’s dark edge with none of the twinkle that made him so engaging and enigmatic in, e.g., Walk the Line.

I did laugh about 30 times — again, weighted towards the opening hour — and also muttered “what the ever-living fuck” to myself nearly as often (in a good way). Aster has some terrific visual ideas, but if he wanted it to register as anything more than unfiltered maximalism and exploratory psychological noodling, he would need to cut the material in half, at least.

Maybe it’s just my personal bias towards teen sex comedies, but I found the idea of a man who is always horny yet will die if he orgasms to be the funniest and most resonant in the film and Parker Posey’s scene to be the only great one after the first act. If Aster were to request my ideas on how to make this movie work, I’d tell him to shape the entire film around that concept.

When I compare it to other monster-sized fabulistic kitchen-sink pop-art works of the past couple years — Barbie, Everything Everywhere All At Once, Babylon, etc. (haven’t seen Bardo) — it’s just as visually grand but lacks the sense of fun, unless you find squirmy self-flagellation intrinsically hilarious.

But I must stress again that this film is three hours long. Beau is Afraid fascinating and cinematically dense enough to be worth a watch if you can spare that block of time and can stomach a navel gaze, but that’s very different from calling the film a success, which I can’t do. It’s just too drawn out and confused. Hunter said it well: “Permanently at eleven but at half speed.”

Is It Good?

Nearly Good (4/8)

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3 replies on “Beau is Afraid (2023)”

Despite some January catch-up efforts, it’s still my least favorite film of 2023. I have a gut impulse to treat its indifference to whether I like it or not as a quality worthy of respect, but I don’t know why I have that gut impulse. That should actually make me hate it more.

“…unless you find squirmy self-flagellation intrinsically hilarious.”

I guess I do? I dunno, I feel like this movie was a sort of jam session, starting from the core idea of “existential anxiety” and just riffing from there. I was picking up every beat it was putting down, and I loved it. Uncomfortable, but in a really fun and jazzy and creative way.

It’s the kind of movie where I can understand “I vibe with it” as sufficient explanation for a very high rating.

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