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I never realized how not pregnant Beyoncé might have been until the Saturday premiere of her HBO documentary, Life Is But a Dream. Since announcing her pregnancy at the 2011 MTV Video Music Awards (in August of that year), there have been naysayers, referred to with tongue in cheek as "Beyoncé birthers." There was that footage of her apparently pregnant belly folding in on itself when she made an appearance on Australian TV in the fall of 2011. Months later, Beyoncé addressed it with a pithy explanation: "It was a fabric that folded - does fabric not fold? Oh my gosh, so stupid."
Life Is But a Dream covers a...period of time before the supposed birth of Beyoncé and Jay-Z's daughter, Blue Ivy. It's hard to say exactly how long because particulars like where and when are barely telegraphed – there's not a single explanatory chyron in the entire film. Cynically, I wonder if this is a sign of co-director Beyoncé's egocentrism; she assumes that we've been following her closely enough to know what she's talking about without bothering to explain certain key facts. Or maybe she thinks we can read her mind. Or maybe she's just not that great of a memoirist.
Regardless, it makes sense that given the time examined, Beyoncé's movie would chronicle Beyoncé's pregnancy and the controversy it birthed. The problem with Life Is But a Dream's treatment of her pregnancy isn't that it protests too much – it protests too weirdly. We never see a full, clear shot of Beyoncé's pregnant, swanlike body. Instead it's presented in pieces, owing to the limitations of her Mac webcam. When her body is shown in full, it's in grainy, black and white footage in which her face is shadowed.
Why, though? If you're going to present an image of your pregnant self to prove the naysayers wrong, why do it in such an obscure way? Why bother? The footage seems to exist to be described as "beautiful." Is it just art, or more lies?
That question could apply to the whole of Life Is But a Dream, in which the notoriously tight-lipped Beyoncé consciously unveils parts of her life and, in the process, reveals nothing. On firing her father, Matthew Knowles, as her manager, she says, "It was a stressful, sad, difficult time." Gee. Imagine. On her general feelings, she says, "If I'm scared, be scared, allow it, release it, move on." On her humanity, she says, "I know that people see celebrities, and they seem like they're so perfect - they seem like their life is so great, and they have money and fame. But I'm a human being. I cry. I'm very passionate and sensitive. My feelings get hurt. I get scared and nervous like everyone else." This last quote, by the way, came from a video message she recorded for journalists attending a listening session for her I Am...Sasha Fierce album in 2008. Prefab on top of prefab.
Much like in Madonna's Truth or Dare, there is a great sense of performance in Life Is But a Dream. Beyoncé Knowles is Beyoncé Knowles. But unlike Madonna, who got off on being bad and pushing buttons, Beyoncé's aesthetic is perfection. She lives to be admired, and the supposed grittiness in Life Is But a Dream exists so that we admire her more. Look at how critical Beyoncé is of herself when she watches herself! Look at how pretty she looks naturally! (Never mind that her several made-under looks clearly required makeup.) Listen to how well she articulates herself when presented softball questions by an interviewer that she hired for a movie she is orchestrating and directing!
Again, I wonder: Why bother? Is it all for money? Is the point to promote a brand? To keep fresh in minds for her imminent upcoming album? Maybe. But if you read Life Is But a Dream as sincere expression, it becomes something far weirder, the product of an extraordinarily talented, extraordinary bland person who is never not stilted. What if this were an accurate depiction of Beyoncé's limited, surface-level capacity to express herself in daily life that reaches savant-like highs only through her art? That is a fascinating life worth capturing.
Like the black-and-white footage of her supposedly pregnant self, all of Life Is But a Dream provokes more questions than it answers. We leave knowing nothing and talking and talking and talking, essentially doing the heavy-lifting for the privileged star. "All I need is not me, because I can't do it by myself," says Beyoncé on the makings of Beyoncé. It takes a nation to fuel a machine this big.