The Beast

Bertrand Bonello’s latest film is loosely – very loosely – adapted from Henry James’s novella The Beast in the Jungle. His update is gender-swapped (the person fearing an unknown catastrophe is not John Marcher but Gabrielle Monnier, played by Léa Seydoux at the extremes of emotionally composed and exposed), and James’s central tragedy of life slipping away in worry instead plays out across three timelines: the artistic salons of Paris before the 1910 floods; the Los Angeles acting, modelling, and web streaming scenes of 2014; and finally a 2044 AI-run future where humans can purify their DNA from their past lives, arriving at ultimate serenity. In all three worlds, Gabrielle and a man named Louis (George Mackay) meet – sometimes as lovers, sometimes as acquaintances, sometimes as hunter and hunted. And in all three worlds, Gabrielle is convinced there is something – someone – just around the corner to destroy her life.

THE BEAST lives up to the title with regards to the watching experience. The film is frequently aurally unpleasant and emotionally bruising, making it challenging and confronting to watch. Some tricks of the lens and film convey movement in unexpected, uncanny ways. Conversations about Madama Butterfly, Giacomo Puccini’s 1904 operatic tragedy of ultimate loss, recur throughout the timelines (though the Gabrielle and Louis of 1910 must have been at the disastrous premiere to have commented on seeing it six years previously). Repeated motifs – pigeons, fortune tellers, and even costume items – convey this connection, though their meanings sometimes feel frustratingly lost or fragmented.

The most exciting and thought-provoking section is the 2014 one, with direct parallels to (and inspiration taken from) Elliot Rodger’s’ murder spree in Isla Vista; Bonello stays just the right side of exploitation, instead focusing on the horrors of American self-improvement culture (none more horrifying than the suggestion that Seydoux’s Gabrielle needs cosmetic surgery to get jobs) and the impossible promises its young people, especially men, feel entitled to.

Seydoux anchors the multi-strand timelines and primal fear chasing Gabrielle through all of them, with every instinctual thought and rational counterpoint etched across her face. Mackay is particularly impressive in two languages and three nationalities, bringing the volatile fragility that makes him so compelling in TRUE HISTORY OF THE KELLY GANG and FEMME to the illicit love affairs, incel rages, and ultimate resignation of three lost souls. In a small 2044 role, SAINT OMER’s Guslagie Malanda offers both a look at humanity’s future that sways between lifeline and death knell, depending on the angle.

Audacious in the extreme, THE BEAST delivers nothing new on each premise, but its combination is bold and stylish. The film does not rise above its shock value in commenting on society, but Seydoux and Mackay are in magnificent form. Regardless of one’s view of or connection to the preceding two hours, its ending sequence reframes the previous events before shattering this understanding in a viscerally upsetting way.