(Warning: This post contains major spoilers about Beau Is Afraid.)
Ari Aster makes movies that are meant to be unpacked, but he doesn’t particularly like unpacking them himself. Aware that anything he says could sway audiences’ perceptions, Aster takes long pauses while discussing his films, choosing every word carefully. Sometimes he can be a bit cagey, dancing around questions that risk literalizing plot points open to interpretation. His Lynchian translucence is part of what makes indie-film disciples bow at the Aster altar.
That and his connection to A24, the trendy studio behind all three of the 36-year-old director’s features. His latest, Beau Is Afraid, follows Hereditary and Midsommar in serving up a genre-twisting freakout guaranteed to polarize.
If you’re reading this, you’ve probably already seen Beau, but here’s a spoiler-y recap: Joaquin Phoenix plays a neurotic ninny attempting a Homeric odyssey home to his mother’s funeral. Following several unsolicited detours, he shows up after the memorial has supposedly ended, at which point Beau becomes a loony tour through the lifelong mommy issues that turned him into a 49-year-old virgin.
He finally gets it on to the sounds of a Mariah Carey classic, only to encounter a gigantic penis monster that’s really an incarnation of the father he never knew. He’s then put on trial in a Truman Show-esque coliseum, where he’s held accountable for all the reasons his mom despises him. Finally, the rickety boat Beau arrived in explodes and he dies.
Whereas Hereditary and Midsommar can be safely labeled horror, Beau is a wicked comedy. But all three explore the ways that family history invades a person’s psyche to punishing, inescapable effect. They also contain what might be Aster’s speciality: mutilated heads. (In this case, the decapitation happens to the one and only Patti LuPone, giving a showstopping performance as Beau’s mommy dearest, who was murdered by a falling chandelier. Or was she? The answer depends on how much of the story you think is taking place in Beau’s head.) Aster talked to The Daily Beast’s Obsessed about some of the movie’s highlights.
This is your third go-round. What feels different this time?
I might be even more defensive going into the whole press cycle than I was the first two times because I’ve only ever regretted saying anything about any of the movies. It’s never been something where I thought, “Oh, I’m really glad that I used those words and that now the movie is now saddled with them.” So if anything, I’m trying to do as little as possible to muddle what anybody’s experience of the film might end up being.
That’s always been your thing. I’ve talked to you for each of the movies you’ve made, and I can remember trying to pull details about Hereditary out of you. I could tell that explaining or clarifying things is not really the way you want to talk about your films. A lot of creatives feel that way. But I do think this movie will be discussed as your most personal film, like a three-hour-long Oedipal therapy session for Ari Aster. How comfortable are you with that interpretation?
Well, it’s not a therapy session for Ari Aster. It’s a therapy session for Beau Wassermann. It’s personal, but it’s in no way autobiographical. I’m hoping that there’s something universal going on here, but I don’t know. Maybe that’s just giving away how far away I am from the rest of the human race. But I hope people can relate to Beau and whatever his experience is.
When Midsommar came out, you said you were going to do either a domestic melodrama or an absurdist dark comedy next. I assume this is the absurdist dark comedy. Was there something about the experiences of Hereditary and Midsommar—and maybe the fact that they were both pretty successful—that made you decide to tackle Beau next?
I just wanted to make something funny next. Beau was just a movie I’ve wanted to make for a long time. It felt like the right time. It struck me as the hardest one to get made, so I’ll just try, and if we don’t get it cleared then I’ll go to one of the others. Because it’s in some ways the biggest swing, there’s no harm in trying. I was really excited that A24 saw what it was and seemed excited by it and that they gave me the resources and the freedom to make it.
Beau could be described in many, many ways, but ultimately it’s just a movie about a guy who really needs to get laid, right?
Sure. That’s not wrong.
It’s sometimes wonderfully hard to discern whether what we’re seeing is existing only in Beau’s head. For example, how much of the chaos on the streets of New York, or whatever urban hellscape it’s meant to be, is literal? The city has descended into total lawlessness.
Well, this is the world of Beau Is Afraid. I mean, it’s literal. It’s not, like, the concoction of a mind. I want you to be close to Beau and I want you to be in his experience, but it is his experience navigating that world. And the world, if anything, is meant to be a clown mirror of the real world that is awful in all the same ways that our world is awful, but the dial is turned up.
Many of us have dealt with the death of a parent or a suffocating relationship with a parent, and you dial that up in very fun and eclectic ways, too. When you decided the movie would focus on Beau journeying home to his mother’s funeral, how soon did you arrive at the method of death? Where did the chandelier come into play for you?
Honestly, it made me laugh. I just had to get another destroyed head into the movie.
It is your third movie with a significantly destroyed head.
Yeah, I’m happy to make it a tradition. It would be disingenuous to say that I was parodying anything that came before because I wrote this before I wrote those. That earliest iteration of Beau [written before Hereditary] did have the chandelier crushing the head.
It must be fun to brainstorm outlandish ways for characters to die, but is there something that triggered this particular method? Was there a news story about someone who died by chandelier?
No. Apparently there is somebody that died the way that Charlie dies in Hereditary, and I did not know about that. But there’s something satisfying about coming up with those. Well, I shouldn’t say that after I nodded to an actual tragedy, which I regret.
I understand what you mean. When Beau finally has sex with the woman he’s been waiting for since he was a preteen, played by Parker Posey, she plays Mariah Carey’s “Always Be My Baby.” Was that song written into the script?
Yeah, there was never another option. It would not be “Always Be My Baby” if there was another option, because it was expensive. But once Mariah approved it, then we can’t even entertain the idea of doing something else. The thing that I was anticipating was her not giving it to us, and I think it’s so great that she did. I love her forever for granting us approval to use it.
It is such a wonderful choice. Everything about the way it plays out is incredible. Did you or somebody involved with the production explain to her the context of how it would be used?
No, we sent her the scene. She knew what she was approving. I think it’s awesome.
It had to be hard for Parker and Joaquin to keep a straight face during that scene. What was it like to shoot?
Those scenes are difficult to shoot. The actors are very exposed. It’s very courageous. You just want to make sure that nobody’s on set that needn’t be there and that you’re getting what you need and moving on. They’re not fun to shoot. They’re very awkward. I mean, they’re awkward for me because I really just want to make sure that everybody’s comfortable. I think what Parker does in that scene is pretty amazing and pretty courageous, and I love her for doing it.
You cited Modern Romance as an influence on Midsommar, so I have to assume that Defending Your Life, another Albert Brooks movie, was on your mind as you were thinking about putting Beau’s life on trial at the conclusion of this movie.
It’s funny—it didn’t occur to me until we were in pre-production that it was something I must be drawing from, because that’s one of my favorite films ever made. I love Defending Your Life so much. What I was thinking about, honestly, was the ending of A Matter of Life and Death, the Powell and Pressburger film. Even with the shape of the stadium, I couldn’t get A Matter of Life and Death out of my mind. But while we were preparing to shoot it, I think somebody said it made them think of Defending Your Life. I absolutely see that.
How did you land at the image of the exploding boat as the final thing we see?
It really came to me while I was writing the scene. I remember I was writing it in a feverish day of writing, and I remember the feeling. I don’t really know where it came from. I just remember it hitting me, and it was clear that was it. It always had to end with an ejaculation, you know?
Does the penis monster have a name?
We call him The Nose.