The Beast – movie review

In these days of endless sequels, prequels, re-boots and re-imaginings, it often feels odd to encounter something out of left field. But you can always trust French cinema to deliver something out of the ordinary – and director Bertrand Bonello delivers just that with The Beast.

Bonello and his screenwriting partners Guillaume Bréaud and Benjamin Charbit have done a bit of time traveling with the script, adapting Henry James’ 1903 novella The Beast in the Jungle for the screen. Given the film’s fractured time frames, that seems appropriate. But James’ source material will be scarcely recognisable in this wildly inventive but dense sci-fi thriller.

As mentioned, The Beast takes place over several time periods. The two main “block” sequences set in 1910 and 2014 respectively. The third main section is set in 2044, and it weaves in and out of the others. Just for good measure, Bonello incorporates minor diversions to 1972, 1990 and 1963. In the 2044 section, Gabrielle Monnier (Léa Seydoux) is a woman dissatisfied with her life. She wants to work but jobs have largely dried up (the film doesn’t explain why, but hints it might be due to AI). She’s looking for more fulfillment; a sense of purpose. In a grey office, an unseen voice suggests she might like to consider DNA cleansing. The process won’t make her feelings go away, but it will make them easier to deal with. Although reluctant, Gabrielle eventually agrees. The DNA cleansing process takes her back to past lives. Those lives see Gabrielle intersecting with previous versions of her 2044 partner Louis Lewanski (George MacKay).

Both Gabrielle and Louis exist in each time frame. In 1910 Paris, she’s a the wife of a wealthy factory owner and he’s a handsome charmer. In 2014, she’s an actress/model in Los Angeles while he’s a dangerous incel. In 2044, Louis has become Gabrielle’s companion and he shares her sense of frustration. The key initiating event occurs in the 1910 section. Having spied Gabrielle at a salon, Louis approaches her. He says they met several years earlier in Italy. He remembers it because she told an unnerving story about being haunted by an overwhelming sense of dread. Gabrielle is convinced some catastrophe will befall her, but she doesn’t know what it is or when it will happen. Her dread is the “beast” of the title. Following her past lives, the film unveils the two catastrophes Gabrielle has been dreading. But in 2044, an arguably worse fate awaits.

The Beast contains obvious nods to the king of weird, David Lynch (even some Mulholland Drive-style red drapes are thrown in for good measure). But Bonello also goes back further, with the film having echoes of Jean-Luc Godard’s disturbing dystopian vision Alphaville (1965). As you might have guessed, the film bears little resemblance to James’ novella since the key events in the film all take place after it was written. The script also flips the gender roles of the two protagonists. But while the story really swings for the fences with some big ideas and bold themes, it felt a bit bogged down at times, particularly in the fragmented 2044 sections. The final revelation also isn’t all that clear and might need some thinking about before it makes sense.

The film looks fantastic, thanks to Bonello’s eye, some fantastic production design by Katia Wyszkop and cinematography by Josée Deshaies. They create some remarkable moments: particularly the ethereal final scene in the 1910 segment; and the intensely disturbing climax of the 2014 chapter.

This is another film that has a long cast list, but really revolves around only two characters. George MacKay (1917) maybe isn’t the first name you’d expect to see in a French film, but he does a great job with the many faces of Louis. He is however perhaps most convincing as the angry young man in the 2014 section (which is mainly in English). But as good as MacKay is, he’s overshadowed by a (reliably) brilliant performance from Léa Seydoux (Dune: Part Two). She owns every scene she’s in (which is just about all of them) and is never less than compelling. Beside the two leads, the rest of the cast struggle for attention, though Guslagie Malanda (Saint Omer) is creepily good as robot-doll Poupée Kelly in the 2044 segment, and Dasha Nekrasova (Succession) brings an easy charm to Gabrielle’s friend Dakota in 2014.

The Beast is perhaps a select film for a select audience. Its deeply philosophical bent and deliberate pacing will be an acquired taste. But in the current post-Oscars, post-writers’ strike cinema landscape, it’s one of the most interesting things going.

David Edwards

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