“Stay hydrated,” is the advice given to 37-year-old Beau Wassermann (played at multiple ages by Joaquin Phoenix, but as a boy by Armen Nahahpetian and James Cvetkovski) early on in Ari Aster’s Beau Is Afraid.
Indeed, Beau’s surname is the German for ‘Waterman’ – and this narcissistic nebbish is ruled by water. Beau’s therapist (Stephen McKinley-Henderon) prescribes him new medication which he insists must be taken with water, but then the absurd unavailability of water triggers only further anxiety in the already overanxious patient.
Beau has traumatic childhood memories about baths that are reconfigured in unexpected ways in his present-day tenement apartment, and childhood memories about swimming pools (on an ocean liner!) which, though less traumatic and full of romantic promise, are already tainted with death. He has a flashforward (via a TV remote control) to being alone on a motor boat at night surrounded by sea water – and that scene will prove, if not quite in the manner expected, to be the film’s final sequence.
Before that, in an elaborate play on an outdoor stage where Beau is both member of the audience and actor in the leading part, he is swept from his happy family life by a wave-borne flood of water.
Most of all, though, Beau is constantly overwhelmed by, and drowning in, anxieties about his mother, Mona (played variously by Zoe Lister-Jones and Patti Lupone), who runs a pharmaceutical empire (its success contrasting with Beau’s medicated failure), and who quite possibly only ever appears in Beau’s memories and fantasies (which are near impossible to disentangle).
The therapist expressly likens Mona to a poisoned well (more water!) to which Beau cannot help returning to drink even though it is doing him harm and will eventually kill him – and that, in essence, is the plot of Beau Is Afraid. For ostensibly its principal narrative follows Beau’s repeated efforts to travel from his apartment to his mother’s modernist house, initially to mark the anniversary of his father’s death, which occurred before Beau was born, and then, as accidents happen and circumstances change, to make it home for his mother’s funeral.
Yet there are digressions and distractions aplenty to hinder his mother-ward trajectory and the approaching confrontation with Mona that Beau simultaneously desires and dreads. For, like Laurence Sterne’s 18th-century novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, Beau’s oneiric odyssey encompasses birth, death and everything in between, and travels a far from direct route to its final destination.
Along his way back to the womb where the film started, Beau will be forced to look inwards at his life as he witnesses, from the outside, his own dingy apartment being invaded by the people from his neighbourhood that he usually tries to keep out. He will come into a collision with a second family (played by Amy Ryan, Nathan Lane, Kylie Rogers and Denis Ménochet) who improbably attempt to adopt him as a replacement for their own son Nathan, killed in war.
He will fall in with a travelling theatre troupe of fellow orphans, including Penelope (Hayley Squires), herself an expectant mother, and a Strange Man (Julian Richings) whom Beau suspects may be his missing father. Indeed Beau will desperately look for any trace of the two great absences in his life: his supposedly deceased father and Elaine (Julia Antonelli, Parker Posey), his brief, one-time childhood sweetheart before both were forcibly separated from each other by their respective mothers. And finally he will face judgment and punishment in a court-cum-amphitheatre of the imagination.
In all these layers of distorted reminiscence, nervy nostalgia and psychedelic trip, Beau – and we with him – will move around in circles and get very, very lost going precisely nowhere, as though we were in one of Beau’s ever-repeating therapy sessions.
Aster has established his name as a writer and director of horror, and his third feature incorporates allusions to the haunted attic spaces of his debut Hereditary (2018), and to the brain-dashing plunge of his follow-up Midsommar (2019).
As its very title implies, Beau Is Afraid is horror, but horror with a distinctly existential stamp, restaging all of Beau’s innermost fears as surreal psychodrama where even the briefest moments of happiness will immediately be poisoned by crazy reversals of fortune and eternal returns of dazed despair.
Influenced all at once by the uneasy mental landscapes of Luis Buñuel, David Lynch and Charlie Kaufman, this is the guilt-tinged neurosis of every Jewish mamma’s boy writ large and rolled into one never-ending nightmare. Yet with all its grotesque insider perspective on a man whose very genetic legacy makes him his own worst enemy, this is also painfully funny. As it insists that we follow a meek, self-absorbed, Kafka-esque anti-hero through a three-hour boy’s own adventure that, in ‘real’ time, would span several days – and an infernal lifetime – this is the kind of unapologetically untethered experiment in extrapolation whose creation requires the biggest of balls. And if it is all a dream, that dream is wet…
Beau Is Afraid will be in cinemas on 19 May