Generally speaking, it’s a bit dismaying to find out that a movie is a movie within a movie, or that it’s somehow about itself, or a commentary on itself. The rug-pull isn’t enjoyable when the rug never felt very interesting or secure in the first place. But the meta gets better in Lawrence Michael Levine’s dizzying but gripping comedy Black Bear, which is a recurring nightmare – or rather, an entertainment in two acts about the messy business of making a personal film based on actual events. Is the movie being shot in the second act inspired by the events in the first? Or is the first act a film inspired by what happened in the second? Aubrey Plaza brings all her talent for droll and inscrutable irony to the role of Allison, a film-maker who arrives at a beautiful lakeside house for the weekend with the apparent intention of recharging her creative batteries and working on a script. We see her jotting notes on a legal pad, and her scribbled handwriting is the motif for the intertitles and credits. The house belongs to a handsome couple, Gabe and Blair, who are friends of friends of Allison’s and have an informal policy of loaning their house to artistic people. From the start there is an uneasy frisson between the three. Allison establishes a wryly bantering tone which is dangerous for people who don’t know each other at all well; Blair can’t tell if she’s joking with her, or flirting with Gabe and Gabe thinks Blair’s sudden need for wine is inappropriate given that she is pregnant. The drinking and arguing at dinner escalates to Burton and Taylor in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf levels, as do Allison’s sulky provocations, clearly triggered by an attraction to Gabe. It all leads to a horrible denouement. But then Levine lowers the curtain, and raises it again to reveal Allison calmly seated once more in her one-piece bathing suit, gazing out over the water. Did we reset for another take? Yes and no. Now there is a different situation, different people, and a different crescendo of sexual unease. From the start, there is an uneasy frisson between the three. Allison establishes a wryly bantering tone which is dangerous for people who don’t know each other at all well; Blair can’t tell if she’s joking with her or flirting with Gabe and Gabe thinks Blair’s sudden need for wine is inappropriate given that she is pregnant This new tone and the new expanded cast refreshes and invigorates the movie in an ingenious way: the tempo, the musical score, the new internal group dynamic make for a startling shift, and yet the relationship with what has gone before charges the action with significance. We are seeing a very dysfunctional family here – Black Bear has something of Truffaut’s Day for Night, as well as Alvy Singer in Annie Hall, directing theatrical scenes based on his own life and never quite satisfied. Importantly, the argument that led to disaster in the opening act was about gender roles: perhaps in a mood of contrarian ill-temper, Gabe had said that modern society’s abandonment of these roles had led to unhappiness. Astonished at this reactionary disloyalty, Blair accuses him of being anti-feminist but Allison brattishly agrees with Gabe. Yet it is Allison who is the film-maker, and who says she doesn’t care to see herself on screen. In the second act, however, we see Allison in an entirely different light: she is the actor and Gabe is her director. So who is in charge here? Who is the director? Or is Black Bear suggesting that, as the star, Allison has the power; she is directing what happens, especially as she is able to make script alterations at the last moment. This is Plaza’s best role yet, her cool feline sensuality achieving something more mysterious than anything in her previous work. And the Black Bear of the title inevitably takes more than one form: a nickname, a metaphor for sexual danger, an actual flesh-and-blood bear. It is symbol and reality: like the film itself, it’s a double-act with claws. ‘Black Bear’ is released on 23 April on digital platforms.