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FILM REVIEW: THE BEAST (LA BESTIA)


There’s an instant urgency in The Beast, the latest film from writer-director Bertrand Bonello, that persists despite its hefty runtime of 145 minutes. Even in its quietest moments, as Bonello’s pacing slows to a crawl and we are asked to consider every gesture, every weighty theme piled atop this towering stack of ideas, there’s a feeling that this film is aching to show us something, pushing ahead with an almost desperate need to convey its emotional truths.

 

And if nothing else, The Beast is a thoroughly honest with its emotions. A human drama with a sci-fi concept for scaffolding, inspired by one of Henry James’ most haunting tales, Bonello’s new film takes its sense of urgency, combines it with two incredible central performances, and delivers one of the most impactful experiences you’re likely to have at the movies this year…even if it does take you a while to untangle what you’ve just seen.

 

In 2044, much of the human workforce has been replaced by artificial intelligence, which is deemed safer and less emotional than the flawed human thinking that created previous global catastrophes. In this future version of Paris, Gabrielle (Léa Seydoux) is desperate for a sense of purpose. Eager to prove herself, she agrees to a procedure that will supposedly cleanse her of any emotional instabilities by going back through her past lives, the idea being that confronting and eventually eliminating any lingering trauma in her genetic code will make her not just more qualified for a job, but more satisfied and docile.

 

Reluctantly, Gabrielle agrees, and through the procedure she’s transported back to two key eras. In 1910, a version of Gabrielle is a Parisian magician haunted by the idea that some impending doom will come to her. In 2014, another version of Gabrielle is an actress and model contending with the same sense that something awful could happen at any moment. And of course, there’s 2044 Gabrielle, who wrestles constantly with the idea of losing the intensity of her own emotions, and with it the very thing that makes her human. Through it all, she interacts with three different versions of Louis (George MacKay), who’s at times a lover, at times a friend, and at times a deadly force who might make Gabrielle’s premonitions come true.

 

It’s not hard to see what Bonello’s getting at here, particularly when 2044 Gabrielle must contend with lectures about how AI is superior to a human workforce and her own emotions are getting in the way of her happiness. There’s an overt bleakness to this imagined future, one that’s countered by the vibrant hues Bonello’s camera conjures in the luxuriant reds and greens of turn-of-the-century Paris and the cool pool-water blues of 2014 Los Angeles. We are meant, immediately and deliberately, to examine what the world would be like if we were invited to pull all passion out ourselves in the name of a greater purpose.

 

But then, Bonello’s film goes deeper, taking us through Gabrielle’s past lives and, therefore, her past passions—worlds and times when she wasn’t faced with making such a choice. Or was she? In 1910 and in 2014, there are moments in which Gabrielle must contend with her own emotional weight in harrowing, tense ways, all while wrestling with the feeling that she’s somehow inevitably doomed. In these moments, Bonello reminds us in ways both invigorating and terrifying that emotional investment is always a risk, always a potential trigger point for doom. And if that’s the case, is it ever truly worth it?


To its credit, The Beast leaves that question unanswered, preferring instead to show us two characters who wrestle with the question across time and space, never quite arriving at an easy conclusion. That means that both Seydoux and MacKay have to walk a tightrope throughout, transforming themselves with each phase of the film while also retaining a constant sense of yearning, channeling the urgency of Bonello’s filmmaking in scene after scene. For Seydoux, that means turning in one of the most moving and challenging performances of her career.


For MacKay, that means becoming a chameleon who never changes his face. Both do tremendous, powerful work, squeezing every ounce of feeling from even the most syrup-slow of sequences As it carefully and methodically winds its way through three different eras of human experience, there are times when The Beast might feel a little lost, a little too ponderous, a little too wrapped up in its own luxuriant exploration of its themes. By the end, though, those concerns melt away as the film reaches an unnerving crescendo. The Beast is a monster of a movie, one that will sink its claws into you, then ask you to contemplate the wounds it leaves. It’s not an easy watch, but it is a deeply rewarding one that you’ll be thinking about for days.

 

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