I made the poor decision of hitting my friend’s bong before watching Ari Aster’s last film, Midsommar, in which a young woman who tragically lost her parents and sister travels to Scandinavia to attend a village’s midsummer festival that takes a turn for the worse when said village is revealed to be a murderous cult.
Midsommar has often been praised for being a horror movie that takes place entirely in broad daylight. A great description, but what really impressed me about the movie was the extent to which its setting – the murderous cult – could be interpreted as a reflection of the main character’s troubled psyche.
This concept is placed front and center in Aster’s latest film, Beau is Afraid, in which a neurotic man-child played by Joaquin Phoenix sets out on an unpredictably long-winded journey to visit the bane of, as well as reason for, his entire existence: his overbearing mother.
Aster has only directed three feature films so far, each more experimental than the last. Where Hereditary was a straightforward albeit meticulously produced horror story, Beau is Afraid is idiosyncratic to the point of defying any and all classification.
Instead of pulling from other directors, Aster draws from the writings of Homer, Dante, Kafka, and Borges. The only filmmaker he is in any way indebted to is Charlie Kaufman, who’s equally upsetting psychological horror film Synecdoche, New York permeates almost every aspect of Aster’s film.
This includes the interior lives of the film’s self-destructive protagonists, as well as the excellent production design and visual effects that mirror those lives – the dread, fear, confusion, revulsion, despair, and longing – in the wider world around them.
The clinically depressed protagonists of Beau is Afraid and Synecdoche, New York both live in societies that are falling apart. In the former, rule of law is all but absent. Buildings are covered in graffiti, assault rifles can be carried in the streets, and corpses lie face-down in the gutter.
In both films, this societal decay is never addressed but accepted by the characters as normal, like how we never think to question anything that happens in a nightmare, no matter how absurd or disturbing it appears to us when we wake up.
According to production designer Fiona Crombie, who also worked on The Favourite, walking this fine line between fact and fiction is no easy task. On the one hand, you want to “present a world that’s not the real world,” she tells High Times. On the other, “you don’t want to quite give away it’s not.”
Crombie’s job requires a microscopic attention to detail. Every location and prop in Beau is Afraid serves a purpose, whether that is to help the audience suspend their disbelief, emphasize the mood of a scene, or illustrate the personality of a particular character.
All of these factors came into play when designing Beau’s apartment. Indecisive and dependent on others, Beau has failed to turn his home into a welcoming living space. The only personal item there is the blanket on his bed – the same blanket he had as a child.
The awkward placement of Beau’s furniture matches his apartment’s counterintuitive layout. “The whole thing was meant to be uncomfortable,” Crombie says, pointing to the space between the sofa and coffee table, as well as the annoying cable in the bedroom that Beau has to step over.
A set designer’s biggest enemy is their budget, which by rule is never big enough to encompass everything that the director calls for. Such was certainly the case for Beau is Afraid, a film that lasts nearly 3 hours and spans hundreds of different locations.
One of these locations was a cruise ship, which the team could neither find nor afford. Some of the crew suggested they shoot in a train instead, but Aster would not listen because his script was airtight, and “by pulling one thread,” as Crombie put it, “you unravel everything.”
Beau had to be stuck, and he had to be stuck on a boat. On a boat in the middle of the ocean. Ultimately, they ended up using virtual production for this sequence. Crombie didn’t go into details, but I’m imagining something like the digital environments shot in The Mandalorian.
Crombie says she does not have a background in film but theater design. This, I suppose, must have come in handy while producing the “Hero Beau” sequence where Beau acts in a 12-minute play that envisions him living a full, rewarding life outside his mother’s influence.
Originally envisioned as featuring strictly practical effects, the stage play sequence grew to encompass CGI that mimics yet simultaneously distorts the hand-painted cardboard cutout sets you’d find in a performance put together by elementary school students and their totalitarian teachers.
The effects artists didn’t start with a blank slate. “The script,” says Jorge Cañada Escorihuela, who supervised as well as produced the sequence, “matches exactly what we’ve done.” Just as Aster needed Beau to be on a cruise ship, so too did he have the film-within-a-film already planned out.
Narratively and thematically, the Hero Beau sequence resides in the very center of the film. It represents, as Escorihuela puts it, “the potentiality of his life,” a thought experiment in which the broken, fearful Beau is temporarily reborn a hero. Suddenly, his entire world – previously so small – opens up.
When asked how he made sense of the sequence after reading Aster’s script for the first time, Escorihuela showed me a diagram he drew of the entire story. He told me not to take a picture of it, but it looked like a map of Dante’s 9 circles of Hell, with Hero Beau – the gateway to Purgatory – in the center.
In your average horror film – or your average film, really – visual effects and production design are treated as add-ons. In Aster’s films, these elements of filmmaking are as important as the script and the direction, because they literally help bring the latter to life.
In contrast to Hereditary and Midsommar, Beau is Afraid has received mixed reviews, with many audience members as well as critics feeling either bewildered or disappointed or a mix of both. Crombie and Escorihuela somewhat expected this, as the film is simply too bold to speak to everybody. “I think this film has to be seen later in [Aster’s] career,” Escorihuela concludes. “It will complete his filmography which is still being built.” Beau is Afraid will definitely mark a turning point in Aster’s career, but whether its influence will be seen in the movies that are yet to come is still uncertain.