Where to begin with Bertrand Bonello’s wonderful The Beast? It’s been so gratifying to see the initial reaction to the French filmmaker’s tenth feature, after several decades of increasingly remarkable work––the majority of it dark, beautiful, and sleazy. In fact, for what a discomforting and despairing experience much of The Beast is, when I’ve thought back its moments of real, uncomplicated cinematic pleasure, its verve and sense of joyousness, are what mark my memories. It’s romantic, without a capital-R.

Rather than Romanticism, its source derives from the bleeding edge of literary modernism, or literary modernism as it sometimes arose: from stuffy-seeming upper-class drawing rooms. The Beast is the coincidental second French adaptation this calendar year of Henry James’ 1903 novella The Beast in the Jungle (first, Patric Chica had a stab, premiering at the Berlinale, and they have some interesting overlapping choices). It centers on two haute-bourgeoisie singletons of leisure, John Marcher and May Bartram, whose lives cross paths at mysterious jarring intervals as the years pass, as Marcher fears something momentous and fearful is about to befall him. “Something or other lay in wait for him, amid the twists and turns of the months of the years, like a crouching beast in the jungle,” HJ (as his legions call him) writes, early on. For Bonello, this Beast is a stalker, an incel, a destroyer, a raven flying in from an open window portending doom; it is partly a faithful adaptation, which then builds a free fugue on the foundations of the text.

He weaponizes the handsome, fresh-faced features of British actor George McKay (1917), who plays a high-society interloper in Paris 1910, an Elliott Rodger-inspired domestic terrorist in LA 2014, and a fellow post-dystopian drone of Léa Seydoux’s Gabrielle in the Paris of 2044. Gabrielle is arguably the focal character, but is the movie’s title a double entendre? Bonello leaves this aspect––like others in this 146-minute feast (with a tiny few elements that perhaps aren’t as appetizing as the others)––as spectral, ambiguous, multiplying in fractal dimensions. What’s more, The Fractal is indeed the name of an atmospheric, drill and plugg-playing nightclub in the LA segment, that a fellow model (Red Scare’s Dasha Nekrasova) quite rates.

This is also a film that should potentially be seen without immense prior knowledge, though no doubt the novella is fine preparatory reading. Yet its various framing devices and rich intellectual ambitions need to be highlighted. Given the project’s long gestation (with the tragic death of Gaspard Ulliel in January 2022 halting a prior version), it’s uncanny that AI is such an essential theme, yet it’s not its modus operandi, like “cancel culture” was perhaps for the fine TÁR in the zeitgeist-bating stakes. 

In a film that surprisingly and generously evokes canonical science-fiction cinema like 2001, Blade Runner, and Under the Skin, an AI-consciousness “singularity” has occurred, the key inciting incident of the Terminator franchise and (maybe more suggestively) where the wondrous A.I. Artificial Intelligence ends up in its final act. And these guys are absolute fuckers: some kind of global catastrophe occurred in 2025, and in 2040s Paris, at least, they reign supreme, requiring us mere humans to prove our enduring usefulness to them.

Here is one of The Beast’s more provocative notions: its warning of how AI technology might develop its own abstract and arbitrary belief systems. That Gabrielle has to “purify” her DNA, revisiting her past lives, sounded quite implacable when The Beast’s logline was initially announced, yet its purpose is to rid her of her emotions, its potential psychological complexes and variability, which somehow cling to her identity in the present like moss. This really recalls Dianetics and Scientology, doesn’t it? The Master is one of Paul Thomas Anderson’s most acclaimed works in France, it can be stated. 

Sans emotions––that volatility and spark of life––we’ll be integrated better into the screwy second half of the 21st century that they’ll compere (although they have a great spin on nightclub culture, and even dating, you’ll discover). So Gabrielle, After Life-like, revisits past lives where she is an elite piano student, studying Schönberg’s 12-tone compositions (arguably the beginning of generative music, as far as notated composition goes), and then a Los Angeles akin to a profoundly better version of The Neon Demon, where she’s an alienated aspiring actress and model. 

McKay’s Louis lurks the scene in each, portending Gabrielle’s life towards fatal, and also environmental catastrophe, and my moratorium on plot spoilers will be retained. It’s pitch-black, it’s sinister, and perhaps embraces some plot predictability at its very end, whilst fully and gorgeously producing an unforgettable emotional denouement, and a needle-drop I’ve then listened to numerous times myself these last days. Bonello, you did it.

The Beast premiered at the 2023 Venice Film Festival.

Grade: A-

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