Beau Is Afraid

Beau Is Afraid ★★★★★

Aster’s final short film, C’est La Vie, ends with an acutely deranged homeless man lecturing the audience about precisely the very thing Aster’s entire early oeuvre centers itself upon. “You know what Freud says about the nature of horror? He says that’s when the home becomes unhomelike.” Unhomelike is a crude English translation of the German unheimlich, or uncanny. But, for some reason, unhomelike actually feels accurate. Aster has made a career thus far of exploring the unhomelike, the inverse of all our ideals, the “return of the repressed,” as Freud would call it, when beliefs we think we’ve grown out of as a society begin to manifest themselves in strange ways. For Aster, ground zero is the familial unit. He is a man utterly obsessed with watching families self-destruct under utter demonic possession. Hereditary lets the family explode like a Grecian urn tipped off the pedestal and smashed onto the ground, while Midsommar dissects the fallout of such a catastrophe, the ease with which we fall into bloodthirsty collectivist ideologies. Beau is Afraid lets Aster return to the womb.

Freud’s Oedipal complex is rooted less in an explicit sexual desire for the matriarch, as it often gets misconstrued, and more in an oppressive feminine tendency to smother and overprotect its young. The irony in this case is that Beau indeed has much to be afraid of. All of his mother’s fears for him are as true as they are manufactured. He lives within an absurdist heterocosm of exaggerated ends. Billboards surround his city with slogans like ‘DEFUND THE PIGS’ and ‘LIVE FOREVER’ and ‘BETRAY YOUR MOTHER,’ as sheer chaos spills forth the catastrophic comfort of the Enlightenment rotting any given metropolitan street corner. Hedonism comes hand-in-hand with ease, ease very rarely allows for wisdom, and those unwilling to commit to such moral delinquency (like Beau) often find themselves not just terrified, but disgusted. This is, in the end, what sets Beau on his odyssey — the terror and disgust so deeply rooted within the responsibility of dealing with life’s malfunctions. Beau’s journey back toward the womb is allegorical, leading him out and away from the inner city, past a bleeding, paint-drinkingly hysterical suburbia, and directly into the natural world where the oracle of performance — of tragedy and comedy as it was originally intended by the Greeks — seemingly allows for him the courage to briefly face his mother’s death and see what a good life may actually feel like. He enters a new world, led by a pregnant woman gowned in green, where the city’s billboards of resentment and hatred are replaced with maxims like ‘KNOW THYSELF.’ 

And yet, this is an Ari Aster picture. There are no happy endings, no matter how sincere the smile may be. Knowing thyself seems nice enough, but it’s actually quite terrible since it implies one must also know one’s place within nature. The illusion of the wisdom found in nature, the extended on-stage prophecy and possibility of an answer to all of Beau’s trauma and anxieties, is just another layer of tragedy. Fate wins in the end against Beau, not for him. As Nietzsche points out in The Birth of Tragedy, the spear point of wisdom “turns against the wise; wisdom is a crime against nature.” Beau’s attempt to escape his mother is, in the end, a futile gesture toward free will. We may feel in control when we empty ourselves into the woman of our dreams, but the reality is we’re still in our mother’s bed. Every action Beau takes toward and away from his mother, since matricide is so often a complex back-and-forth (just ask Orestes), is just that — action. And all action returns us back to the womb, back into the attic within which we dare not peek. In the aftermath, or the afterbirth, it is nature that puts us on trial for our attempts at progress. And it is both the son and the mother who will cry out in an echoing pain. All anyone else can do is just watch from the stands. That’s true horror.

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