Beau is Afraid: 2023
There are times when you watch a film, the credits begin to roll and you ask yourself,
‘What was that?’
This was one of those films.
I don’t know about you, but those films always prompt me to Google search afterward.
I struggle to sit in the unknown when I’ve invested (in this case 3) hours of my life. Instead, I have a compelling urge to discover and confirm the meaning of what I just witnessed.
As a therapist, I appreciate that I could have chosen to trust my own interpretation, but the urge to research the film had seeped from the fear of having missed the point. Sure, I had a sense of what I took from the film, but I also carried a longing for clarity. I’m not one to assume that my interpretation is exhaustive.
This time around, rather than read reviews, which I feared would be a destructive and critical dismantling of the film, I decided to watch two interviews given personally by the director. I felt that if I could understand his interpretation of the film, I’d be likely to feel like I was in a place of ‘knowing’.
‘Beau is Afraid’ is a 2023 film, directed by Ari Aster, starring Joaquin Phoenix as the main character.
In essence, the film explores Beau’s mental health and his relationship with his mother.
Likewise, I could introduce the plot by saying that it explores a dysfunctional relationship between a mother and a son, and in turn, the psychological impact on them both.
It’s important to note that the film’s highly artistic and imaginative style, deliberately leaves it open to interpretation.
At this stage, I wanted to establish if this was a film about Beau’s lived experiences, or if this was a collection of mental experiences (projections, dreams, visualisations, and hallucinations), which were being played out as if to appear real. It’s fair to say, I was a little unsure.
To conduct my research I watched two interviews given by Aster, after the release of the film. I’ve included quotes from these videos (which I’ve edited down where necessary), in order for me to provide context for my own further understanding and interpretation.
(Video references are listed at the end of this essay.)
The interviewer opened by saying,
“For the first 45 minutes of it, I was doing that thing where I was trying to figure it out. I was like okay what does that mean? What is this really? What is this world really all about? What is he saying? What’s Ari saying here? Because you and I have met before, and I was like okay, what’s he saying here, you know?When I stopped doing that, and just allowed myself to just watch it, and stopped trying to figure it out, that’s when I adored it.”
Hearing the interviewer ask this question made me realise that I too had been in my head, for a great proportion of the film; I’d been trying to determine the overall plot. I was anticipating an ending where either:
- Medical staff, or Beau’s family would come into a hospital room, making the point that he’d been restrained and that the entire film was a projection of his thought process. Making the point that hospitalisation for conditions such as schizophrenia, or dementia, can feel terrifying.
- The veil of obscurity would be lifted, to reveal a world full of calm and mundane happenings. Making the point that life can feel terrifying if faced with a mental health challenge, due to the psychological overlay that can form on top of a routine existence.
- That Beau would get to the end of a dream, or therapy session, that he would finish reliving or recounting, and then return to the reality of ordinary and trivial experiences. Making the point that our unconscious minds can be terrifying places to explore.
(None of these endings occurred).
Aster himself, is then quoted as saying,
“That’s the way to watch it, just to hopefully, open yourself up to whatever, because it changes a lot too. And I think those pivots could either be frustrating, or I hope, exciting and invigorating. But it’s one or the other, because if you fasten yourself to any given point in the film you’re not going to stay there.”
I almost wish I’d heard him say that before I watched the film! Aster didn’t want me, nor anyone else to spend time trying to figure it out. He’d wanted me to ‘be with’ the film. He wants the audience to be the ultimate therapist; empathising, and experiencing the persons’ world. Drawing something of meaning, simply from being immersed. (I deliberately wrote ‘persons’ world’, and not Beau’s world, as Aster manages to shift between a number of lives, and respective perspectives as the film unfolds.)
In a questions and answers session that Aster held with an audience who’d just watched the movie alongside him, he was quoted as saying,
“What can I say to help people who haven’t seen it yet?
The film changes a lot, and it changes shape, it changes rhythm, and I think, you know, the best way to watch it is to be open to that, don’t try to figure it out.”
Aster’s right. This isn’t a film that demands you seek context. This is a film that invites you to expand your thinking. It prompts you to broaden your own exploration. It’s irrelevant as to whether Beau is living on a street, alongside chaotic people, who he finds utterly terrifying, or whether he’s safe inside a hospital room imagining that those people exist. The point is that he feels overwhelmingly scared. For him it’s real, this is his experience of life, whether it’s a genuine experience, or whether it’s a form of thought, it’s his reality, and he’s crippled by fear which for him is real. He’s consumed by it, and yet he continues on in an attempt to ‘do the right thing’, despite how hard that is for him.
All of the characters in this film are struggling with something, which I think is Aster’s way of paying homage to how everyone in life has something going on. My time as a therapist has taught me to never underestimate how much a person might be struggling, even if on the face of it they seem to have it all figured out. No one ever truly knows what another person is really dealing with.
“I just wanted to make a film that feels like anxiety.”
If Aster was trying to depict negative exaggeration, doom-mongering, catastrophizing, worst-case scenarios, isolation, frustration, impossibility, overwhelm, pessimism, struggle, heartache, trauma, and psychological torture, well he’s done just that. In fact, the more I think about it, Aster has taken every facet of anxiety and fused it into a three-hour cocktail of narratives. I think at first glance it’s bewildering to the audience because it has been unconventionally constructed.
It doesn’t have a simple story, with a predictable ending. It’s not a clean, and stereotypical representation of anxiety. It’s a lived representation of anxiety, and that couldn’t be more accurate.Those who suffer from the condition will know and appreciate just how disproportionate a situation can feel internally, compared to reality. They will also know that when a reality is ‘bad’, they can endure it, but that it can feel like hell on earth; objectivity, reason, and logic evade one’s mind. Instead, the nightmarish imagery and the emotional takeover can feel so profound, it’s as if anxiety is running through your veins. It’s hard to describe, and it’s unique to each individual, which is why, on balance, Aster’s representation of it, is so profound. As a director, he stepped into one man’s anxious existence and brought every facet of it to life on the screen. He didn’t attempt to generalise, instead, he offered up a personalised slice of the anxiety pie and asked if it tasted familiar.
Whether a person’s heart is thumping through their chest at the deafening, and unexplainable sound of the doorbell that just unexpectedly rang, whether the spider on the ceiling above them in the bath feels like a terrorist in their home, or whether they are taking a car ride and imaging in 8k definition all of the graphic ways their life might be about to end, this film is the epitome of anxiety. Each person’s visions, feelings, and responses will differ, but the terrifying obscurity and consumption of it won’t, this is absolute anxiety.
“There was a scene where the main character, he’s on the way out the door, he’s going on a trip, he forgets some floss, leaves the key in the door, grabs the floss, and comes back, and his keys are gone, and I liked that as the catalyst for an adventure.”
Aster introduces the storyline of the film ‘as the catalyst for an adventure’. From a fictional cinematic experience, I agree, that this was a point of narrative escalation. From a mental health standpoint, one could also classify this chain of events as a catalyst for a major mental health episode. People who suffer from anxiety seek comfort in control, order, and consistency. By contrast, chaos, uncertainty, misadventure, and unpredictability are all gateways for anxiety levels to soar, which can cause the onset of complete mental and emotional destabilisation. I doubt anyone feeling this way would classify the experience as an ‘adventure’.
Aster highlights this well throughout the film, from when Beau is panicking about having accidentally swallowed mouthwash, to being convinced that an orgasm will lead to heart failure. If anything in life deviates from how an anxiety sufferer believes it’s meant to be, catastrophic thinking can ensue in moments.
In relation to the meaning of the film, Aster specifies,
“It’s about guilt, and anxiety, and, ambivalence more than almost anything. I think ambivalence is a very particular kind of hell. I wanted to make something that was very seriously about that. It’s about an unlived life, and somebody who is really trapped.”
The interviewer added,
“Were you thinking about pharmaceuticals when you were making the film?”
“Yeah I was thinking about a lot of things. Yeah I was thinking about pharmaceuticals. I was thinking about parents and children and inheriting a world that’s awful, from in quotes ‘from parents’ but there’s like an indignation about the children not being more grateful for it.
This is definitely a film about more than just anxiety. In fact, it simultaneously explores a great number of psychological themes, ideas, and angles.
Inappropriate relationships are a consistent feature of the film and there is an implicit curiosity surrounding the nature-nurture debate in relation to this. Was Beau born with an anxious disposition, or was he raised in such a controlled way, he was ill-equipped for anything remotely spontaneous? This is just one example of an existential wondering left with the viewer, in relation to their own experiences.
I think this can make us ask:
Am I grateful that I was brought into this world?
What impact did my upbringing have on me?
Do I respond to things in the way that I do, because of my upbringing or because of myself?
What effect do I have on my children, or will I go on to have, through the choices I make in my approach to parenting them?
Am I aggrieved that my children don’t appreciate me, and their existence?
Where do medications sit on the scale of helpful to harmful?
It looks at cruelty and manipulation as a theme and the influence that people can have over one another.
I think this can make us ask:
Am I kind and compassionate enough?
Do I ever exploit my power as a human?
It explores inappropriateness between children and their parents, and how trauma can form on both sides of the dynamic.
I think this can make us ask:
Do we need to hold ourselves accountable?
Are we looking deeply enough at where perhaps we ourselves made mistakes?
Do we hold our hands up in a state of acknowledgment and ownership, or do we defend and blame, in denial of who we really are?
It explores frustration from many angles. In fact, there are times when you can literally feel your internal voice yelling ‘NOoooooo!!!’ at the screen.
Using the filter of ‘right and wrong’, this film taps deeply into our moral compass. Some of the scenes literally make you squirm because they are so morally challenging.
I noticed myself wondering on several occasions, what would I do if I were in that precise situation?
This leads me beautifully to Aster’s next comment,
“I saw the film as a hall of mirrors.
I hope that if you go back to see it again you see those reflections more, just those permeations. There are also (I don’t even know if I should say this) all these possible other stories that I kind of buried in the background. On the cruise ship, in the background of almost every shot, you’ll see a man, that’s basically looking at the lens or looking at Beau, and it tickles me, what that could mean, and I know what that means, what it could mean, whether that suggests that a lot of Beaus, a lot of the blame that Beau puts on certain people is maybe deliberately, but not knowingly, but his brain has displaced.”
Aster references in both interviews that this film represents him in some way, he designed it, and it came from within him, thus in some way it is a product or reflection of him. By mentioning this, he is referencing the way that every piece of ‘art’ in some way reflects, or at least resembles a part of its creator. I wonder what makes Aster anxious, and how many of the scenes in the film were based on his personal experiences of anxiety. I wonder which parts of himself he was secretly showing us here, through his work.
Equally, I relate to when he says ‘You see those reflections’, inferring that the audience will look at themselves whilst looking at his film. He explores so many psychological concepts in this film, that it’s impossible to watch it without questioning yourself in some way.
Even so much as to wonder where you are similar, and where you are different. Feelings are a shared human experience. Almost all of us can relate to the full range of emotional responses, and most of us can worry about the darkness that can sometimes engulf our thinking.
The interviewer added an interpretation, that highlights the way in which throughout the film, contradictory themes were explored in parallel,
“A son trying to get home to a mother, who doesn’t want him, or maybe in this case wants him too much.”
Despite all of his challenges, Beau is possibly the most well-meaning character in the film. Yet dichotomy runs through every strand of the storyline. You can love, and you can hate. You can manipulate, and you can care. You can be terrified, and you can be fearless. Being human is a confusing, and often contradictory experience. You can regularly find yourself challenged by your own behaviour and thinking. You can know something is safe, yet you can feel anxious about engaging with it. You can know something is wrong, but you can do it anyway. You can hold a value dear to your identity, but disregard it in the face of something seemingly more important. Internal conflict is a concept explored in depth within this film.
I think the complexity and extent of the curiosity presented in this film is partly why you are left feeling so confused by the end of it. You’ve been challenged so relentlessly throughout the 180 minutes, that time is required post-viewing, to process and decipher what it is that you actually do think and feel in relation to what you’ve seen, and internalised. Yet you may be left feeling conflicted, as that is part of being human.
“He doesn’t change. Which I think is important. Because I think that’s an expectation that people have. For me, it was very important that Beau – nothing changed. That’s what it’s really about.”
I was surprised that Aster made this comment. It seems naive to say that Beau didn’t change. Granted, his anxiety is present and consistent for the duration of the film. However, his learning, self-discovery, and internal growth are evident from start to finish. He grows both physically (with time and age) and mentally, as he deals with each new challenge he’s faced with. One simply can’t grow without changing, it just isn’t possible. I’d go so far as to say this film is about endurance, and endurance is synonymous with change. At a superficial level, Aster is right, Beau doesn’t change, but Aster hasn’t made a superficial film, far from it.
At one point, Aster said,
“I’m going to have the movie eat itself, in its own head.”
I took two meanings from this statement. The complexity of the film is so intense, that as the viewer, you can’t help but feel some level of confusion. If Aster wanted to produce a movie that confused itself, and its onlookers alike, he did just that.
For the sufferer of anxiety, it can most definitely feel like your head is a times, eating itself. It can feel so overwhelming, and so preposterous, that you may ask yourself why on earth it is that you are responding to life in this way. It can feel ludicrous to know that you have pre-emptively imagined the darkest of outcomes, in the most unlikely of cases:
The child who is convinced of being attacked by the monster.
The adult who is convinced of being swallowed up by a situation.
The feeling of guaranteed ridicule and mockery.
The mind utterly convinced of absolute negative judgment; all eyes, shamefully on them.
The catastrophe that is undoubtedly about to unfold, any moment now.
“He’s our surrogate, through this world, that is so heightened.”
Beau’s world is heightened, our world is heightened.
The sense of pressure we both face is indeed, untenable.
In the interview Aster says,
“What is the behaviour? How do these feelings manifest?”
I believe he answers his own questions in an abundantly clear way. These feelings manifest in a lack of coping. The experience is that of mental and emotional demise. Therapy is becoming commonplace. Seeking emotional support is no longer frowned upon in the way that it once was, instead it’s often celebrated. People now appear to have respect for those who reach out for support. Those who attend often hear the words ‘I’m proud of you’ from those who care about them.
“The play is about what could happen if you could change, and he can’t?”
Reaching the end of my analysis of this film, and looking at Aster’s remarks about stagnation once more, I can’t help but wonder if the lack of change is in relation to one’s environment. One can seek to better oneself, one can seek to cope, one can seek to equip themselves for the challenge of life, but if the environment around you, is working to destroy you, the question really boils down to who is the stronger force? The mass of external pressure, building towards your implosion, or the individual, fighting for a robustness that will outlast the incoming compression?
My hope is that we as a species can change, that we can survive, and that we can master a way to enjoy being human.
In closing, I think this film is an incredible piece of work, both cinematically, for the world of mental health, and for the individual. I think it’s a hard film to watch, but that’s the point. In a way, I actually think this film is ahead of it’s time. I think it’s attempting to bring something deeply unconscious, up into the collective conscious, and I don’t know if the world is ready, but I hope it is. I hope this film is not lost on people, because that would be a catastrophe. In my opinion, we need more films like this, films that really tease out the conversations of what it is to be Beau, in 2023.
*V1 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qiyBnV1XCf4 credit “Don’t Try To Figure It Out, It’s Stupid!” – ARI ASTER Discusses BEAU IS AFRAID
Credit: YouTube / Lowkey Geek (channel)
*V2 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gqhBegc00cM credit Ari Aster opens up about his bizarre “nightmare comedy” Beau Is Afraid
Credit: Youtube / Q with Tom Power (channel)