The Beast

The Beast
The Beast
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The Beast is like a knife twisting and turning so slowly at the side of our existence, shaped by Bertrand Bonello’s writing and direction with precision to avoid piercing any vital organs — we are alive yet in definite pain. Truly, at a time when humanity is most anxious, emotionally worn out and fraught with existentialist challenges, the film provides no solace whatsoever as it tackles grand issues of love, death and loneliness. Nevertheless, this could end up being one of this year’s most fulfilling movies.

Adapted from Henry James’ 1903 novella The Beast in the Jungle rather loosely, The Beast features Léa Seydoux as Gabrielle who has chosen to undertake an emotional purification process that will remove her capacity for any strong feelings whatsoever. It is now 2044 and feelings have been regarded a distraction to progress hence individuals undergo the procedure mostly to ensure better jobs in society. Initially, Gabrielle’s only task is to check the temperature of a massive piece of machinery after every few minutes; probably she just doesn’t like her job.

Emotionally purified through DNA processing Gabrielle finds herself plugged into Matrix-like machine. She then gets thrown back into two significant periods: La Belle Époque Paris of 1910 and modern mansions belonging to Los Angeles people in 2014 respectively. In all those time frames, differing relationships between Gabrielle and Louis (George MacKay) are portrayed. Although dynamics may change across timelines, when love changes to pain or vice-versa there is always something central about them.

Fate and doom are twin supports on which James’ original novella hangs that follows reunion as well as relationship between John Marcher and May Bartram. Psychological in nature, it centers on John’s apprehension over some terrible thing he believes will happen to him eventually which he likens to “a beast in the jungle” biding its time patiently before striking him down. Of course, what the story means is that John’s mind is so preoccupied with concerns about the future that he has forgotten about his present life — the true “beast” turns out to be the realization, much too late of course, that he had spent all his time worrying for nothing.

Bonello manages to bring into The Beast these themes but also broadens them by intermingling familiar science fiction tropes and periods in history while at the same time increasing Gabrielle’s love affair with Louis. As a result, this film might have a sensual and sumptuous feel coupled with an intense foreboding atmosphere that cripples it. La Belle Époque can be maximalism at its best, opulent without reserve but beneath it all lies something sinister (just like thick flowing blood). Opposite to 2044 that is beige through and through. And closest to us as viewers, 2014 immediately follows: a past-oriented mausoleum which points to an insane future.

Conceptual density makes The Beast hard as it is not a walk in the park especially in its first 45 minutes where we are adrift between the past and future and dying for any clue that can help us to understand what is going on. Yet Bonello squeezes every moment out of his film, and nothing goes to waste as he sets up the scene. Every point Gabrielle visits, whether it be a Parisian doll factory, a Los Angeles nightclub or even a future where everything looks exactly the same, is given almost equal attention implying that they might contain each and every answer regarding life on earth. Here, patience is needed to gain access; this means that those who are ready will have much to gain.

Bonello could not have chosen better actors for the two roles–Seydoux and MacKay. Each of them has an attraction towards the other while being at loggerheads with self. Of these two actors MacKay’s roles have been most different: one amongst them shows him as an English aristocrat named Louis who persuades a legally married Gabrielle and another talks of him being some sort of American incel-type following after her whereas he turns into an unknown person whom Gabrielle keeps running into  when she was in her early twenties . MacKay has nailed all of these characters’ rawest nerves so well that you cannot help wanting to fall in love yet run for your life simultaneously.

However Seydoux’s performance is what had actually saved The Beast from disaster. Like MacKay she also plays three different versions of Gabrielle through time and space but her challenge lies more on managing her intricacies which she fills with deep pathos as well as tragic grace. Throughout her career particularly within European art house cinema over the last decade Seydoux has consistently proven herself to be among the deepest performers of her generation. Her familiar eyes always full of sadness along with weak voice pitch herein help us identify with everything Gabrielle goes through.

When one considers that Gabrielle appears to spend the entire Beast trying not to feel anything, it is interesting. It is rather that inability to avoid feeling on her own part which sums up Bonello’s film; for even the most empty vessel has the inherent capacity to be filled, and therefore overflow. And so then, what does life, love and longing signify becomes the haunting question of this movies final moment? The answer –or lack thereof when you think about where we are in the world right now –is enough to make you want to scream.

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