The Beast (2023, dir. Bertrand Bonello) – BFI London Film Festival

by | Oct 8, 2023

Certificate: TBC

Running Time: 146 mins

UK Distributor: Vertigo Releasing

UK Release Date: TBC

REVIEWED AT BFI LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 2023

WHO’S IN THE BEAST?

Léa Seydoux, George MacKay, Guslagie Malanda, Dasha Nekrasova, Martin Scali, Elina Löwensohn, Marta Hoskins, Julia Faure, Kester Lovelace, Félicien Pinot, Laurent Lacotte, Weronika Szawarska, Jasmine Van Deventer, Xaver Dolan, Benjamin Crotty, Adam Carage, Bertrand Bonello, Douglas Rand

WHO’S BEHIND THE CAMERA?

Bertrand Bonello (director, writer, producer, composer), Guillaume Bréaud and Benjamin Charbit (writers), Justin Taurand (producer), Anna Bonello (composer), Josée Deshaies (cinematographer), Anita Roth (editor)

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

In the near-future, a woman (Seydoux) bonds with an admirer (MacKay) across three distinct time periods…

WHAT ARE MY THOUGHTS ON THE BEAST?

“What?” That was the only thing going through my mind as I was watching French filmmaker Bertrand Bonello’s staggeringly strange rendition of Henry James’ 1903 novella The Beast in the Jungle (here with the last three words removed from the title). However, it wasn’t the kind of “what” that suggests I was witnessing something truly profound or unlike anything I’d ever seen before – though, in a way, it kind of was – but more the kind of “what” reserved for surrealist auteurs like David Lynch, Terrence Malick and Charlie Kaufman, who often enjoy confusing their audiences with wildly ambitious out-there ideas that are intentionally, and frustratingly, never elaborated on.

Bonello’s The Beast is a whole lot of “what”, as it managed to bewilder me on levels that I didn’t even know were possible, but not once did it form a coherent or satisfying whole that made such oddness worth such a sluggish viewing experience.

The film takes place across three distinct timelines: nineteenth-century Paris, the artificial landscapes of Los Angeles in 2014, and a futuristic society where AI has overtaken humanity in the workforce. In the latter, a woman named Gabrielle (Léa Seydoux) is offered a chance to revisit the memories of her past lives in order to eradicate her emotions and join the robotic workforce. One such past life is that of a famed pianist in an unhappy marriage during the Belle Époque, while in another she is a model/actress struggling to get her big break in Hollywood. In all three timelines, she encounters several different versions of a young man named Louis (George MacKay, filling a role originally intended for the late Gaspard Ulliel), including a charming would-be suitor, and as a misogynistic incel who frequently stalks and berates women for their apparent lack of interest in him.

How their interactions end up connecting with one another is a mystery I’d say is best left for the movie itself, but were you ever to watch The Beast as and when it finally comes out (though that might not be for a while, for as of writing there is no UK distributor on board), you’ll likely come away with far more questions than answers. In fact, I’d wager that you’ll still be struggling to figure out what this movie is even about by the time it reaches the halfway mark, because Bonello plays his cards so close to his chest that they are practically part of his skin, without even a hint of clarity for the uncertain viewer. The filmmaker frustratingly makes little to no apparent effort to let them in to his strange and often surreal world, instead simply indulging in one off-kilter turn after another, regardless of whether or not it makes sense.

There are, however, some decent things one can say about the overall filmmaking, which honestly makes it even more irritating that the film is so uninviting and even dull to watch. The cinematography is strong throughout, with DP Josée Deshaies switching between various aspect ratios as we hop to all these different timelines, and in more than a few moments there are some bright and visually appealing colours that help make certain sequences pop. The acting is also fine, with Léa Seydoux clearly the standout between the two leads, though George MacKay doesn’t fare that poorly either (during the LA timeline, he makes for a hilariously convincing incel inspired by real-life misogynist mass murderer Elliot Rodger), even though he occasionally struggles with the French language, which he respectfully learnt specially for this film.

However, a film like The Beast can look pretty and star some very pretty people, but at the end of the day it’s impossible to completely polish the numbing experience I had while watching this. It’s a film that revels in its Lynch-esque surrealism, but with very little substance to support it, the style quickly falls apart at the seams. I was always waiting for something truly mind-blowing to happen and give everything leading up to it a reason for existing, but the moment something truly interesting starts to happen at long last, the movie comes to a complete stop (wherein, in a move I hope to God doesn’t become a new trend, the end credits are replaced with a QR code that viewers can scan and see the list of people online). I felt like my time had been utterly wasted by nearly two-and-a-half hours of pretentious fluff, and I was left in a state of confusion that makes me more annoyed as I continue to look back on the experience.

I realise that I am in the minority when it comes to critical feedback on this film (as of writing, it is sitting at 90% on Rotten Tomatoes), but hopefully as more and more people see The Beast for themselves, that score will drop significantly as they experience the utter “what?” that is this movie.

SO, TO SUM UP…

The Beast is a pretty-looking but frustratingly empty viewing experience, with strong cinematography and fine acting wasted on self-indulgent surrealism that leaves the audience confused and irritated by its numbing style that contains little to no valuable substance to justify its own weirdness.

Two out of five stars

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