The Beast

Loosely inspired by a 1903 novella yet thoroughly a 21st-century film, this time- and genre-hopping movie starring Léa Seydoux is as potent as cinema gets.
Sarah Ward
Published on May 30, 2024


Watching a film by French writer/director Bertrand Bonello can feel like having a spell cast upon you. In movies such as 2016's Nocturama and 2019's Zombi Child, that's how magnetic and entrancing his blend of ethereal mood and dreamy imagery has felt. So it is with The Beast, too, another hypnotic feature that bewitches and also probes, because none of these three Bonello flicks ask their viewers to merely submit. Rather, they enchant while raising questions about the state of the world, whether digging into consumerism and anarchy, hierarchies of race and class, or the role of humanity in an increasingly technology-mediated society. The latter is the domain of the filmmaker's loose adaptation of Henry James' 1903 novella The Beast in the Jungle — a take that, as its author didn't and couldn't, perceives how the clash of humanity's emotions and artificial intelligence's data-driven analysis is fated to favour the cold and the calculating.

In 2044, the very fact that people are guided by their feelings has rendered them unsuitable for most jobs in The Beast's AI-dominated vision of the future. Played with the mastery of both deeply conveyed expression and telling stillness that's long characterised her performances, Dune: Part Two, Crimes of the Future and No Time to Die's Léa Seydoux is Gabrielle, who is among the throngs relegated to drone-like drudgery in this new world order. To shift her daily reality, where she reads the temperature of data cores, she only has one path forward: a cleansing of her DNA. It involves spending sessions immersed in a black goopy bath to confront her emotions and past, a procedure that she's told will rid her of her trauma and baggage. Crossing paths with Gabrielle at the treatment centre, Louis (1917 and True History of the Kelly Gang's George MacKay) has the same choice.

Bonello begins The Beast with the opposite of stolidness, with green-screen acting as Gabrielle reacts to directions uttered her way by an off-screen voice, and with her eyes widening and voice screaming at a monster who'll be added in the post-production process. It's a stunning introduction. Seydoux is transfixing from this moment onwards, but the entire range of her portrayal from cool and collected to uncertain and then terrified is captured in mere minutes. Bonello also thrusts fear, a key theme of James' book and this picture alike, to the fore — as well as the notion of being petrified of something intangible. The scene recognises that that which makes our blood run cold doesn't always exist, and queries how we make the panic in our heads and hearts feel real. It also turns Gabrielle into a doll behaving at someone else's behest, revealing a motif that'll continue to pop up while examining how much agency we have when imagined nightmares can so easily control us.

The Gabrielle that starts off the movie isn't and is the Gabrielle going all Under the Skin-meets-Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind in 2044. Wafting around a surreal atmosphere that recalls David Lynch's Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire as well, The Beast flits between parallel Gabrielles in different times, as she does while submitting to purification. Sometimes she's the Gabrielle of the feature's present. Then, she's a past-life Gabrielle in France in 1910. Rounding out the trio: another prior version in 2014 in Los Angeles. In the 20th century, the character is a pianist whose husband owns a doll-making factory. In the early 21st century, she's an actor and model housesitting a gleamingly lavish mansion while doing the audition rounds to get noticed. Louis dwells in all three as well, orbiting around her — as a romantic option who isn't afraid of pursuing a married woman in the Belle Époque era just before the Great Flood inundated Paris, then a misogynistic 30-year-old virgin broadcasting his lifted-from-actuality diatribes online in the 2010s just as the La Habra earthquake hits, then a man drawn her way and facing the same haunting feel-or-thrive dilemma that has Gabrielle in a tub.

In The Beast in the Jungle, the tale's namesake is the lurking belief pulsing through James' protagonist that calamity awaits. 1910's Gabrielle has confessed the same concerns. The novel and the film each plunge into a potential self-fulfilling prophecy, then: if we expect doom and gloom, and we base our decisions upon its arrival, do we destine ourselves for it? In response, a seize-the-day message washes through the two iterations of this story; however, the timing that Bonello uses for his triptych's chapters gives The Beast a telling push and pull. One person's catastrophising is another's being prepared — and, as existence today means grappling with the sci-fi dystopian notions of AI and climate change becoming real, the filmmaker, who co-scripts with Benjamin Charbit (Spirit of Ecstasy) and Guillaume Bréaud (Eat the Night), sees that seeming irrationally wary of the possible worst-case scenario doesn't preclude a life-altering disaster from happening.

Bonello doesn't just want to observe The Beast's recurring loops — like dolls, pigeons and telling fortunes as well as 'Evergreen' by Roy Orbison repeat — but to make the emotions that spring, as well as the battle with even having them, seep into his viewers. Not just Seydoux but Mackay are excellent choices to make good on this aim, each gifted at a very particular task: relaying the full swell and swirl of feelings that comprises every variation of Gabrielle and Louis human for better and for worse, and also makes them distinct, while spying the echoes between them in each era. Around his two leads, production design, costume design, hairstyling and makeup are crucial. The film veers from period romance to psychological thriller and then sci-fi horror across its trio of intertwined parts, and every craft choice — Josée Deshaies' (Passages) lingering cinematography included — enforces the distinction. And yet, Seydoux and Mackay could've unleashed their potent performances solely against green backgrounds with the same look throughout and had the same impact.

To watch The Beast is to experience the premonitory unease, and the back-and-forth between the hope of joy and the dread of the unknown, that colours its tales within tales and its hops from genre to genre. This is a film with chaos and change at its core, but that spots the anchors and emotions that remain the same no matter what portrait of life is unfurling. First with android doll Kelly (Saint Omer's Guslagie Malanda, also exceptional), 2044's Gabrielle frequents a hidden-away nightclub where the theme cycles between a specific year night by night. One evening, it's 1972. Another, it's 1980. On yet another, it's 1963. There Bonello goes, finding a way to distill his film down to its essence yet again, as his opening sequence does — because what is navigating being alive and falling in love if not never knowing what any given day or night will bring, regardless of the time or impending ruin, then trying to face that fact? If technology steals that truth away, The Beast posits, our nature is conjure up a way to take solace in it anyway.


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