In this section of our Colossus Movie Guide for Beau is Afraid, we talk about themes that help us understand the film.
- Beau Wassermann – Joaquin Phoenix
- Mona Wassermann – Patti LuPone
- Therapist – Stephen McKinley Henderson
- Roger – Nathan Lane
- Grace – Amy Ryan
- Toni – Kylie Rogers
- Jeeves – Denis Ménochet
- Elaine – Parker Posey
- Penelope – Hayley Squires
- Dr. Cohen – Richard Kind
- Written by – Ari Aster
- Directed by – Ari Aster
The themes and meaning of Beau is Afraid
Guilt, Grief, and Parents
If you watch Steven Spielberg movies, you’ll see how much he explores parent-child relationships. Sometimes this is from the perspective of the child, like in E.T. and A.I. Other times it’s from the perspective of the parent—Lincoln, Hook. And every so often it’s found family or even the idea of a parent figure: the police chief protecting the town in Jaws, John Miller looking for Private Ryan in Saving Private Ryan, or Schindler protecting, during the Holocaust, as many Jewish people as he could.
Ari Aster is developing a similar thematic focus, specifically around guilt, grief, and, like Spielberg, parent-child relationships. Hereditary is about what happens to a family after the tragic loss of their daughter. Midsommar is about the lone survivor of a family annihilation. And Beau spends much of Beau is Afraid thinking his mother has died after he couldn’t come visit her.
The influence of parents
In Hereditary, Aster explores what’s inherited from our parents. This takes the form of genetic mental illness and demonic cults. In Midsommar, we don’t really see how Dani’s parents shaped her so much as the emptiness that follows their loss and how susceptible she comes to adoption from other parent figures (in the form of the Harga cult).
Beau is Afraid is a different look at a similar topic. Beau hasn’t inherited a mental illness that affects his worldview. He isn’t trying to fill a void. Instead, his entire being is the consequence of the conditional love of his mother and the belief his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather all suffered from a malady where if they orgasm they die.
These influences have stunted him, arrested his development in such a way that he is passive, second-guessing, stricken with paranoia. Physically, emotionally, and spiritual, Beau doesn’t know how to be free. The idea that if he orgasms, he dies, creates a sense that his body is something to fear, that pleasure is something to fear. Then because his mother was so reactive and punishing, Beau has been trained to second guess himself, to react rather than act, to put everyone else ahead of himself.
The influence of the world
Hereditary and Midsommar are small films about personal situations. Broader society doesn’t play a significant role. The cult in Hereditary isn’t positioned as a reaction to American culture. The Harga do highlight the differences between their community and the rest of the world, but Aster never explores the pros and cons of the rest of the world. It’s not a point of emphasis. What elevates Beau is Afraid from Aster’s other work is its inclusion of societal influence.
The societal influence is a direct extension of the parental influence. Children grow up in a microcosm curated by their parents. This limited universe is the foundation of who someone is. It’s not the end all be all. But it’s significant. As adults, our parents tend to have less influence. We move out. Create our own experience. But where we live is a microcosm, broader than our childhood experience, but a microcosm all the same. And it exerts a similar top-down force that defines our adultself.
Aster manages to have Beau’s relationship with his mother serve as an extended metaphor for the relationship an individual has with society. The same way that Mona limits Beau through her negativity, a society can limit its citizens. In the city, Beau can’t thrive because he’s so busy simply trying to survive. In the home of Grace and Roger, we see a place that’s ostensibly peaceful and lovely but is deeply broken due to grief, enablement, and gaslighting and ultimately unsafe. In the woods, with the traveling theater, there’s art and genuine goodwill and connection. Except it’s violently interrupted by an outsider. When Beau tries to flee, he ends up in a court of his peers, is judged, then executed. His mother brought him into the world, and society decides to take him out of it.
The inability to have a meaningful relationship is a huge part of Beau is Afraid. Not just for Beau, but for nearly every character in the film. The only exception seems to be the traveling theater. Penelope and the others seem genuine and caring. Maybe if we spent more time with them, we’d see they’re as trouble as Grace and Roger. But from what we actually get—they’re nice, content, happy. Everyone else, though? Outrageously damaged.
This is clearly hyperbole. In the real world, most people have a handful (hopefully more) of positive, genuine relationships with friends, family, and their partner. You’re more likely to have a nice interaction with a stranger than a terrible one. There is light. There is hope. There is love. But not really in Beau is Afraid. Aster amplifies the negativity and despair till it’s all-encompassing.
The glass-half-empty reason is that it’s a bleak reflection of and commentary on the 21st century. That Aster is emphasizing a crumbling of society. Prognosticating a bleaker tomorrow. And, yeah. Anyone who follows the news or spends too much time online bears witness to a lot of ugliness. Listen carefully, and you hear a trilling note of impending doom, like the rattling of a machine that’s been on for too long without maintenance. From this perspective, it’s as if Aster’s saying, “You think things are bad now? Well here’s what’s coming.”
But you could argue Aster’s actually making a case for the opposite. By showing a truly broken world that’s so devoid of positivity, love, and empowerment, he reminds us of how much of that still exists in real life. It’s possible to watch Beau is Afraid and come away thankful for what and who you have in your life. You might not be perfect, but at least you’re not living like Beau, lonely as Beau, and convinced, like Beau, not to orgasm.
Live your life
Ultimately, Beau lacks control of his life. Others have determined it, dictated it. His passivity makes him complicit. He allows his mom to govern him. He chooses to stay in a city that’s out to kill him. He lets fear rule. And it leads him to a trial where he’s tried and executed for not being completely beholden to his mother.
As silly as it is for Beau to think an orgasm will cause immediate death, it’s a dramatic representation of the fear that stops many people from pursuing pleasures. Whether that’s something small like picking up a hobby or something larger like visiting somewhere distant or, hell, moving somewhere distant. Each and every person has dreams and goals they don’t pursue because of some limiting belief. That can be healthy. Like quitting your job, selling your house, and moving to Los Angeles to become an actor when you’ve never acted before is a crazy thing to do. But why not join a local theater? Why not write? Why not find a small way to make this pleasure a part of your life?
Even though you’re not Beau, Beau is you. A worse version of you. The doomsday version of you. You have the ability to move ever further away from being that person. Just ask yourself, am I being afraid? If the answer is yes, find the first step in the opposite direction. Then take it. If not this time, then the next. Do that more often than not, and it’s amazing what happens.
We need movies that show us a positive model for growth and change. But it’s just as important to show the reverse. The crummiest outcome. The lowest behavior. To model what not to do. How not to be. Watch Groundhog Day. Watch Beau is Afraid. Live a better life. That’s the power of cinematic narrative.
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