Beau Is Afraid and the obsessions of Ari Aster |

MILAN – Horror cinema, by definition, is a genre aimed at upsetting and disturbing the spectator with macabre, monstrous and supernatural images and characters. The situations generated by horror cinema undermine the daily lives of the protagonists and puncture their realities with the irrational and the unknown, upsetting the viewer and who is being watched. In recent years, Ari Aster has become an author capable of delving into the declinations of this genre, with a simple formula: horror always comes from reality. He thus imposed himself on the most common values ​​of storytelling, such as family and relationships, turning them into taboo. But the abject and the perverse, that which goes against common morality, always ends up attracting. After Hereditary and MidsummarAri Aster will be back with Beau Is Afraid, a new film produced by A24 which will star Joaquin Phoenix. Already known as Disappointment Blvd., the film should be released in 2023, but there is still no precise date. Everything is shrouded in mystery.

Joaquin Phoenix in one of the first images of Beau Is Afraid.

The film is supposed to tell the life of one of the most successful entrepreneurs of all time. In addition to this incipit and a poster that would appear to depict a young version of Phoenix (when he still called himself Leaf), we don’t know anything else. And since horror is also a mystery, let’s try to unravel it. We enter the grotesque mind of Ari Aster and make our way through this labyrinth of trauma. Let’s study the narration, let’s view some of his works and try to draw a map of the themes dear to the director, to try to make some predictions and theories on his next work. There is nothing more real and true than a family refuge, a safe haven: one’s own home, in the broadest possible sense of the word. The most terrifying thing that can happen to you is when it’s your own family, your stable affections, that scare you. The faces you’ve always recognized as loving warp and become unrecognizable.

A scene from The Strange Thing About the Johnsons, Aster’s senior thesis at the AFI Conservatory, in 2011.

An element that Ari Aster takes to its extreme. In his (disturbing) short debut of 2011, The Strange Thing About The Johnsons – the director’s degree thesis at the AFI Conservatory in Los Angeles, you can see it at the end of the article – we are shown an abuse perpetrated in reverse: the adult son abuses his father; the mother finds out, but perhaps also in shock she keeps this secret until it escalates. The drama takes place within the walls of the house until Aster knocks down – metaphorically – the door of the Johnsons’ home. Value becomes taboo; family and incest. Home is no longer a safe place. The same thing goes for Hereditary, the first feature film that was an accident (almost 80 million dollars grossed from a 10 million budget). Here the process of transforming value into taboo is more “otherworldly”, and already in the typical canons of horror, even if it begins like any other story: the one that tells the value of the family. Certainly here the Graham family is not doing well even before entering the territory of the supernatural, but all the horror elements that then come to load the drama always have the reality of those protagonists as their starting point.

Milly Shapiro on the set of Hereditary – The Roots of Evil.

Then comes the irrational and breaks down the door of another family’s house, but with the foundation laid first, even the most horrific and absurd looks seem real to us. On the other hand if we had to describe Hereditary we would do so by speaking of a mourning that splits a family in half, and of a son who feels betrayed by his own mother. Also in Munchausen, another short film of his from 2013 (which you can see below), the mother figure is at the center of the story. The theme of the pathology known as Munchausen syndrome in which a parent induces clinical symptoms in a child to obtain a psychological advantage. The plot develops around the mother’s desire not to be alone when her son leaves for college, leading to a tragic and grotesque gesture. The betrayal of the mother against her son is perpetrated again.

Midsommar – The village of the damnedthe second film – that we loved and told you about here – doesn’t stray from these themes, but brings the horror into the sunlight and outside the walls of a house. The story explores the pain and emotional availability in the relationship of the protagonist couple, Dani and Christian (Florence Pugh and Jack Reynor), put to the test by her sister’s suicide and by his selfishness. Their relationship is challenged within a fictional community in Sweden, where a summer solstice folk festival is taking place. Loss and mourning are sublimated by the characters to prevent such trauma from burdening an emotionally absent partner. The walls, this time, are that imaginary border that surrounds the Swedish village where the story is set, which becomes a dimension that describes the state of consciousness of the characters, all of this to try to bring Dani back on the right path. Here too, we had to describe Midsummar, we would talk about it as a drama about emotional abuse in relationships. The horror comes, again, from reality.

Aster with Florence Pugh on the set of Midsommar.

It seems strange to say it, but there is also some humor in Ari Aster’s works. A comic trait that pervades these stories and at certain points acts as a subtext. On the other hand, the grotesque makes you smile, albeit for the wrong reasons. Like horror, comedy too is attracted by transgression: what is unusual and out of the ordinary makes us laugh; the elements that instead in horror cinema would scare us.
In Beau, short from 2011, a man is about to leave to visit his mother. Just before locking up the house, he comes back because he forgot something. When he returns, the house keys he left hanging on the door are gone. In the face of man’s tension and paranoia of not being able to close the door, the perception of the spaces and people around him become disturbing and stressful, even if they apparently aren’t. In Beau the horror comes from the anxiety of seeing one’s home violated.

Billy Mayo in a scene from Beau, a 2011 short.

It was the same terror as the father of the Johnson family, who feared that his body would be violated. Here the door to the safe haven is not broken in, but left open and everything flows inside. Even the most trivial thing at this point can become terrifying: the heartbreaking screams of the neighbors’ fights, which in reality turn out to be tender games and laughter of a happy couple; a monstrous creature that appears to be hiding in the closet is actually just a possum that has managed to sneak out the main entrance; an attempted robbery is foiled in a manner reminiscent of the tricks of Mom I missed the plane. The name of the short is common to that of the next Aster film, Beau Is Afraid. Is it just a coincidence? In 2020, when she first mentioned the project, she spoke like one nightmare comedyor a nightmarish comedy.

The first Beau Is Afraid poster featuring a rejuvenated Joaquin Phoenix.

Taking into account what the short is, one would think that probably the only thing they have in common is not just the name of the character. As already mentioned, it would seem that the film will tell the life of an important tycoon: what if this person, due to the stress of his work, sees things around him in an exasperated way? Making even the most mundane things so scary? The film was originally supposed to be titled Disappointment Blvd., “avenue of disappointment”: the portrait of this tycoon will certainly be that of a solitary, self-marginalized figure, and if “amusing” things happen to a character of this type, one will fall into the grotesque. The grotesque makes us laugh but still feels a certain discomfort, and who knows what other elements this discomfort will be fueled by. Certainly, given the precedents, Beau Is Afraid it will be a great work, destined for a festival (Cannes? Venice? Toronto?), but being completely in the dark, knowing nothing about the character of Joaquin Phoenix terrifies and excites us at the same time. Half of the work is already done. Chapeau, Ari Aster.

  • SOUND TRACK | Why rediscover the soundtrack of Midsummar
  • VIDEOS | The debut short, The Strange Thing About The Johnsons:

Beau Is Afraid and the obsessions of Ari Aster |