The Beast

The Beast

2024, R, 146 min. Directed by Bertrand Bonello. Starring Léa Seydoux, George MacKay, Martin Scali, Guslagie Malanda.

REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., April 26, 2024

In a heavily rewritten and gender-swapped adaptation of Henry James’ 1903 novella “The Beast in the Jungle,” Léa Seydoux plays Gabrielle. Or rather, several Gabrielles. Or rather, Gabrielle in different lives across 130 years. And in every single one, she’s miserable.

It’s 2041, and technology has found a solution to the psychological burden of reincarnation. Purge old trauma, purge old emotions, get a better job. Assisted by a robotic dream doula (Malanda), Gabriella drops back a century or so to work through some of that angst and get over the man (MacKay) who has been her woulda, shoulda, coulda across lifetimes: first, with MacKay as a bloodless but doting lover whose adoration is blocked by Gabriella’s marriage to doll manufacturer Georges (Scali), then in 2014 L.A., with MacKay as a sulky incel who quotes real-life misogynist spree killer Elliot Rodger.

In one of those odd happenstances of cinema, The Beast shares those themes of processing romantic trauma through temporal displacement with Alice Lowe’s Monty Python-esque Timestalker: but La bête lacks its pithiness and humanity. In part, that’s deliberate: Writer/director Bertrand Bonello (Saint Laurent) and coscripters Guillaume Bréaud and Benjamin Charbit are dealing with deliberate alienation and self-inflicted isolation. Indeed, the only time 1910 Gabrielle shows outright emotion is when a pigeon bursts into her bedroom. There’s also the conceit that this is all a digital construct, constructed much like how David Cronenberg created his in-game world for his innovative VR meditation, eXistenZ: Its artificiality is in its limits, not in some visual gimmicks. But Bonello doesn’t always seem to know where his own fourth wall is. The NPCs in Gabrielle’s little time-hopping experiment seem to have a life even when she’s out of the room (at one point, the camera lingers on poor Georges after the door has closed, a moment that weakens the idea that this is all supposed to be from her perspective. When the 2014 version of MacKay starts narrating videos to his own camera, it really feels like Bonello forgets what his own conceit is.

Moreover, the overall effect of the first hour – set mostly in 1910, so Bonello can take narrative advantage of the great flood of Paris – is less like watching two people in a bygone era and more like watching a film informed by watching Merchant Ivory period pieces. Seydoux and MacKay can occasionally break through the stilted mood, but even in the middle of a literal factory fire there’s little heat. Then the transition from 1910 to 2014 is like switching channels from The Remains of the Day to The Neon Demon, disjointed both tonally and thematically. Even half-hearted metaphors about dolls, fortune tellers, and natural disasters cannot provide the connective tissue needed to either bind the story together, or to drag the audience through the tedious length. It’s not an issue that Bonello abandoned most of James’ text and subtext – even more than Abigail fled in seeming fear from its supposed roots as a remake of Dracula’s Daughter. But he comes nowhere near achieving anything as insightful in two and a half hours that James manages in 30 pages.

Bonello’s most intriguing point is the one he glosses over most quickly: how much people are required to leave their emotions at the door at work. It’s 2041 Gabrielle’s proclaimed motivation, that she wants the kind of job from which having feelings has disqualified her. That’s an inversion of James’ point, with his protagonist finally realizing that he wasted his life by a lack of emotional interaction. Gabrielle yearns for that insular life. In James’ book, that isolation is the titular beast from which his passive protagonist flees. Instead, as with her turn as Beauty in Christophe Gans’ 2016 version of Beauty and the Beast, she seems to be embracing the horror.

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READ MORE
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KEYWORDS FOR THIS FILM

The Beast, Bertrand Bonello, Léa Seydoux, George MacKay, Martin Scali, Guslagie Malanda

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