“I made a mistake setting the film in 2044”: Bertrand Bonello on his three-era dystopian romance The Beast

Disaster and dystopian technology haunt The Beast, starring Léa Seydoux and George MacKay as ill-fated lovers in three versions of the past and future. Bertrand Bonello tells us about his Lynchian, Henry James-inspired vision.

The Beast (2023)Carole Bethuel

Now a quarter century into a career defined by an interest in present day manifestations of the past, French director Bertrand Bonello looks to the future in The Beast, his most ambitious work to date. Inspired by Henry James’s 1903 novella The Beast in the Jungle, about a man haunted by visions of an impending disaster, the film follows ill-fated lovers Gabrielle (Léa Seydoux) and Louis (George MacKay) in various incarnations in 1910, 2014 and 2044. In the latter section, set in a dystopian France overtaken by AI, Gabrielle is forced to purify her DNA in order to better compete for a job, a process that requires her to relive her past lives.

As it moves from the future to Belle Époque Paris – where the couple strike up a clandestine romance on the eve of the Great Flood – to a nightmarish vision of contemporary Los Angeles in which an incel version of Louis is stalking Gabrielle, now an aspiring actor, the film presents its protagonist’s memories as a slipstream of repressed traumas. Building on the technophobic anxieties and sense of loneliness and isolation that permeated his previous feature, the pandemic production Coma (2022), Bonello here summons similar fears through the sobering truth that the future is here, and that it’s anything but a balm for the past.

Around its world premiere at last year’s Venice Film Festival, Bonello and I spoke about mixing genres, shooting in Los Angeles, and how fear and love make for strangely cinematic bedfellows.

Bertrand BonelloCarole Bethuel

The Beast deals with a lot of disparate ideas and themes, some of which you explored in Coma. When and how did you begin conceptualising the new film?

For me it was a mix of many desires, the first being a desire to make a melodrama. That’s what led me to The Beast in the Jungle, which for me is one of the most heartbreaking, beautiful and tragic melodramatic novels.

Another desire was to mix genres. One of the ideas in the novel is that love is fear. I wanted to go further into that fear by adding some other sections, such as a slasher tale in a more contemporary setting, and then a futuristic story, where you have this horrible dilemma of having to choose between being able to love and being able to work.

Lastly, I wanted to make a film with a female lead, which I had never done before. I started writing the film about five years ago, and at one point it began to feel like a miniseries. It took me a long time to find the right form.

It was also delayed at one point due to the pandemic, which is when I made Coma. So yes, because of this there is a relationship between the two films. There are some ideas in The Beast that I was first able to try out in Coma, which, among other things, taught me that it requires a lot of work to make a truly free movie, one that goes from one universe to another, one period to another, one texture to another.

What made you finally want to make a film about the future?

It’s the future, but it’s also the present. It’s tomorrow. I think I made a mistake setting the film in 2044. It should probably be 2027. I didn’t realise when I started writing the script that the AI themes would be so contemporary. I liked the idea of trying science fiction for the first time, but a science fiction that’s almost familiar. Sci-fi is usually either hyper-technological or post-apocalyptic. I wanted to find another way. This is mostly just the world as we know it, except that behaviour has changed.

Can you talk about the idea of expanding the novel into a film set in three eras?

One of the reasons the film begins with the party in 1910 is because that scene establishes all the concepts in the film right away. That scene is the closest to the book; all the dialogue comes from it. Having set up all these themes allows them to naturally permeate the other stories, but the changes in time periods also impact those themes. We can say that in the 1910 section Gabrielle has a fear of love, but in 2014 it’s Louis who has that fear, which he expresses a different way, by repressing something and not saying it. And in 2044 Gabrielle understands that fear, but it’s too late.

The Beast (2023)Carole Bethuel

At what point did you decide to set the contemporary portion of the film in Los Angeles?

It came from the Louis character’s story in that section, and the videos he shoots while stalking Gabrielle. I won’t say that we don’t have incels in France, but these kind of videos, at least for me, do not work in French. It’s a very American phenomenon, like only America could create this character, which is in fact based on the American mass murderer Elliot Rodger. So for me this part of the film had to be set in LA.

When did you learn about Elliot Rodger?

I saw all the videos when it happened, and I immediately wrote his name down in my notebook, where I keep ideas for possible projects. What interested me wasn’t the fact that he killed some girls, but the videos, and the words he’s using. For example, if I had written the character’s dialogue myself, instead of taking it from Rodger’s videos, it would have been crazier and more evil. What’s scary about his words is that they’re so calm, so normal.

Those scenes almost have a Lynchian quality to them.

It’s funny you say that: there was a screening of the film in a Paris a few days ago, and someone told me that in one of Louis’ videos you can see David Lynch’s house in the background. I don’t know if that’s true, but maybe there’s a connection there. As a French person shooting in LA, you can’t help but see so many images from cinema history coming up inside you. It’s mythological.

The two films I did watch before shooting were The Age of Innocence (1993) and When a Stranger Calls (1979). The period connection with The Age of Innocence is probably obvious, but When a Stranger Calls was useful to get some ideas for the 2014 section in terms of how to stage scenes with a girl alone in a house, and how to use objects, like the phone, or sounds, to build tension. Of course, there’s also techniques taken from all sorts of slasher films, from Halloween (1978) to Scream (1996), but When a Stranger Calls was of particular use. I really love that film.

How did you come to the idea of using the Great Flood as the first of the film’s catastrophes?

My idea for the film was that each section would have an intimate catastrophe and a collective catastrophe. I chose the flood for the first collective catastrophe because of the images and footage of it that survives, and the feelings they evoke. I use some of that archival material in the film. But I also liked the year 1910 because it’s a moment where everyone thought we were entering a century of peace and progress, and the 20th century has been terrible. 1910 is a luminous moment; four years later Europe sunk into a dark tunnel of war.

The Beast (2023)

When I saw the film in Venice it had a QR code in place of the credits, which I thought might be a temporary thing, but I’ve heard that’s how it’s continued to show?

Yes, it’s definitive. If you scan the code there’s an eight-minute credit sequence, as well as one cut scene. For me a credit sequence is part of a film, so I thought it would be perfect – since things end with Gabrielle crying and Louis showing no emotion – to conclude the film with something equally emotionless: a QR code. It somehow becomes even more lonely for the viewer in that moment.

The Beast is in cinemas from 31 May 2024.

It plays at BFI Southbank from 7 June and first screened to UK audiences at the 67th BFI London Film Festival.