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“The Beast” Has No Bite

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | April 10th, 2024

The Beast (Bertrand Bonello, 2023) 2 out of 5 stars

Inspired by Henry James’ 1903 novella The Beast in the Jungle, French director Bertrand Bonello’s The Beast follows a star-crossed couple through time and space as they manage to never quite consummate their relationship. A meditation on love, loneliness, the meaning of emotion and our capacity for connection, the film is an artistically ambitious work, filled with many finely executed scenes. Unfortunately, the sum is not quite equal to the various parts. Plus, the heavy-handed symbolism throughout proves tedious.

Léa Seydoux (The French Dispatch) stars as Gabrielle Monnier and George MacKay (Wolf) as Louis Lewanski. Unlike in the source text, she is the main character. They  travel through various eras—or at least their souls do, if not their physical bodies—meeting again each time under vastly different circumstances. The date range is from Paris in 1910 to 2044, with a stop in what looks like Los Angeles of either the late 20th century or early 21st century.

l-r: George MacKay and Léa Seydoux in THE BEAST ©Janus Films

In the last period, there has been some kind of apocalypse that has led authorities to wipe humans of their ability to feel. They call it “DNA purification.” Gabrielle is next in line, and as she prepares to go through the procedure, appears to experience her past existences on this Earth. We cut from the future life to the furthest one back, where she is a pianist living in wealthy splendor with her businessman husband. In Los Angeles, she is a model and aspiring actress. Overshadowing these constant meetings is “the beast” of Gabrielle’s foreboding that she is always headed towards some unspeakable catastrophe.

In each sequence, Louis shows up, crossing paths with her in strange new ways. Beyond the costume and mannerism changes, the aspect ratio also shifts. The visual clues prove engaging, though soon we don’t need them to orient ourselves; the characters themselves prove adequate to the task. 

Léa Seydoux in THE BEAST ©Janus Films

Sadly, they do not hold particular interest, however. Still, the setup intrigues, the sci-fi metaphysics of it all masking the ultimate emptiness of the conceit. But opacity stands in for substance. This is the kind of film I probably would have appreciated more in my 20s, when narrative dissonance and a break from convention was my stock in trade. Or maybe not, since our protagonists are such ciphers that we have nothing to grasp.

And then there is a certain pigeon, and other signs and symbols that pop up, embodying a significance that is simultaneously obvious and obtuse. The resulting effect is leaden, director Bonello (Coma) over- and underplaying his cinematic hand. Which is too bad, as the cast—both the leads and those who support them—is excellent, and the premise alluring. But this beast is too often all snarl and no teeth.

George MacKay in THE BEAST ©Janus Films

Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator, as well as Film Festival Today's Editor. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA), and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, Chris is, in addition, lead film critic at Hammer to Nail and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice.

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