The Beast: Bertrand Bonello’s most ambitious film to date

Bonello’s first attempt at sci-fi, an overstuffed romantic thriller set across three different eras, is laudable for its sheer narrative scale.

The Beast (2023)Carole Bethuel
  •  Reviewed from the 2023 Venice International Film Festival 

 ‘I would sum up my fear about the future in one word: boring’ JG Ballard once drily remarked, an idea that French director Bertrand Bonello riffs on to mixed effect in his new film The Beast, a dystopian genre-hopping sci-fi cum melodrama.

The film’s central segment (there are three in total) takes place in Paris in 2044 and topically envisions a world in which, following some unspecified catastrophe, AI now reigns over a control society where even the prospect of another catastrophe happening has been banished. Here human emotion is a threat overcome by means of a purification process where the unconscious is cleansed through confronting past lives and traumas, leaving a pacified subject rewarded with fulfilling employment at a time when jobs of any kind are scarce. Bonello’s rendering of this era is counter-intuitive but intriguing – no screens, internet, cars or social media, a world where relationships are disembodied and isolation is the norm.

The past’s lingering impact in the present, hinted at in the purification process, has been a recurrent and resonant Bonello theme, but in terms of narrative scale and conceptual scaffolding The Beast is easily Bonello’s most ambitious film to date, not to mention his first attempt at sci-fi. It’s loosely based on the Henry James novella The Beast in the Jungle about a man whose premonition of some terrible event stalls his life.

Bonello switches the focus of the novella to a female character Gabrielle (Léa Seydoux) whose tragic love affair with Louis (played by the British actor George Mackay, a late replacement for Gaspard Ulliel who died two months before shooting started in a skiing accident) is dwelt on during the purification process and plays out in different variations in the (future) present but principally in 1910 and 2014. Gabrielle’s dilemma during purification amounts to resisting Ballard’s ‘suburbanisation of the soul’ by clinging on to her fear and other emotions, everything that makes her unique and alive, or opting for safety and potentially losing the man she loves.

The long opening section in 1910 takes place mainly in a belle epoque art salon; it’s arguably the most impactful of the film’s three segments despite being essentially just a two-handed conversation, and the only one shot on 35mm to give a soft, sensual feel (it also lifts quite a bit of dialogue from the James novella). The married Gabrielle and Louis meet and are drawn to each other, but she confides her fear of falling in love. We learn that Paris is flooded (a real catastrophic event that year), setting up an unexpected twist to their visit to her husband’s doll factory. (Dolls are one of several recurring motifs, linking to the AI bots in 2044, one of whom is incarnated eerily by Guslagie Malanda, who was so memorable in 2022’s Saint Omer.)

George MacKay and Léa Seydoux in The Beast (2023)Carole Bethuel

The scene-shift to LA in 2014 ushers in the film’s weakest segment; Gabrielle is now a French model/actress struggling to find work and get a social foothold in the city. It starts off reasonably but soon becomes a not particularly well-executed, sub-Lynchian woman-in-peril thriller in which the Louis character, now an incel cliché, feels fundamentally short-changed; it’s hard to believe that the suave suitor refused in 1910 would lead to this.  

Bonello’s films have always been characterised by conceptual and formal boldness, and a desire to scratch away at deep-seated anxieties and neuroses in the likes of Coma (2022) and Nocturama (2016). The Beast is no exception, and Bonello’s unwillingness to spell out connections or join the dots is laudable, but it does occasionally seem as if there are just too many ideas here, giving an air of rarefied fuzziness. Recurring motifs such as dolls, pigeons, a clairvoyant and others can feel inert and somehow muted rather than productively charged.

Fatally there’s a lack of genuine chemistry between the two protagonists, even though both actors give nuanced, committed performances. As The Beast drifts languidly by for well over two hours you can’t help feeling that overall there’s less here than meets the eye, although sterling work on production design and the soundtrack (as ever with Bonello) means it’s never less than watchable. Ultimately there’s a real gut-punch of an ending thanks to the sheer jolting force of passion mustered by Seydoux (followed by something altogether unique pre-credits), a fitting way to round off a film so preoccupied with disconnection and the waning of affect; but by then this viewer’s own emotional engagement with the characters and material had long gone missing in those acres of time and space.