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The Beast (La Bête) ★★★1/2

Updated: Apr 16

Availability: Showing in theaters nationally; no information on streaming is available. See JustWatch here for future streaming availability.

 

The 130-Year Date

 

The chemistry between the two main characters—Gabrielle and Louis—is tangible early on when we see them in a 1910 Paris salon, circling each other, literally and figuratively, each exuding the dyad of desire and restraint that characterizes many early-stage love affairs. These scenes, and others of their time-machine “courtship,” are long, slow, and teasing, evoking nostalgia for a period of deeply felt yet constrained passion. French director Bertrand Bonello places this intense love affair at the heart of his dystopian vision of a 2044 world dominated by artificial intelligence. And yes, Gabrielle and Louis are still there, 134 years later, exploring their relationship. The film “ends” in 1963, to the strains of Roy Orbison’s “Evergreen”—and a scream or two. 


Above, Louis (George MacKay) and Gabrielle (Léa Seydoux) in 1910,

when passion is both intense and constrained. 


 

The love story, the epitome of feeling with its extremes of euphoria and rejection, is pitted again the AI machine.


 

The opening of “The Beast” introduces Gabrielle (Léa Seydoux), an actress, as she follows the instructions of an unseen director. She’s performing against a green screen because almost everything in the shots being filmed will be completed using computer-generated images; the year, we learn, is 2014. Thirty years after, Gabrielle is not an actress but a “data temperature input checker,” a job so boring that she desperately wants a new one. In an interview with another disembodied presence—an unctuous, Hal-like voice—she is told that she has too much emotion (i.e., biases) to hold any but the most menial job. In this not-so-future world, the love story, the epitome of feeling with its extremes of euphoria and rejection, is pitted again the AI machine. 

 

Offered the opportunity to be painted by a Lucian Freud-like artist, Gabrielle declines. “I don’t want to lose my soul.”

 

Love story. AI dystopian future. Robotic friends. Time travel. Add thriller. Any attempt to place Bonello’s “The Beast” in a particular genre underestimates its power and reach. At heart (to use a term connoting feeling), the film is an exploration of the existential, of what it means to be human, to have a self—to think, to care, to doubt, to be afraid. Gabrielle is haunted by dread, by her fear of The Beast—a metaphor for death and the fear of death, the ultimate experience of humans who alone on the planet can understand their fate, their finiteness. Gabrielle fears “obliteration.” Even in 1910, when offered the opportunity to be painted by a Lucian Freud-like artist, she declines. “I don’t want to lose my soul.” Paradoxically, The Beast is all we have. It’s what we fear, and what we need. 


Gabrielle and Louis happily "circle each other" in the 1910 Paris salons.


 

Bonello's script is also a critique of the happiness fetish of today’s culture.

 

By 2044, the AI system in charge is “purifying” the DNA of humans to rid them of emotion, and Gabrielle is offered the opportunity to empty herself of dread, anxiety, the possibility of a transcendent love, emotions lodged in memory. Like the Soma drink in George Orwell’s “Brave New World,” the purification process deletes one’s past, a matter of no little consequence in a tale spread across two centuries. Bonello’s script (based on a 1903 Henry James novella, “The Beast in the Jungle”) is also a critique of the happiness fetish of today’s culture, of the fantasy of a world without failure, without stress, a world in which the goal is to feel “safe”—a world without “life.” To quote a psychologist friend, “you’re either stressed or bored.” Many of the minor characters who inhabit the 2044 world are, in fact, bored. “Me, too,” words of tepid affirmation uttered more than once, function as boredom’s linguistic equivalent.

 


Still there, in 2014, a transformed Louis uses social media to reflect his emotions.


Bonello is not shy about harvesting images and concepts from film history, especially from the thriller and horror genres and the brave new world of technology. Dolls—a too-obvious simulacra of the human—abound. At the beginning of the last century, Gabrielle’s husband owns a doll factory, which she tours with Louis, who comments on the dolls’ expressionless faces, designed “to appeal to everybody.” A 2044 AI robot, Kelly (Guslagie Malanda, who was the impassive mother on trial for killing her infant in “Saint Omer” [2022])—echoes the replicants of “Blade Runner” (1982), Samantha of “Her” (2013), and the robotic nanny Yang in “After Yang” (2021)—offering to help Gabrielle, even to have sex with her. Kelly, as Gabrielle retorts, is (merely) a doll. Looking a lot like “Chucky” or Annabelle, a doll seems to be everywhere in Gabrielle’s 2014 house-sit—on her couch, on the desk, making odd noises and curious statements. A bird, in this case a pigeon, comes indoors, the omen of The Beast, one in a long line of avian harbingers, stretching back to Homer’s “The Odyssey” and including Coleridge’s albatross and Hitchcock’s crows. One wishes for a trifle more subtlety.


 

It’s a two-person film, with the actors displaying a compelling interiority and a range of affect and personae.

 

Unlike “Her” or “After Yang,” the AI-generated dolls are neither love interests nor particularly helpful friends. The focus is on the human, on Gabrielle Monnier and Louis Lewanski (George MacKay). It’s a two-person film, with the actors displaying a compelling interiority and a range of affect and personae. Seydoux’s credits run from “Blue Is the Warmest Color” (2013) to “Dune: Part Two” (2023), and MacKay was riveting as the shell-shocked young soldier of “1917” (2019).  Here, alone and together, Seydoux and MacKay are magnificent.

 


The 2014 kiss has echoes of the love affair started more than 100 years earlier.


During the last 30 minutes of “The Beast” the love story morphs into a thriller, set mostly inside and around the high-modernist home for which Gabrielle is a house-sitter—another touch of alienation from a grounded, lived reality. The knife of the opening minutes will reappear (thanks, Chekhov) and demonic dolls pop up now and then. The bird hovers. Amid these rather conventional cues, the transformation of Louis is especially fascinating, unexpected, and disturbing. Seydoux and MacKay are more than up to the task of moving across time and space—and emotions—in making Bonello’s film an indelible experience. Or, as the guy at the concession stand told us, at least a “wild one.” To add to the wildness, stay for the credits.

 

Date: 2023 (released beyond film festivals, 2024)

Director: Bertrand Bonello

Starring: Léa Seydoux, George MacKay, Guslagie Malanda

Country: France

Languages: French and English, with English subtitles for the French.

Runtime: 146 minutes

Other Awards: 2 wins and 2 other nominations

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