The Beast

There’s always a risk when making a film as wide-ranging as The Beast, an intentionally strange and melodramatic film about the most common of human emotions. A magnum opus about the constant battle between love and fear. One watches Bertrand Bonello’s latest and is reminded of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia, the Wachowskis’ Cloud Atlas, or David Lynch’s Inland Empire – ambitious, unwieldy, and vulnerable to claims of pretension and bloat. These kinds of films are so seldom properly appreciated in their time, often because they lay bare thoughts we hope to hide away, but also because they can be so baffling in their boldness. The Beast is a romantic film that can feel like a thriller; a science fiction premise that pops with humor and affection. One can wait to find out what it all means, or one can luxuriate in all it has to present.

The film stars Léa Seydoux, an actor who excels outside of narrative boundary. Her striking beauty makes her ideal for daunting ice queen roles, which Hollywood has been more than happy to cast her in. She’s lately expanded her range to include earthier, more sentimental characters, particularly in Mia Hanson-Løve’s quaint One Fine Morning and David Cronenberg’s sweeter-than-you-expect body horror Crimes of the Future. Bonello uses this range to his advantage, casting her as Gabrielle, a woman living in 2044 who considers purifying her DNA. The process allows her to explore her past lives, relive past traumas, and stunt her emotional reactions. In a ravaged world, emotions are a liability, and the purification process helps people process their new dystopia. As she lays in a shallow pool of nondescript gel, a robotic arm sticks into her ear and she’s transported back.

In 1910, Gabrielle is a high society woman living in Paris, married to a man named Georges (Martin Scali) that she respects more than she loves. At a gathering, she meets Louis (George MacKay), an Englishman who explains they’ve met before. Gabrielle had told him her big secret, Louis explains, but she has no recollection of their meeting. As they get further acquainted, Gabrielle begins to fear that her feelings for Louis will ruin her marriage. Flash forward to 2014, where Gabrielle has only recently moved to Los Angeles to find work as a model. Instead, she housesits in the Hollywood hills and spends most of her days and nights on her laptop trying to place an anxiety that lingers over her every moment. Louis exists here as well, but in 2014 he’s an angry YouTuber and an incel “activist”, making disturbing videos about enacting violence on the women who theoretically reject him. His latest target is Gabrielle.

Back in 2044, the effects of the purification are lost on Gabrielle, who can’t seem to shake her multiple interactions with Louis, her complicated lover across timelines. In 1910, Gabrielle is a doll maker. In 2014, she owns a doll that speaks nonsense at her, like Bratz meets Big Mouth Billy Bass. In 2044, she has Kelly (Guslagie Malanda), a full sized motorized companion to help her cope with her purification. When Kelly and Gabrielle go to a club that celebrates Twentieth Century music, they see Louis, a man she now knows from her past lives. He offers an opportunity to pierce through this blank slate existence, but he’s also a threat to undo the fragile stability that this modern society has built. Can she finally have the love she’s waited over a century for? Or will history repeat itself?

These kinds of heady questions are the meat of The Beast, which runs its plots both parallel and elliptically. The different periods are stark in tone. 1910 is the lush, forbidden romance of Edith Wharton and Henry James; 2014 is ironic A24 horror; and 2044 is disaffected and morose, the bitterness of modernity run amok. There’s matching imagery – a foreboding pigeon, an extra long knife on a table – that confounds as much as it connects. The Beast shrouds itself under layers of symbolism that are hard to parse, but Bonello is smart enough to keep you close enough to the story and its characters. At nearly two hours and thirty minutes, there’s pressure on the film’s conclusion, which is equal parts triumph and tragedy, a culmination of its intellectual inquisitions and a declarative statement on how emotionally neutered contemporary society has become.

Seydoux’s reputation for sensuality and fearlessness sometimes overshadows the fact that she’s a genuinely talented actor. Especially in her North American films, she’s seldom casted in roles that aren’t centered on her beauty. Bonello uses Seydoux to perfect effect here, capitalizing on her indefinability. Seydoux’s performance over different timelines and languages (you would never guess watching this movie that she’s not a confident English speaker in real life) is easily the best work she’s ever done. Committing fully to Bonello’s bold and undisciplined vision, Seydoux gives a performance of stunning bravura, crafting a sincere dramatic portrait while also showing a gift for comedic timing that isn’t always readily apparent. That she makes it all look so easy might lend a clue as to why she isn’t more appropriately commended.

Across from her, George MacKay’s Louis is an unsettling wild card. As debonair as he is in the 1910 segment, his angry young man in the 2014 segment is scarily relevant. Like Seydoux, MacKay flips effortlessly between French and English, a choice that both pays credence to the two actors’ abilities, but also adds to the film’s unplaceable surreality. An actor known mostly as the lead in Sam Mendes’s 1917The Beast is an entirely different type of showcase, highlighting the young actor’s vulnerability and curiosity. Together, they perform a phenomenal dance, a portrait of romance doomed by wider society and conditionalized terror. The Beast is an ode to courage and generosity in an age of isolation and greed, a treatise against the self-imposed prisons we build under the rouse of protection. It’s possible that this film may just be artsy-fartsy bullshit, but it’s the kind of artsy-fartsy bullshit that I can get behind.


Written for the Screen and Directed by Bertrand Bonello