The director speaks to Nick Chen about his perverse new ‘nightmare comedy’, Beau Is Afraid: ‘I’d rather not expound on it’
Even if you plugged Hereditary and Midsommar into the most advanced form of AI or handed Final Draft to every member of the Ari Aster subreddit, it’s unfathomable that anything or anyone other than Aster could dream up Beau Is Afraid. 179 minutes long, unwieldy from the get-go, and evidently a provocateur cashing in a blank cheque while such a thing still exists for arthouse cinema, Aster’s third feature is not for everyone.
Beau Is Afraid is, arguably, just for Aster, its appeal being that the 36-year-old writer-director has honed in on his most perverse quirks and obsessions with little care for commerciality: it follows the “one for me, one for them” pattern, but after two hits for A24, Aster’s taken double, if not triple, the risks. A nightmare comedy that’s a comedic nightmare for journalists to summarise, it’s effectively three hours of psychological torture for a manchild called Beau, who’s depicted with constant open-mouthed exasperation by Joaquin Phoenix.
After a birth scene from baby Beau’s POV, Phoenix is perched on a sofa in front of a therapist who asks a stream of questions, not unlike the arrangement when I meet Aster at the Soho Hotel in April. During the scene, Beau attempts to avoid revealing too much, his eyes darting towards a mobile on the table in case his mother calls. There’s also a phone for our interview, except this time it’s recording the conversation.
If Midsommar depicted characters in urgent need of therapy, then Beau Is Afraid does the opposite: everything, including psychoanalysis, goes wrong for Beau. Was Aster deliberately exploring the negative side of therapy? “Maybe,” he says, pausing for eight seconds. “I’m not sure I have a response ready for that.”
In terms of once again exploring emotional manipulation, guilt, and familial secrets, Aster comments, “I saw this as an unofficial third entry into a trilogy. It’s responding to something I was playing with in the first two films, but blowing it up, and almost functioning as a parody.” Like what? “Themes and ideas. Parent-child stuff. A lot of things I think were maybe…” He pauses for 14 seconds. “I don’t know. This one has more of an impish spirit, and…” He pauses for 19 seconds. “I don’t know. Maybe those are about catharsis, and this one, without saying too much, is more a dead end.”
And possibly the theme of therapy, but he’s not ready to comment about that yet? “I’m just tired of people saying ‘therapy’ on this one. It’s been reduced to that.” I clarify I don’t believe he uses filmmaking as therapy; I was merely curious about the role of therapy within the narrative. “Yeah, it’s definitely…” Aster pauses for 44 seconds. “There’s a joke in the film about therapy not only being useless, but ultimately being a weapon that could be used against him. It’s there in the film. I’d rather not expound on it.”
Aster, like Beau, is afraid of saying too much. After all, the sadistic, slapstick storyline mines laughs from its unpredictability. At the press screening, a critic uttered “what the fuck?” out loud, and it’s to Aster’s credit I can’t remember which scene prompted the reaction.
For reasons involving a poisonous spider, anxiety medication, and news that his mother was discovered with a chandelier instead of a head, Beau soon finds himself naked on the streets where he’s struck by a van. From there, he speeds off on an odyssey that involves mass slaughter, a laugh-out-loud sex scene, and animation by the Argentinian directors behind The Wolf House.
While Aster’s first two films were associated with “elevated horror” (much to his own elevated horror), Beau Is Afraid is more concerned with eliciting laughs and stunned silences than screams or think-pieces regarding trauma. In fact, Aster considers it a “nightmare comedy”, and takes exception to me joking that it’s an “elevated nightmare comedy”. “I’ve never used the word ‘elevated’ in my life,” he interjects. “Let’s be clear about that.”
“There’s a joke in the film about therapy not only being useless, but ultimately being a weapon that could be used against [Beau]. It’s there in the film. I’d rather not expound on it” – Ari Aster
After film school, Aster wrote numerous spec scripts that he couldn’t get made, including Beau Is Afraid and a western called Eddington, allegedly a project he’ll shoot this summer with Phoenix. Suspecting horror movies were easier to finance, Aster wrote Hereditary to kickstart his career, and that script led to a request from producers to pen a slasher set in Sweden, thus Midsommar was greenlit before Hereditary hit theatres.
Beau Is Afraid, then, is an old script rewritten for 2023, possessing a younger filmmaker’s naivety that its madcap, psychosexual hijinks could ever be financed – except it was, a decade later, with an exclusively theatrical release. When a 2014 draft leaked online a few years ago, I assumed certain scenes couldn’t possibly be filmed, but all of them appear onscreen.
As so many screenwriting rules are disregarded, was Aster intentionally surprising himself on each page, much like Charlie Kaufman and the Coen brothers claim to do? Instead of a lengthy pause, Aster immediately responds, “No, it wasn’t arbitrary. All the episodes respond to each other, and correlate in very specific ways. It’s the tradition of the picaresque, which demands spaciousness. If we’re talking about movie subgenres, the closest thing would be the road movie.” A 19-second pause. “The idea was to make something that’s constantly changing shape and rhythm, hopefully never at the expense of cohesion.”
Aster is more loquacious about the Canadian director Guy Maddin, running through his thoughts on several of his films. At New York’s Film Lincoln Centre, Cowards Bend the Knee screened shortly before Beau Is Afraid’s release at Aster’s request. “I just love Guy’s work, and there aren’t enough people championing him. I’ll talk about him whenever I have the opportunity. Cowards Bend the Knee feels like a deeply personal film that’s pure fantasy and very, very elemental.” I bring up how the “chicken fat” (a term for background gags in comics) means Beau Is Afraid requires repeat viewings, much like Maddin’s later work. “Yeah. Cowards Bend the Knee was when he started moving more in the direction of Eisenstein montage.” He continues praising Maddin.
I ask more directly about how websites, such as Aster’s subreddit, enjoy searching for inside jokes. “I don’t actually know about this subreddit, but I hope people take the time to really parse through the film.” Beau Is Afraid was originally 28 minutes longer. Will there be a director’s cut in the future, like there was for Midsommar? “No, this feels complete to me.”
I think back to Hereditary, when Aster was far chattier on the phone (there weren’t any lengthy pauses – if so, I would have assumed something had gone wrong with the line), and how he told me that Dogville, also a three-hour poke in the ribs, was his favourite film of the last 20 years. Is Beau Is Afraid his Dogville? “I love [Lars von Trier], and I grew up idolising him. That spirit of provocation spoke to me as a kid. There’s an element of provocation with this one.”
With my time up, I congratulate Aster on the film – I don’t mention defending it to bewildered strangers after the press screening – and suggest he looks up his own subreddit. “That sounds like a dangerous place for me to go,” he says. “I’m not sure I’ll be running straight there. But it’s flattering.”
Beau Is Afraid is out in UK cinemas on May 19.
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