Compelling evidence that every major arthouse director should be required to make their own “Cloud Atlas” before they die, Bertrand Bonello’s sweeping, romantic, and ravishingly strange “The Beast” finds the French director broadening — and in some cases challenging — the core obsessions of his previous films into a sci-fi epic about the fear of falling in love.
Split into three lightly intercut parts that trace the connection between two star-crossed souls (embodied by Léa Seydoux and George MacKay) from 1910 to 2044, Bonello’s latest and most accessible movie begins by literalizing the same basic premise that has undergirded previous work like “House of Tolerance” and “Zombi Child”: The past is always present (a dialectic explored here with the help of a machine that encourages people to purify their DNA by purging themselves of any emotion left over from their past lives).
The genre elements at play here allow Bonello to take for granted what his earlier films had to earn, and “The Beast” makes the most of that head start by knotting its overlapping temporalities into a story that’s suspended between the baggage we have from yesterday and the anxiety we have for tomorrow. As its title might imply, “The Beast” is a fairy tale of sorts — one whose moral instructs us to live in the moment, lest we not live at all.
But the film’s true power stems from and speaks to our specifically present condition as people beset on all sides by the fears of our own imagination. By the trauma of something that already happened, or the terror of something that might. In the grand tradition of the dystopian stories that inspired it, “The Beast” is a cautionary spectacle about what happens to a world in which people become so afraid of rejection that they eliminate any possibility of love; a world that so thoroughly inures itself to the threat of oblivion that everyone living in it might as well be dead already.
Freely associated from Henry James’ 1903 novella, “The Beast in the Jungle,” about a man whose fear of a future catastrophe becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, Bonello’s film begins with an indelibly modern image of isolation: Léa Seydoux acting in front of a green screen as a man’s voice shouts direction at her from off-camera. She appears to be auditioning for a horror film in which all of the sets, props, and other characters will be added in post. Her only job is to react in fright to a threat that isn’t really there. It’s a strange thing to watch, this parody(?) of contemporary filmmaking, but in some ways the process of making movies has never more accurately reflected our lived reality.
From there, “The Beast” whisks us back in time to turn-of-the-century Paris for its first proper segment, in which a married woman named Gabrielle (Seydoux) falls in love with a man named Louis (MacKay), who owns a factory that manufactures dolls made out of celluloid. She tells him that she’s due to befall some awful tragedy in the future, and he swears to protect Gabrielle from “the beast” that walks beside her.
More than 100 years later, after AI has averted nuclear armageddon and inflated the unemployment rate up to 67%, a reincarnated Gabrielle will have to cleanse her mind in order to land one of the few jobs still available (“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” is another unavoidable reference point). That process, facilitated by a pool of black goo and supervised by a humanoid doll played by “Saint Omer” standout Guslagie Malanda, will involve reliving the crisis she predicted to Louis, and then meeting him again in 2014 (the longest and most Bonello-like section of the movie), when she was an aspiring French actress in Hollywood and he was — deep breath — incel mass-murderer Elliot Rodger.
MacKay’s version of the character goes by a different name, but his manifesto is borrowed from Rodger as faithfully as the dialogue in the film’s opening section is borrowed from James. Erupting from the middle of Bonello’s characteristically opaque screenplay like a giant zit that takes over your entire face, the garish and unbearably suspenseful 2014 chapter is a major swerve for a movie that’s been alternating between staid period drama and ultra-minimalistic sci-fi until that point, but watching Louis stalk Gabrielle around the glass mansion she’s house-sitting is what ultimately galvanizes the various parts of “The Beast” into a single coherent animal.
Which isn’t to suggest the other sections don’t have their own parts to play. Bonello fans might find the 1910 plot — characteristically airless though it is — as shocking for its conservatism as the 2014 one is for its extremity. But if this chapter of “The Beast” could be confused for a Merchant-Ivory film at a distance, the looming threat of Gabrielle’s crisis adds an ineffable uneasiness to every scene. Beautifully rendered in what establishes itself as Bonello’s most lavish production to date, the Paris floods don’t seem to fulfill Gabrielle’s prophecy at first, but she lacks the foresight to understand the film’s ongoing relationship between personal and national catastrophes, or the role that catastrophes of any kind will come to play in a story that imagines the end of catastrophes to be the most dire outcome of all.
MacKay and Seydoux have a natural frisson together whatever the era, one sparked from the fact that he’s always changing, and she never does. Bonello recognizes that Seydoux’s beauty is too immense to be mutable, and so he makes her the one constant in a film that’s constantly redrawing the distance between people and their fears. Thanks to the future goo and all that, Gabrielle is the only character afforded a linear emotional trajectory, and she learns to be more vulnerable and present with every subsequent incarnation.
In 2014, that expresses itself through the eyes of an actress whose job requires her to risk rejection, and whose curiosity invites her to engage with the sociopath who sees her as a living symbol of everything he can’t have. Bonello takes a palpable degree of pleasure in the hyper-Lynchian affect of the LA scenes, which feel half-lodged in “Mulholland Drive” even as they force our attention towards psychics, dolls, and the various other motifs that exist to put the different parts of “The Beast” in conversation with each other (as opposed to with other movies).
In 2044, Gabrielle’s desire to feel is presented as a quiet rebellion against a lo-fi dystopia where everyone dresses in drab colors and only knows how to have simulated fun. At all times, that desire proves isolating, and “The Beast” is never more affecting than when it imagines the profound loneliness of being a vulnerable person in a world that’s scared of its own shadow.
MacKay is just as compelling for his malleability as Seydoux is for her stasis. A dashing gentleman in one section, a terrifyingly Reddit-pilled sociopath in the next, and a perfect innocent in the one after that, he seamlessly transforms from a victim of Gabrielle’s trepidation and into a monster created by it. “The Beast” doesn’t suggest that women are responsible for the Louis of 2014 wanting to kill them, but it does lament the danger of unexpressed feelings, and how fatally implosive it can be for someone to be convinced that they “cannot be moved” (as Louis puts it in a YouTube video he records from his car while parked outside of Gabrielle’s window).
Bonello, whose films are often more interested in negotiating the semiotics of emotion than provoking it, might seem like a strange messenger for a story so nakedly focused on the value of raw feeling. By the same token, a filmmaker who continues to be fascinated by the interplay between past and present might seem like a strange messenger for a story that so urgently tries to impart that now is all we have.
But “The Beast” is so affecting because it never deludes itself into thinking the past doesn’t matter; Bonello couldn’t possibly convince us of that at this point. On the contrary, “The Beast” stretches across time and space to rescue the beauty from old traumas and unrealized anxieties before it’s too late — to make our lives more expansive by confronting the very things that scare us into shrinking them down, and sing of all that’s “Evergreen.” And, in its dying seconds, the film stands by the courage of its convictions by forcing us to feel something, too. Don’t be afraid to admit it.
“The Beast” premiered in Competition at the 2023 Venice Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.