Filmhounds Magazine

All things film – In print and online

The Beast (Film Review)

4 min read

Image: Vertigo Releasing

At a salon in Belle Époque Paris, 's Gabrielle, a celebrated concert pianist, meets George MacKay's Louis. He insists that they've met before, and proves it by revealing that he knows her great secret — a secret writer-director has lifted from Henry James's 1903 novella “The Beast in the Jungle.” Gabrielle is married, but something about Louis attracts her. They talk, visit the opera together, and eventually Gabrielle offers Louis a tour of her husband's factory. He mass-produces dolls with blank, neutral faces — designed, we learn, to please everyone. Louis asks Gabrielle if she would mimic the expression for him. In an astonishingly uncanny moment, Seydoux, one of the most accomplished actors of her generation, abruptly switches off and goes dead behind the eyes. The camera lingers long enough to shift from the funny to the profoundly disturbing.

Dolls, dolls, dolls; Bonello is obsessed with them. In his 2005 short Cindy: The Doll Is Mine, the “doll” is the model of photographer Cindy Sherman. One of the sex workers in House of Tolerance (2011) is instructed by a client to perform as a doll, while in Nocturama (2016) a young terrorist drunkenly molests an actual mannequin. Coma (2022) includes entire stop-motion sequences in which Barbie dolls play out a girl's fantasy soap opera. And here in Bonello's latest, The Beast, dolls again tease the deadening commodification of the human, as well as its gendered dimensions.

Bonello's narrative unfolds across three distinct time periods. In 1910 Paris, Gabrielle's husband is shifting his production material from porcelain to celluloid — more fleshlike but extremely flammable, as anyone with an interest in film history will know. In 2014 Los Angeles, we see glimpses of oddly animate M3GAN-esque dolls, while a new version of Gabrielle is depicted as relatively inanimate. And in the film's cold, aseptic present of 2044, affectless people and embodied artificial intelligences populate a dollhouse world. It's here that we meet Kelly (Guslagie Malanda), an AI guiding Gabrielle through a process that explains all this time-hopping: Gabrielle is having her DNA purified, exorcising the traumas of her past lives.

Gabrielle's secret is simply that she is overcome by a “feeling of doom.” In the film's first part, a clairvoyant is consulted; harbingers appear in the form of the Great Flood of Paris and a particularly menacing pigeon. One hundred years later, the feeling follows the next Gabrielle to America, where she's trying to make it as an actress amidst an inhospitable L.A. The eerie blankness of this segment is reminiscent of David Lynch's late-period work, with the same sense of creeping, unplaceable dread (which for certain audiences will include a Dasha Nekrasova jump-scare). Like Lynch, Bonello is not without a sense of humour; Gabrielle is transfixed by a karaoke channel that plays Roy Orbison's “Evergreen” on loop, and finds her laptop besieged by malevolent pop-ups.

If this all sounds rather superficial, you probably won't be best pleased to hear that MacKay's Louis returns in this section as an incel based on Elliot Rodger, the real-life mass murderer who went on a misogynistic killing spree in 2014. Much of his dialogue is taken verbatim from Rodger's video manifestos, an uncomfortable choice that, stripped of its real-world context, teeters on the unethical. There are points here where the whole film threatens to collapse, but the beguiling new context Bonello creates for this character just about makes it work.

The film's future-present, meanwhile, is an empty world, both literally and spiritually. Gabrielle walks deserted streets in a mask, and frequents nostalgia clubs named for the years they aesthetically leech: “1972,” or “1980.” Outside of the clubs, everyone wears beige. Here the film proffers a bleak and transfixing assessment of the culture, not so much a sci-fi reinvention as a projection of our alarming emotional trajectory.

In James's novella, protagonist John Marcher is filled with the sense of approaching catastrophe so great that he avoids love entirely. At the story's end, he realises, as an old and still-fearful man, that this avoidance itself was the very catastrophe he feared. In Bonello's reworking, this sense of impending disaster is no longer pathological — it's ubiquitous. The titular beast is the presence so many of us feel but cannot articulate, the force that erodes everything that makes love possible. It's the spectre of a reified, doll-like existence: how effortlessly Seydoux's expressive eyes slip into deadness.

In such a context, it's not hard to see the appeal of the process proposed to Gabrielle by the AI: “We can help get rid of your affects.” But Gabrielle's fear is also one of no longer feeling anything, of conforming to a society in which emotions are little more than an obstacle to productivity. She follows here in the footsteps of another literary John, the “savage” in Huxley's Brave New World, demanding his right to be unhappy. This is, in spite of all its hopelessness, what makes The Beast so compelling: its notion that feeling, however painful, might be preferable to the numbness of a world without it.

The Beast is released in UK cinemas on May 31.