Arts, Movies

The Devouring Mother and the Man-Child: Ari Aster’s New Movie Explores the Horrors of Family Trauma


Beau is Afraid

The title of Ari Aster’s new A24 movie prompts an immediate question: What is Beau afraid of?

Beau is Afraid, which premiered on April 14, begins with Beau’s (Joaquin Phoenix) birth—a disturbing scene in which the viewer is forced to witness a newborn’s first glimpse of the world through less than half-opened eyes.

The audience is placed in the mother’s womb, then taken out of it. Through a foggy and shaky scene, viewers see the umbilical cord being cut and faintly hear the screams of Beau’s mother as he is taken away from her. The mother frantically asks the doctor why her baby isn’t crying, a question that foreshadows the unhealthy mother-and-son relationship that forms the basis of the movie.

While the mother-and-son relationship is compelling and executed by impeccable acting, the three-hour long nightmare of a movie in which absolutely nothing good happens to the protagonist is draining.

Phoenix plays a middle-aged man who cannot make a decision for himself. His father died while conceiving him, which is why he’s still a virgin and why the only woman in his life is his mother. He relies on his therapist and his medication to endure the surrealist world that Aster builds for him.

Beau’s daily life is filled with tragicomic events: he lives in a neighborhood where a deceased body has been laying in the middle of the street for days, where a naked man spends his days stabbing people, and where a man tattooed from head to toe often chases him to his door. But these are certainly not the most bizarre things that occur in the movie.

Beau’s never-ending paranoia takes a momentary pause whenever he is inside his apartment—where he can hear about the horrors that are happening right outside his door and window, but not directly experience them. Things quickly change when Beau’s keys are stolen, and all of the horrific events and people from outside move into his home, appropriating his only safe space, apart from his therapist’s room.

On the day of this initial tragedy, Beau was supposed to travel and visit his mom, Mona Wassermann (Patti LuPone), who he hasn’t seen in months, something he confesses to his therapist with guilt and shame. What follows is Beau’s long and gruesome journey to his mother—a character that slowly unveils as the true antagonist of the movie.

Beau fits the Jungian description of a man-child. 

“He hopes to be caught, sucked in, enveloped, and devoured,” Carl Jung, a psychoanalyst says of the man-child in his book Aion: Researches into the Phenomenology of Self. “He seeks, as it were, the protecting, nourishing, charmed circle of the mother, the condition of the infant released from every care. … No wonder the real world vanishes from sight!”

This parallel to Beau is evident through his conformity to the disastrous conditions in which he lives. He conforms through his recent calling list, which consists of his mom and therapist, through his lack of life outside his apartments or therapy room, and through the trembling and childish voice he uses, especially while talking with his mom.

But Beau is not to blame—at least not fully. Mona is the type of mother who needs her children to need her and who will go to extremes to make sure that they do. She is the type of mother who creates insecure and dependent children to stay relevant. The result is an eternal infant in an adult body, who sobs like a little child, gets on his knees, and kisses his mother’s feet in search of forgiveness and protection from the scary, threatening world, even though most—if not all—of the catastrophes that have followed him have been caused by her.

“I wanted to make a movie that was like a video game but where your character can’t do anything and none of the buttons work,” Aster said in TIME

He certainly accomplished that. But it is not a pleasant thing to witness.

The horror of Ari Aster’s new movie is that it loses its audience within the overwhelming amount of tragedies that the protagonist survives, while the premise of the devouring mother and the man-child is undermined and receives the attention it deserves at the ending.

May 1, 2023