The Beast  (15) |Close-Up Film Review

Dir. Bertrand Bonello, France/Canada, 2023. 147 mins, in English and French with subtitles

Cast:  Léa Seydoux, George MacKay

Review by Carol Allen

The Beast of the somewhat misleading title comes from a story by Henry James and is his term for the strong emotions that human beings fear. 

Director Bertrand Bonello takes the term as the theme of his futuristic story set in a 2044, where Artificial Intelligence  has taken over from humans, who are known as the “useless people” and who either have no function in the world or are mostly relegated to very lowly roles.  When Gabrielle (Léa Seydoux) is being assessed by a faceless interviewer in her search for a better job, she is told she must “purify her DNA” by going back into her past lives and purging herself of those messy emotions. 

She only seems to have two past lives – a bit sparse but as the film is pretty long, perhaps just as well.  One is as the wife of wealthy toy manufacturer in 1910 Paris and the other as an aspiring actress in California in 2014.  Somewhat confusingly the actress life is the first one we encounter, where she is auditioning against a green screen for a role which appears to be that of a murder victim. 

Accessing one’s previous lives involves being immersed in a bath of black gunk and having something injected into your brain via your right ear but Gabrielle decides to give it a try.

In 1910 where she enjoys a comfortable life as a concert pianist and a contented marriage, she finds herself drawn to Louis (George MacKay), who claims to have met her many years previously, when she confessed to him her fear of strong emotion. They continue their pleasant but disturbing flirtation, sometimes interrupted by flash forwards to Gabrielle’s future lives, until the tragic end of their story, brought about in a very effective sequence in the doll factory and involving the real life flood which engulfed Paris that year. 

In 2014 Gabrielle is house sitting in a luxurious apartment, going to the occasional audition against that green screen but otherwise living a solitary life.  Here she encounters Louis again, this time in the body of 30 year old misogynist virgin, who blames his solitary state on the female sex and who is stalking Gabrielle in the classic horror movie mode.

Louis crops up again in Gabrielle’s 2044 life, as a pleasant young man. who appears to share her doubts about the regression therapy.  Also part of this life is  Kelly (Guslagie Malanda), a robot girlfriend, assigned to support her in her journey .  When Kelly admits that she has fallen in love with Gabrielle this raises the intriguing possibility that AI too can now be subject to the Beast of strong emotion– but it’s an idea which is sadly not pursued.  

The film has a lot going for it.   It’s beautiful to look at and very well acted, particularly by Mackay and Seydoux, displaying their versatility.  And the ending is a perfect piece of dramatic irony.   It is however a bit baffling to follow and more than somewhat long-winded.   Bit of a mixed bag really.  But an interesting one