Every time I’ve seen The Beast there comes some point where I think Bertrand Bonello is the world’s greatest under-60 filmmaker. Not quite a new stance for me (declaring Saint Laurent the best movie of the 2010s was a lonely battle), but it’s exactly this accumulation of films through years and years of appreciation that makes his newest film’s climax so powerful, so cascading in its effects, so potent in the question of who’s even treating images and montage in service of such heady narrative frameworks and sharp-tuned performances. If I confess unique bias, having worked on Bonello’s films in the distribution realm––the theatrical and home-video release of Nocturama, the digital debut of Ingrid Caven: Music and Voice, and producing a vinyl LP of his original soundtracks––it means I’ve also seen a shift in perception, from cult figure to major figure of world cinema. (Nicely echoed, or so I like to think, by his 13-year-old movie causing a minor stir when we’ve shown it at the Roxy Cinema in recent weeks.)

Bonello has fielded enough Big Questions about The Beast and there’s literally zero value asking the man to repeat himself within precious interview time. This is a film (and filmography) to inspire passion and obsession, and accordingly I found myself jumping right in with a couple minor details that have fascinated me since last fall, setting the tone for a freewheeling conversation that devotes equal time between his actors’ brilliance and the value of vaping.

The Film Stage: During the end credits I was kind of startled to see Patricia Coma, Julia Faure’s character from your previous film Coma, listed as The Beast‘s artistic director. I also noticed Gabrielle’s computer wallpaper is from Cindy: The Doll Is Mine, which you once told me is your favorite thing you’ve made. This is part of a trend in your oeuvre: Coma opens with Nocturama footage and a meditation on that movie’s intent; the former’s cast of teenage girls carry over almost exactly from Zombi Child; I even detect echoes of Saint Laurent’s club scenes in The Beast; I could also point to Tiresia being a film the main character of On War had himself directed. What accounts for the hall-of-mirrors effect?

Bertrand Bonello: It’s all different reasons. I’ll go one-by-one. Well, before going one-by-one: of course you have some obsessions which are conscious, some that are unconscious. Someone told me, when I came to New York in September, that The Beast is like the sum of all my films. All the films were to go there; this one includes everything. Now I can feel I have to go somewhere else. For the examples you say… Patricia Coma, yeah, she’s the name of the character of Julia Faure in Coma, and she really became obsessed with this project. She was watching the dailies and all the casting and every edited version. She was very, very precious in the dialogue. For example, when Gaspard died, she really helped me in the casting. Yeah: “artistic guide” just by talking every day about the film.

The fact that I put Cindy: The Doll Is Mine on the computer is just, pff, I have the rights to the picture. [Laughs] You know, the rights: every year it becomes more and more hell. If I want to do a shoot here [Motions to bookshelf] I have to ask the rights of everyone. Everyone. It’s getting crazy; it was not like that 15 years ago. Doing a shot in the streets is just a nightmare––you have to pay five lawyers to clear everything.

When I did Zombi Child, I met Louise Labèque, who is the main character. I met more than 100 young girls and I met Louise, who I love, so when I do Coma I’ve got this girl. And I like the fact that I made a film with her when she was 16, then I made a film with her again when she’s 18. It’s like people growing up in front of your camera; it’s something I quite like.

She’s your Antoine Doinel.

We’ll see in a few years. [Laughs] So that’s the reason. I’m kind of faithful; I’m happy to find people back.

Julia is amazing in Coma and The Beast, but that level of creative collaboration seems quite intense. Are there many times you invest such faith in an actor?

In fact, Coma was such a small film––six people in the crew, two actresses––of course it creates something so intimate; you feel so close. You don’t have any walkie-talkies on the set. So I think, with Julia, it became very creative dialogues, also because of this film and the way it was made. It’s quite precious.

When I read Michael Almereyda’s interview in Filmmaker Magazine I was rather surprised to learn of this film’s earlier incarnations. Initially you’d written a segment set in 1936; it was also considered to be a miniseries or two films. This movie feels like it contains worlds inside worlds––I could imagine a longer version.

Sure. But when you have a concept like that––you go back to ancient lives––you could make, like, 12 episodes. And I went back to the feature because it’s basically what I prefer. But it was very difficult. It took me a long time to find the form of the film.

What might we have seen in 1936 or a miniseries or another film?

Well, in 1936 Gabrielle was a stand-up lesbian comedian.


So when she meets Louis again, something came from her ancient life and she doesn’t know what and he doesn’t know what. But I really was obsessed, also, to do a film in ‘36 because it’s such a weird period. Three years after ‘33, the war is not there yet; there was such a weird atmosphere and I liked the idea of setting a love story in this weird atmosphere. But it took me a long time to write the sketches of the stand-up. It’s very difficult.

You don’t quite have that muscle?

I was watching Ricky Gervais stuff and said, “Why is he so good?” [Laughs]

Is that material you could see yourself resurrecting? I assume you felt an attachment to it, and it must be difficult to let that go.

I know. I did a book in France called Films fantômes, and it’s basically the scripts of all the films I have written but not directed. Because when you make a film––when you write and prepare a film––you daydream or nightdream. It’s like an obsession, and when you make the film you get rid of the obsession; it’s done. So my question was, “What do you do with the films that you haven’t done?” They still live in you––they obsess you like a ghost––and at the moment I wanted to do a book and question all the directors I know, or I don’t know, and say, “What do you do with the films you haven’t done?”

Some undone films are part of the history of cinema. For example: Napoleon of Kubrick. In a way we’ve seen it, you know? À la recherche du temps perdu of Visconti––it’s in all his films. Or La Genèse of Robert Bresson. They’re part of history like if they were done. But I wanted to… maybe someday I should do that book and question all the directors, “What do you do with the films you haven’t done?”

It’s a great idea.

I think it’s interesting.

Films fantômes is the book?

Yeah. You have, like, three scripts.

Would love to pretend my French is good enough to read it.

[Bonello vapes]

What flavor is that vape?

There’s no flavor.

No flavor? Tobacco?


Do you vape while you work?


Is it part of the process?

Well, I’m a smoker. I still smoke cigarettes, but when you’re writing you smoke all the time and I got rid of [Waves hand] all this, which is good. But of course smoking and writing––they go together. [Laughs] It’s terrible, but it’s true.

Do you smoke on set, while directing?

When I have to think, I have a cigarette outside.

Those habits as part of the creative process are so interesting to me. Like William Faulkner saying whiskey was key for him.

Oh, it is for me too. Late at night I put on some music and have a scotch; I try to welcome ideas or images, not to talk. I put it on paper and, the day after, work on that. You know, one of the most interesting things––and mysterious––is: how does an idea come? You don’t know. And they don’t come every day. You work every day, but an idea is so mysterious. It’s like a gift of God.

You started writing The Beast in 2017. So on the subject of ideas: can you name the oldest existing image? One you imagined in 2017 that’s actually in the final film?

Yeah, it’s very easy: the greenscreen, the prologue. First thing I wrote. And I knew, when I was writing, that it would be the basis of the film and that it would be in the final film.

And you knew it would be Léa Seydoux.

Yeah, very quickly. When I decided to have three periods, I knew I would ask her first. Because she’s the only French actress that can be in any period; she’s timeless. Something very mysterious, but: I can believe in her in the past, I can believe in her in the future.

Did you also feel that when you met George MacKay?

Well, of course the process to get to George was very different because it happens after a death. So when I met George… no, it’s something else. He did some very good tests and he’s a great actor––that’s for sure––but it’s something more: his intimate understanding of the film, of the scene. Something very strong that I could feel. That’s why it was obvious very quickly.

When this film was expected to star Gaspard Ulliel, that made sense––you two were brilliant collaborators. But I had questions after seeing the film, which is largely set in the United States with an American character. Basically: did you imagine Ulliel speaking with an American accent?

No. We agreed Gaspard’s English was good, but it cannot be good enough to play an American character. So he would have acted in English and I would have dubbed him with an American actor––so it was just perfect.

Did you know who the American actor would be?

No, not yet.

Would that be a difficult process? Unless you have experience with dubbing.

Not that difficult. For example, when we did Saint Laurent, Gaspard is dubbing Helmut Berger. Helmut’s French was not good enough, so he had something in his ear and he was repeating the words, but then Gaspard dubbed all his parts––aging his voice. I don’t think it’s that difficult.

So you didn’t imagine something in the style of, say, an old Italian film. It would be exact.

Yeah. For me it had to be an American character. Otherwise, if they were two French people they would be speaking French. But Louis Lewanski, in 2014, he’s a product of America, in a way.

This is the first soundtrack you’ve composed with your daughter, Anna Bonello. You have a musical background, playing piano from the age of five. Is music something you raised her in?

No, different, because I went with classical music and classical instrument, and she’s more at ease with computers and stuff like that. But we were not “together,” like in the same room. But I was doing some stuff, sending to her; she was working on that and sending to me. It’s like a ping-pong. It was fun.

So her work was more computer-based? How would you describe the contributions?

For example, while I was always starting––and we don’t live in the same country now––I was sending the files and she says, “Okay, I understand what you want, but I think it’s better with this sound. What about putting that?” And she sends back the file. She’s studying cinema. I’m so impressed: the number of films she knows that I don’t even know they exist… [Laughs]

What’s your most common way of seeing films? Are you a physical-media person, a streamer, on darkweb torrent networks?

I’m pretty lucky to live in Paris, so we have a lot of releases––films from everywhere––so if I can, I go in the theater. It’s fantastic. And we have a great Cinematheque.

What’s most impressed you of late?

I haven’t been watching many films lately because of work and traveling and trips with the promotion. Well, it’s a 45-minute movie––still a movie. It’s a French director called Virgil Vernier. He’s done, like, two features and a lot of short movies, and his last one is Imperial Princess. 45 minutes and I thought it was really remarkable.

The Beast enters limited release on Friday, April 5.

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