With the release of Ari Aster’s surreal odyssey Beau Is Afraid earlier this year, we wanted to take the time to discuss its reception and implications for film culture as a whole. The conversation includes writers Richard Zheng, Sammy Dallas, and Charlie Compton, moderated by editor Julian Hart. The discussed topics include the reception to the film since its release, its thematic and narrative elements, and where Ari Aster’s career sits post-Beau.
Julian: Welcome everybody. Our first question: What is Beau Is Afraid? Who wants to start us off with that?
Richard: I guess I’ll start. Funny enough, it has a lot of parallels to the last film that we discussed. Both are very personal and auteurist. Both [Ari Aster and Brandon Cronenberg] are celebrities in the modern genre circuit. Both have made departures from their usual working style. Anyways, Beau watched like a psychological Odyssey about common anxieties of the modern man: Beau goes through the classical Homerian structure – Story Time, Now Time, Me Time, and all that. A tragic one, though.
Sammy: It’s a big experiment on Ari Aster’s front where he was trusted with – 39 million if I remember correctly. He is surrounded by the perfect cast and crew to just get everything out of his system and onto the SD card. Because of that, there’s a certain quality to the movie that inherently makes the viewing experience worthwhile. Not necessarily in terms of creative originality, but of unbridled heat of creation and tangible passion.
Charlie: As Richard said, a lot of the feelings while watching Infinity Pool resurfaced. You have them airing their dirty laundry for everyone, not in terms of quality, but in terms of Ari Aster shitting out of his mouth for three hours – which is, like Sammy said, a very worthwhile experience. You couldn’t get me to see Babylon – I couldn’t imagine spending 3.5 hours of my life seeing that movie, but I like Ari and Beau is definitely worth it. It’s such an interesting movie for discussion, beyond the general questions, such as whether one likes it, or which parts they like and didn’t like – Some of that we’ll talk about, but we’re also going deeper than that.
Sammy: The movie being “worth it” is an interesting thought – With me being a huge stan of Aster and his absurd creative decisions, it is worth it to me, but when I left the theater after my first viewing, I was like, “How am I going to recommend this to people? Would I even tell somebody to go watch it? Will somebody go out of their way to go see it even if they didn’t already like his past works?” I mean, Beau obviously builds on his previous movies. One thing is for certain, though, there’s absolutely no way that this is making its money back.
Richard: That raises a good point about Beau, it challenged the entire world within every aspect: For A24, it’s nothing like they’ve done before in scale; For Aster himself, comedy wasn’t within his usual zone of interest; Even more so for his fans, whose expectations were benchmarking against Hereditary and Midsommar. I remember there were some Aster fans in my class who “did not know how to feel about it”, which shows just how rebellious and pervasive this film is. And I guess that’s where the other value, personally, for Beau lies – How many buttons it dares to push – Aside from an Odyssey, that’s what Beau is Afraid is to me, a cinematic challenge to all audiences there is.
Charlie: That’s funny because I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the majority of its audience was disappointed in some way. I could see it. Many came out the first week and were like “Oh, it’s so disappointing. Don’t see it”, but the film has ascended the realm of “we see it because people say it’s good” and into the zone of “it’s just so interesting to talk about”. You can end up having an entirely different conversation depending on the person you talk to – many various aspects, beyond the basic “I like it or not” questions. It’s just a pressing movie.
Richard: Do you think that’s a good thing?
Charlie: I think it’s good to have movies like this, but unfortunately, Babylon and Beau both bombed. It doesn’t bode well for its kins. I heard about the four-hour original cut, but the theatrical cut is two hours and 59 minutes. I’m so curious what is in that other hour, you know? As to what is left and how that would change the experience.
Richard: Right, that’s why the film never feels complete, even while I was watching it.
Charlie: You can tell even based on the marketing material: the poster highlights the age difference, which is a much more low-key part of the movie than it appears.
Sammy: It is almost like they don’t know what to do with it – the studio let Aster make his big project, and simplify the marketing to a stoner horror-comedy that’s easy enough to sell: Oh, that’s Joaquin Phoenix, he’s old and then he’s young; it looks like a crazy trip of a movie. This way, A24 can still get many people in the theater, despite being a movie that packs so much craziness – which explains the chaotic release period: the Scorsese article; Mariah Carey showing up; giving a hat for Aaron Paul to wear at Coachella, Nathan Fielder moderating a Q&A…Ari Aster says that he is fine with that – What I’m trying to say here is that he, albeit having a clear vision for the project, embraces the chaos, both marketing and creative wise. That’s the beauty of Ari Aster – the little id inside of him that he developed from as early as Strange Thing About The Johnsons – with Beau Is Afraid, he refuses to hold back from taking the one extra step.
Julian: Let’s talk about “Why is Beau afraid?” The thematic concerns of the film. There has been some dancing around it a little bit throughout this conversation. Let’s get into more detail about it: how this film operates within the narrative and the characters presented.
Sammy: Ari Aster has been quoted saying that the absurdity of the world and everything that’s happening around Beau is the world of the film itself. Ari Aster has gone out of his way to make it clear the film is not a cop-out analysis of the film and that everything is purely psychological, which works well for the first two acts when he’s in the city and the suburbs. But after he gets into the woods, where reality teeters into becoming fantastical, he reaches the liminal, nightmarish box that is his house, where it stopped making sense: Elaine shows up, his mom is still alive, and there is a penis monster…All feels dreamy as logic gets thrown out the window, in a good way but it also tears the film apart: even though it feels intentional, the movie gradually loses its footing. I am curious what you guys think about how much of the movie was really happening, and how much of it was the nightmare seeping in.
Charlie: I’m annoyed that he even said something about it, honestly – I don’t get the whole point of debating whether a movie happened or not, whether it was all in Dorothy’s head or not: you’re watching a movie; it’s all bullshit anyways. Why does he have to clarify to people that what’s happening is not just in crazy Beau’s head? It’s a movie. These kinds of assessments feel counterproductive – so what if the world around him is his experience and interpretation, or his illusion or drug trip? It all means the same. The movie is Aster’s manifestation, and It’s all reflective, which brings an interesting point in the debate of reality: the plot is still reflective of his position, but also grounded in reality, at least until he teeters into that room where it dissociates from itself and starts to break off.
Richard: Reality matters less when it is a psychological narrative. I mean, Ari Aster usually looks at his characters’ psychologies in a very realistic fashion, like how Hereditary examines family trauma through exterior events, and how Midsommar portrays depression purely through characters’ interactions. But with Beau, Beau’s subjectivity is the foundation of the story, with each act of his adventure being the key to understanding the source of his many anxieties. Distortion of reality is very much necessary, but a tad too revealing at times, like the court sequence in the end – I understand Ari Aster has to find a convenient way to highlight the fact that Beau has been manipulated by his mother his whole life, but when it happens, it feels redundant. Why are you telling me this? I think I have already gotten that throughout the film.
Sammy: I think of the ending differently – The film winds down and down to earn that Mary Hartman space. There’s something with the interaction of that sequence’s stadium setting and the movie theater itself – the screens, the seats, the projectors… I love it because it’s not revelatory in the resolution of the plot, but revelatory in the way a roller coaster crashes into a wall: the worst possible fate was met; Ari plays puppet master as he always does, leaving you disoriented and ravished.
Julian: So we’ve been talking a lot about the genre and style of Ari’s films. I would like to end this conversation by discussing Ari’s larger filmography. How does Beau fit in Ari’s filmography? And where do you see him going in the future for his career?
Charlie: Beau is his escape from his little A24 horror era, you know. They let him do whatever he wanted. And now he, with the movie being such a mixed bag of little bits of everything, can go anywhere. Imagine him going to a Western from Midsommar versus going to a Western from now. He would meet a massive backlash – as stupid as that sounds – if he didn’t make another horror-adjacent movie. Nevertheless, after Beau, people are like “I don’t know what the fuck this man’s doing but let him cook, I guess” and I’m glad for that. I’m glad that Beau is a very important fork in the road in his kind of journey in terms of his filmography.
Richard: Beau Is Afraid is very precious to me – I’m sure Sammy noticed this too – in how it revives a lot of his pre-mainstream-era projects. There is the disturbing family drama in Strange Things About The Johnsons; some terribly juvenile humor from Tino’s Dick Fart Really Works!; how the city sequence was very reminiscent of C’est La Vie – I’d say it’s almost like Ari Aster doing a renaissance for himself.
Sammy: – And how he mocked his early films with it, too.
Richard: Oh Yeah! Beau is also him concluding an era and an announcement of him moving on to the next, especially considering the news that his next film would be a western. Of course, it will still be an Ari Aster film, but Beau now feels like him packing everything together and saying “So long! It has been nice making horror films, but I am going to start something new now”.
Sammy: Yeah, it’s a very self-referential film. With Midsommar and Hereditary being basically a joint production, it does feel like an era, in addition to how all of his films are universally – and unashamedly – modern. They lean into the modern landscape in setting and incorporate many technologies. Much of Beau is Afraid invades the settings that one feels comfortable in. A Western opens a lot of interesting portals for him to play around in unfamiliar settings. Breaking away from that, I think he is purging his system and he is tying the thread: his Jewish roots, his sense of humor, etc., etc. It gives him the ability to keep doing what he’s committed to. I hope the Ari Aster western is wild enough to bring us another crazy ride and bends the genre to his will, or he disappoints us all and we can talk about it on Latent Images In Conversation. Regardless, Ari Aster knows that cinema always starts conversations – that’s what’s at the core of Beau Is Afraid and what makes it worthwhile: the role it plays makes him a talking point.