The Beast review – Léa Seydoux’s audacious drama throbs with fear

Estimated read time 4 min read

Bertrand Bonello’s new film is a vast unsettling dream of the future and the past; it stars Léa Seydoux, whose poise, creamy moue of discontent and gorgeous fashion sense are all part of the film’s enigma. The Beast is audacious and traumatisingly sexual, maybe Bonello’s best movie yet (and I have been agnostic about his work). It’s rich, strange, with a chilly indifference to your viewing comfort and a tremor of imminent disaster.

It is a film about the shock of the new, the realisation that technology is on the point of modifying and even abolishing humanity without our consent; it invites us to test our thumb on the cutting edge of modernity and draw blood. Director and co-writer Bonello has been loosely inspired by Henry James’s story The Beast in the Jungle from 1903 about a man paralysed by his neurotic conviction that something awful is about to happen to him, a beast invisibly crouched in the jungle of the future. But Bonello finds something exciting and erotic in this inscrutable danger, as well as in the mysterious feeling that the past and the future are equally unknowable, and equally tantalising in their promise of revelation. And his film insists that there is nothing necessarily absurd in this fear, or meaningless in our wait: perhaps in this era of the climate crisis, a stricken inactive waiting is what we have been reduced to.

The resulting movie is Jamesian only in a very indirect sense. The world of this movie is perhaps closer to the brave new one of Huxley or the drowned one of Ballard, with something of Douglas Coupland’s affectless bemusement in the face of all that the future is going to subtract from human feeling. In movie terms, Bonello riffs a little on Lynch’s Mulholland Drive and Haneke’s Funny Games – and I suspect his giant tripartite structure of past, present and future may have been inspired by Jia Zhangke’s futurist parable Mountains May Depart. The Beast is set in three eras in which our hero and heroine are reincarnated – or exist in parallel realities.

In 2044, Seydoux plays Gabrielle, a young woman who is thinking of undergoing a new procedure to “purify” her DNA and excise her unhappiness. She meets a young man called Louis (played by George MacKay, becoming more impressive and mature in every successive role) who shares her nervousness about whether this is really a good idea. In 2014, Seydoux is Gabrielle, a model and actor auditioning for roles in which greenscreen technology makes her acting abilities less important, and housesitting in LA just before the earthquake; MacKay plays Louis, a sinister “incel” and 30-year-old virgin, vlogging his misogyny and stalking Gabrielle. And in belle époque Paris just before the Great Flood of 1910, Gabrielle is a brilliant pianist, much celebrated in polite society, who is unsettled by the modernist tonal forms of Schönberg, and by a chance meeting with Louis, a handsome, attentive admirer who reminds her that she once intimately confessed to him her fear of the beast.

Gabrielle’s husband in this earliest section is incidentally a wealthy manufacturer of dolls, whose uncanny, blank expressions fascinate Bonello: are human faces simply notionally expressive versions of these dead masks? Seydoux herself in one scene demonstrates how her face can go completely expressionless: she holds her “resting neutral humanoid” expression long enough for it to be very disturbing. The doll faces are perhaps like the revolutionaries’ masks in Bonello’s Nocturama.

There are some sensational setpieces here, especially in the Parisian section of the past, in which the chemistry between Louis and Gabrielle is at its most transgressive: Gabrielle is married in this era, not in the others. When the flood arrives, it appears to trap the two of them in the doll factory and their only chance of escape is to swim out of the submerged back entrance – a very surreal, unbearably tense sequence. There is a very charismatic small role in the 2044 section from Guslagie Malanda (from Alice Diop’s Saint Omer) as “Poupée Kelly” who befriends Gabrielle, despite Gabrielle finding her rather scary.

The Beast may not add up to a cogent or thoroughgoing critique of all the ideas it invokes, but it’s such a luxurious cinematic experience; it’s created with such elan and attack, and the musical score amplifies its throb of fear.


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