The following story contains spoilers for Ari Aster’s new A24 film, Beau Is Afraid.
ARE SEX scenes, in films and on television, “unnecessary”? That’s a topic that’s come up quite frequently in recent months, in places that range from random Tweets that catch Twitter’s collected attention, to essays on Vanity Fair, and even as far as the mouth of one Quentin Tarantino (the Pulp Fiction director said that “Sex is not part of [his] vision of cinema” and that “It’s a pain to shoot sex scenes”).
Just as that ongoing discourse continues to ongo, however, Ari Aster—director of Hereditary and Midsommar fame—released his newest film, Beau Is Afraid. And he clearly has little interest in this kind of argument, because Beau Is Afraid features one of the most unique, hilarious, and, yes, essential, sex scenes of all time.
In Beau Is Afraid, a three-hour dark comedy surrealist trip of a film, Joaquin Phoenix plays Beau Wasserman, a 40-something man who lives in what audiences will immediately recognize as a heightened acid trip of a world (it’s up to us to decide whether we want to take what we see as face value, or view what we’re seeing as Beau’s dread-ridden perception of things). He’s lived his entire life in a state of fear and anxiety brought on by his overbearing corporate CEO mother, Mona (played by both Zoe Lister-Jones and Patti LuPone), and, when we meet him as an adult, is exactly where someone who lives their life in a constant state of fear and anxiety probably should be: his therapist’s office.
There’s plenty to dive into and break down about Beau’s many anxieties and qualities of stunted personal growth, but we’re building toward that sex scene. And to get there, it’s important to note one of the many things Mona told Beau as a child: his father died while conceiving him, instantly, upon ejaculation. His grandfather and great-grandfather, Mona says, also died the same way. The obvious implication is that this genetic trait that was passed down to Beau. And Beau has lived his entire life with this belief—ejaculate, and die.
Beau also lived his entire life “waiting” for Elaine (played by Julia Antonelli as a teen and Parker Posey as an adult), a girl he met, fell for, and briefly kissed during a cruise ship vacation in his youth. Beau is Afraid becomes a hero’s journey (“hero” used loosely, because, as Vox points out in their wonderful breakdown of the film, Beau is more inactive than anything else; he’s certainly no hero) following Beau as he overcomes the many obstacles in his way to return to Mona’s house for her funeral; he’s told, in a shocking moment, that her head was crushed in the lobby of her home by a chandelier.
Again—this is a three-hour movie. And there are lots of obstacles in Beau’s way home that take up much of that movie. Ultimately, he gets home, late, having missed the funeral. He’s missed the crowd, he’s missed the food, he’s missed everything. His journey has been a long one, and he wipes out on his mother’s couch after re-living their many, many, many memories together. These two have had a unique and troubled relationship to say the least.
But he’s not the only one to be late. He’s awakened from his couch nap by a late visitor—Elaine, who worked for Mona’s mega-company. Both parties remember each other; Elaine looking put together and beautiful, Beau looking, well, not so great. It doesn’t matter, because their old connection is instantly there, and not long after, they kiss, embrace, and decide to head up to Mona’s bedroom.
And so the sex scene begins. And given what we’ve been told, we’re filled with the same dread as Beau. Is he going to follow through? If he does, is he going to die? Beau stalls for this moment just how anyone with anxiety who hasn’t done this before would, and Elaine is ready to get started, just like anyone with a lick of experience would. And then she decides to get the mood right—and turns on Mariah Carey’s “Always Be My Baby” on her phone, via Spotify.
Here we get, quite simply, one of the most unique combinations of incredible physical comedy and undeniable dread ever put to film, as Elaine and Beau begin their moment of intimacy. Posey and Phoenix have both proven to be incredibly skilled on-screen comedians in the past, but this scene is on a different level; Mariah Carey soundtracking just makes things even better. It’s absurd. It’s purely absurd.
As Beau begins to climax—he’s in his mid to late 40s and presumably has never even “taken care of himself,” based on what his mom told him about his father’s side of the family—the scene shifts to an undeniably comedic tone.
They finish up (after a comment from Elaine about how Beau had enough force to break through the condom she gave him), and Beau is as happy and worry-free as we’ve seen him at any point in the 180-minute film—and it’s a fleeting moment that will not last long. He’s thinking what we were all thinking: he was going to die. He says this aloud to Elaine, who does not respond. She does not respond, you see, because whatever happened with Beau, somehow, passed on to her. She’s dead, frozen with something resembling an instant rigor mortis. And Beau’s mother—not dead, in a shocker—has been watching from the shadows the whole time.
This is Ari Aster at his absolute finest; he turns an moment of dark comedy, joy, and humor, immediately into truly surreal and bizarre horror. And as with all of Beau is Afraid, it comes back to anxiety that stems from unresolved problems from youth. Beau never could get it right with his mom; listening to what she told him his entire life did him no good, and going against what she told him made things even worse.
The rest of Beau Is Afraid, after this sex scene, devolves into several major twists—many people and situations we’ve seen to this point aren’t quite who they say they are—and it all comes back to Aster’s fascination with the Beau-Mona relationship.
Almost immediately upon Mona’s entering the scene (played here by LuPone), Elaine’s frozen corpse is dragged out of the room, presumably to be disposed of, like a piece of old furniture. Beau Is Afraid is a metaphorical and at times inscrutible film, but this one isn’t super hard to read: Beau’s issue, at his core, was never his romantic relationships (or lack thereof). It was with his mom.
Aster, here, has made a movie that can be talked about afterwards, probably, for just as long as its lengthy runtime. And with as abstract and bizarre as it is, the movie certainly won’t be for everyone. But anyone who’s seen his other work (the family-focused horror of Hereditary and the romantic-relationship-focused horror of Midsommar) should be able to quickly get on his wavelength, and see that while this is more of a After Hours or Eyes Wide Shut with a heaping dose of existential dread tossed in, it’s the logical next step for a guy who longs to find the terror in relationships that almost anyone can relate to.
Clearly, he needed a sex scene to make that point; this scene was without question necessary for Beau Is Afraid. Did Mariah Carey need to be involved? No! Did it make the scene incredibly unique and unforgettable? Yes. Without question. And sometimes the best parts of movies aren’t just things there to service the plot or to check a box. Sometimes it’s just about making memories, and creating moments that people will remember as special.
If you want to make a movie people are going to be talking about for a long time, it’s moments like that that are the real necessity.
Evan is the culture editor for Men’s Health, with bylines in The New York Times, MTV News, Brooklyn Magazine, and VICE. He loves weird movies, watches too much TV, and listens to music more often than he doesn’t.