It is safe to say that Ari Aster’s third feature film, Beau is Afraid, is utterly bizarre and absurd in the best of ways. While I believed this film was Aster’s vision of modern America. But as the film entered its third act, I realized that this is Aster’s Postmodern vision of the American family, as all his films are

Aster is no stranger to exploring complex and horrific relationships in his films, with Hereditaryand Midsommar putting the traumas of the family dynamic on display through haunting imagery and gut-wrenching dialogue (the first example that comes to mind is Annie’s (Toni Collette) monologue during the dinner scene in Hereditary).

Rather than talk about the many, many upsetting layers of Beau is Afraid, I want to talk about the narrative structure of the film and why it works for this story.

Let’s get into it.

Editor’s Note: This post contains spoilers for Beau is Afraid. 

The Connection Between Beau is Afraid and Talk to Her

As I watched Beau is Afraid, I couldn’t help but compare the narrative structure of this film to Pedro Almodovar’s Talk to Her (Hable con ella).

In Almodovar’s film about sexuality and identity, each act is separated and contained by vignettes of theater performances or short films that allude to what will unfold in the upcoming act. The film follows two men, Benigno (Javier Cámara) and Marco (Darío Grandinetti), after they first meet in a hospital where they are both tending to women they love who are in deep comatose states. The plot is elaborate as it weaves together the plot, symbols, and purpose that changes from viewer to viewer. The movie is light and heavy, walking a tightrope that can easily overwhelm viewers if they lean too far to one side.

This philosophical balance of serious themes showcased in an absurdist melodramatic way is Postmodernism at its finest.

Aster does something similar in Beau is Afraid by ending each act with a dream sequence that alters slightly as Beau’s journey to his mother’s home becomes more and more outrageous.

Before we go any further, let me explain what Postmodernism is in film. 

What is Postmodernism in Cinema

Postmodernism is a philosophical movement that impacted the arts and critical thinking throughout the end of the 20th century. Works of this movement tend to reject or have an ironic attitude toward typically-accepted narratives.

In cinema, Postmodernism brought films that aim to subvert highly-regarded expectations, which can come in many different ways from blending genres to messing with narrative structure.

Postmodernism can be difficult to pin down, specifically because the philosophy aims to reject typically-held notions of criticism and definition. To help you understand Postmodernism, here are some characteristics of the movement in cinema: 

  • Irony

  • Pastiche

  • Hyperreality

  • Intertextuality

  • Magical realism

  • Unpredictability

  • Distortion of time

  • Themes of paranoia

Postmodernism in film is something you know when you see it. It is a feeling that is absent when you watch a typical three-act structured narrative.

Beau-is-afraid'Beau is Afraid'Credit: A24

Why is Beau is Afraid Part of Postmodernism Cinema? 

Similar to Talk to Her, Aster’s Beau is Afraid is drenched in anxiety, unpredictability, magical realism, and paranoia. The entire first act of Beau’s (Joaquin Phoenix) time in the city had me laughing, screaming, and deeply anxious as notes kept sliding under his door, brown recluses crawled under his couch, and menacing strangers and dead bodies kept appearing.

This entire first act seems to be a version of America that some of us city dwellers have unfortunately witnessed. It is full of unpredictability, paranoia, and anger. It doesn’t help that his mother, Mona (Patti LuPone), is disappointed with Beau because he can’t control his uncontrollable surroundings. 

As the story continues to unfold, the hyperreality of the world surrounding Beau feels familiar yet strange. We are forced into the subjectivity of Beau as his anxieties bubble to the surface. Aster shows this throughout the visual language and in the screenplay structure as well.

We dip into memories, dream sequences, and unpredictable plot points to explain Beau’s current state of mind as wildly escalating and ever-increasing, insane circumstances began to co-conspire against him. The fear and paranoia and self-loathing that are fighting against Beau’s internal desires as he travels an excruciating six-hour-long trip to mourn his dead mother, who, shockingly, set every single extravagant event in the film up to seemingly prove that Beau doesn’t truly love her. 

Beau-is-afraid-childhood-flashback'Beau is Afraid'Credit: A24

What makes Beau is Afraid a Postmodern masterpiece like Talk to Her is the ability to unfold the plot for the audience before the plot gets to those moments through the vignettes and absurd moments like Channel 78 on the house of Grace (Amy Ryan) and Roger (Nathan Lane).  

 The audience knows what will happen from the beginning of Act 2, yet we are still engaged throughout the film because of its melodramatic, soap opera nature of “anything could and will happen.” 

Did you expect a giant penis monster? No.

Did you expect to Beau's longtime crush to die after climaxing while Mariah Carey's Always Be My Baby plays? No, you didn’t. 

Aster turned the film’s structure into an intrusive and mesmerizing thought experiment that tried to understand the complex relationships we have with our parents by using act breaks to explore the film's core theme.

The writer/director has deeply complicated and unresolved issues with his mother that go back to his earliest movies. Beau is Afraid is a manifestation of these issues that is delirious, hysterically funny, deeply disturbing, profoundly traumatic, and fucked up regarding the toxic mother/son dynamic. While there is no clear resolution at the end, Aster finishes his story by drowning in his insecurities on a stage while an unhelpful and confused audience (both in the theater and in the film’s world) watches and anxiously walks away in silence. 

Aster could only tell this story in a Postmodern strucutre as he tries to make a sensible show of his internal struggles with his own mother for an audience that wants another Midsommar. It’s a balance that works and doesn’t work. It’s both for us and just for Aster.

It’s neither here nor there. The duality of the film through its absurdist horror is what makes the film work for me.

If you have a complicated story that is constantly evolving, learn to tie those acts together with an act-break vignette that brings the story back to the theme of the film. What is the foundation of your story and how do you represent that as the story progresses? Once you figure that out, you will find a thread like Aster did to tie the film's absurd story together into something understandable on the first viewing.

What did you think of Beau is Afraid? Let us know in the comments below!