Bertrand Bonello has proven to be one of France’s most interesting, unconventional and sometimes idiosyncratic directors. He shocked the film world with Nocturama and Saint Laurent, his movies are often challenging, frustrating and unnerving. His latest feature, The Beast, world premiering in competition at the 2023 Venice Film Festival, is no exception.
Very loosely based on Henry James’s novella “The Beast in the Jungle,” the film starts with Gabrielle (Léa Seydoux), a French woman in 2044, who decides to undergo a procedure in a desolated Paris to have her emotions removed. In the future imagined by the film, emotions are seen as a threat, as they impede employment to anyone who seeks it: with the rise of AI, unemployment is at a staggering 67%. When the test starts, the ‘purifying’ machine sends Gabrielle back to her previous lives. In one of them, she’s a married woman in 1910, and she meets a young English gentleman, Louis (George MacKay), at a party. She’s told that this is not their first meeting, that they met a few years before, and that she told him that she felt constantly threatened by a looming disaster. Despite no recollection of such memory, a sort of romance develops between Gabrielle and Louis, one that is put to the test by a number of circumstances that often involve the presence of a bird. Louis and Gabrielle seem to be bound to be attracted to each other: in 2014, Gabrielle is a model that lives in Los Angeles while Louis is a 30-something perennially frustrated by the lack of attention he gets from girls; in 2044, Gabrielle meets Louis in Paris, as they both seek to have their emotions removed. Each and every time, fate seems to bring these two young people together only to try and separate them at the moment of truth.
The Beast is a very difficult film to describe. Is it sci-fi? Is it a romance? Is it a mystery? Is it a drama? It’s all these things together and none of them at the same time. It is moving and alienating, intellectual and visceral, it is challenging and confusing but it’s undeniably a human story. It’s very much a Bertrand Bonello film, unconventional and confrontational, and yet one could find inspirations from other works (Last Year at Marienbad, and a last act that almost goes into Lynch territory). It is an exploration of human nature that asks the viewer more questions than it answers. In fact, it requires a certain predisposition to question one’s own beliefs, as its inquiries are often uncomfortable. One of them is: what makes us human? One of the most obvious answers is being able to process emotions. So what happens when emotions become a barrier? Can we get rid of them? And if we could, what would we do? Gabrielle is essentially imposed to undergo the ‘purification’ procedure because the society of the future is dominated by artificial intelligence. Emotions are often connected to memory, and memory is part of our identity. Are we ready to give that up? Gabrielle sees what happens to the people who were successfully purified: they are like dolls, whose softened emotions make them more serene but much less authentic. In a way, the purification feels more like a lobotomy than anything else.
Gabrielle and Louis’s relationship feels special because the world around them seems to conspire against them. Their romance is almost mythological, as they have to fight prophecies of doom and natural disasters, birds of bad omen and a looming sense of tragedy. Their souls are like magnets that chase each other down through multiple lives, and the movie portrays their relationships with a sort of Russian-doll structure that leaves the viewer’s beliefs constantly challenged. In this sense, Bonello’s direction is faultless: he makes the concept of the film quite clear without making it obvious, and at the same time he makes it obscure and mysterious enough to warrant multiple viewings. The Beast is a film that requires and rewards rewatches because it’s brilliantly dense and multi-layered.
Much of the credit, though, has to go to the two actors who make Gabrielle and Louis two characters to root for. The chemistry between Lea Seydoux and George MacKay (who replaced the late Gaspard Ulliel in the role and learned French for it) is off the charts, and their relationship through three different lives is moving, touching and upsetting at the same time. The Beast wouldn’t work as well as it does if it wasn’t for them: despite a tentacular direction, they give the movie its heart and make the one between Gabrielle and Louis a romance for the ages.
This review is from the 2023 Venice Film Festival.