The Beast marks a return to the “grand form” for the heterogeneous work of Bertrand Bonello ( L’Apollonide, souvenirs de la maison brothel in 2011, Saint Laurent in 2014), formalist goldsmith of French cinema. It comes after two small transition films which seem to have constituted the laboratory: Zombi Child (2019), a B series attempt at voodoo possession, then Coma (2022), diving into the unconscious of the networks. Their research into dreams, virtual vertigo, and nightmarish imagination deeply innervates The Beast and finds an incredible outcome.
This new film is the second French adaptation in a short time, after The Beast in the Jungle , by Patric Chiha (released in August 2023), of the eponymous short story by Henry James (1903), a chaste and dead-end sentimental symposium in living rooms of Edwardian England. Bonello truncates the title (he only keeps the threatening attack) and extends the story to a multiplied space-time.
The story is divided into three eras, between which the same character, Gabrielle, played by Léa Seydoux, circulates. In 2044, in a near future entirely taken over by artificial intelligence, the young Parisian, who is struggling to find a job, must submit to a program aimed at “cleansing” the traumas of her previous lives. On the operating table, she is plunged back into 1910, in the salons of the Belle Epoque, as the rather bored wife of a prosperous industrial doll manufacturer, and at times an avant-garde pianist.
During an evening, the worldly Gabrielle meets Louis (George MacKay, who replaced Gaspard Ulliel following his premature death), a dreamy young man to whom she expresses a persistent anxiety: her presentiment of an imminent catastrophe, perhaps linked to the hundred-year flood of the Seine which would occur the same year, perhaps not. From dressing rooms to the opera in winter gardens, the meeting takes place over time. Gabrielle falls in love, to the point of even considering leaving everything, but nothing happens, because Louis the idealist, as a clairvoyant confides to him, “can only make love in his dreams” . The meeting will happen three times: in the past, in the future and halfway, in 2014, where we find Gabrielle in Hollywood as an aspiring actress and going to castings.
A formal and narrative labyrinth
Building on this science-fictional argument, Bonello here sculpts an ambitious rhizome story, which progresses by layers, digs out passages, articulates times and dimensions. Thus The Beast does not fear presenting itself both as a romance and as a pure fictional experience, a formal and narrative labyrinth. It’s really about telling the same romantic impasse three times, in as many different genres and colors: from costume melodrama to refined science fiction, with a slope going towards abstraction.
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