TIFF 2023 | The Beast (Bertrand Bonello, France/Canada) — Special Presentations

By Jordan Cronk

With his tenth fiction feature, The Beast, French director Bertrand Bonello parlays his longstanding interest in the reverberations of history into a stark vision of the future. Starring Léa Seydoux and George MacKay as doomed lovers Gabrielle and Louis, the film follows the couple in multiple incarnations across the three distinct time periods: 1910, 2014, and 2044. Taking off from the central premise of Henry James’ 1903 novella The Beast in the Jungle, about a man haunted by a premonition of some catastrophic event, Bonello flips his protagonist’s gender and places Gabrielle in a recurring nightmare in which she is forced to relive her past lives in order to purify her DNA and thus compete for a job in a dystopian future where AI has usurped human labor. 

Lying in a pool of black goo, Gabrielle revisits these earlier moments through a series of overlapping flashbacks (and with the help of a replicant played by Guslagie Malanda, from last year’s Saint Omer). In the first, set in Belle Époque-era Paris on the eve of the Great Flood, Gabrielle and Louis strike up a romance at a lavish countryside ball, after which they begin to secretly convene despite the former’s apprehension—a feeling that comes to fateful fruition when the two tour the doll factory where Gabrielle’s husband works. No such star-crossed courtship awaits one hundred years later, when Gabrielle, now an aspiring actress living in Los Angeles, is being stalked by an incel version of Louis, frighteningly modeled on 22-year-old mass murderer Elliot Rodger. In this section, the longest, strangest, and most captivating of the three, Bonello fashions a technophobic thriller from the cinematic unconscious: Lynchian sequences of dreamily depopulated streets a la Mulholland Dr. (2001); a soul-shaking Hollywood Hills earthquake reminiscent of Short Cuts (1993); an evil, A.I. Artificial Intelligence-like (2001) talking teddy bear; and actual excerpts from Trash Humpers (2009) all coalesce into a portrait of the plugged-in present several times more surreal than even the domestic online nightmare conjured in the director’s previous feature, Coma (2022).

As a kind of grand tour of Bonello’s filmography and the many themes, styles, and preoccupations that have defined his career, The Beast is a tour de force on par with any of the filmmaker’s prior efforts; as an inquiry into undying love and obsession, it’s something else entirely: a genre film of rare passion, one as intimate as it is ambitious. In the press notes for the film, Bonello writes that the reason he wanted to use melodrama as a vehicle to “confront love” is because, for him, “romance and genre seem to respond to each other.” In The Beast, not only do they respond to one another, they roil and ricochet in recurrent patterns across a vast spectrum of personal and creative histories. (One should remember that the director originally conceived the project alongside Gaspard Ulliel, star of his 2011 feature Saint Laurent, and to whom he dedicates the film.) No longer content to merely explore present day manifestations of the past, Bonello has, with The Beast, once and for all pushed beyond the binary and into the realm of the multivalent—a place where temporalities not only freely collide, but take shape as something greater than any individual drama or fleeting love affair, real or remembered.

jcronk@cinema-scope.com Cronk Jordan