Saturday, May 18, 2024

Movie Review: ‘The Beast’ is a Transcendent Sci-Fi Epic

Director: Bertrand Bonello
Writer: Bertrand Bonello
Stars: Léa Seydoux, George MacKay

Synopsis: In the near future, emotions have become a threat. Gabrielle decides to purify her DNA in a machine that will immerse her in her past lives and rid her of any strong feelings. But when she meets Louis, she feels a powerful connection to him as if she has known him forever.

The opening moments of Bertrand Bonello’s reality-rooted time hopper, The Beast, focus entirely on a woman named Gabrielle (Léa Seydoux) acting against a green screen while clutching a kitchen knife. As Bonello’s own voice guides her through a scene in which she’s being hunted by some sort of, well, beast, or “bête”, her off-screen director details what will surround her once it’s all generated by computers in post. Not only is it the first moment, in a film chock-full of them, in which fear of artificiality is front and center for its characters, but it tees up a series of cinematic comments on what it means to emote, not matter your surroundings, and imagines what life might be like if we were able to rid ourselves of the trauma those feelings inflict.

Startlingly prescient and wholly original, The Beast — which Bonello loosely adapted from Henry James’ 1903 novella, “The Beast in the Jungle” — could feasibly be reduced to a drama about star-crossed lovers, but its complications make it a significantly more curious piece to gnaw on. Indeed, Gabrielle and Louis (George MacKay, having quite the year) appear to have known each other for some time, but the early revelation that they seem to have been in one another’s orbit for centuries, across timelines and in different forms of themselves, elucidates the notion that not only are these beautiful, curious figures entangled in more ways than one, but that their lives will never not be entwined. 

Whether that’s for worse or for better isn’t much of a question by the time Bonello’s latest mindfuck concludes on a perfect, volatile note, but the other questions it posits linger with a level of intensity most auteurs would kill to achieve. It’s not just about fear and love, but the fear of love; it’s a depiction of the terrors of possibility, and the inevitably of terror, a masterful one at that.

Following its opening sequence, The Beast travels through time, charting the history of Gabrielle and Louis’ eternal connection from Paris in 1910, where Gabrielle, a concert pianist, meets and falls for Louis, a doll manufacturer, at a party; in 2014, where Gabrielle is an isolated model/actress subletting a beautiful glass house in Los Angeles as Louis, now an Elliot Rodger-esque serial killing incel, hunts her every move, plotting her murder like Rodger did the many women he preyed upon during his real-life reign of terror; and in 2044, where Gabrielle is undergoing something called “DNA purification” by floating in a pool of thick, black goo that will undoubtedly draw deserving comparisons to the sinking floor in Under the Skin or the Harkonnen bathtubs in Denis Villeneuve’s Dune films. It’s through this process that Gabrielle and others are able (even beckoned) to purge themselves of emotions they may have felt in past lives.

That this invention has been made available to people in a future dominated by artificial intelligence is hardly a hushed comment on its prevalence in society today, from the world of technology to its ever-looming threat over filmmaking and cultural imports at large. Nor will it be lost on the viewer that, in Bonello’s imagined future, A.I. has turned the world into a series of taupe-walled hallways and glass doors, minimalistic features that some might find soothing in a therapist’s office, but many others will deem hollow, thus feeling hollow themselves. This procedure’s mission, after all, is to rid our past selves of any potentially-painful substance so that one’s present self can live on with emotionless abandon, not torn between worlds, lives, or loves. 

You needn’t be surprised when things don’t exactly go as planned; it’s almost as though Bonello aims to comment on the unrealistic desires of a humanoid-run world. (Gee, I wonder.) But in dissecting these shared concerns about the direction our lives seem to be tumbling in, not once does The Beast neglect the things those unfamiliar with Bonello’s trademark extremism will itch to latch onto. The sequences he dedicates to unavoidable romantic longing, the danger of heartbreak be damned, could ostensibly warrant their own subheading, something like Past Lives; the film’s darkest moments, focusing on menacing obsession and the perils of unseen threats, befit a name along the lines of Fatal Attraction.

Seydoux and MacKay are more than game, and though Bonello’s staging makes for some remarkably tactile moments of dread — including a harrowing recreation of The Great Flood of Paris in 1910 — it’s their faces that do some of the film’s best work when it comes to reducing its highbrow escapades to a human level. Whereas Seydoux was a calculated and cunning messenger woman for the Bene Gesserit in Dune: Part Two, here she strives to swim against the current of calculation toward the sort of imbalance that is required in the real world. MacKay’s turn here is a bit more chameleonic, fitting for an actor who convincingly transformed into a tattooed, closeted street thug in this year’s exceptional Femme; though he’s some form of the Louis that Gabrielle knew, knows, and will come to know over the course The Beast’s entire 146-minute runtime, MacKay seems to have a knack for shedding his skin when necessary, inhabiting the soul of every assignment, never more apparent than it is here. 

The Beast itself is also chameleonic in its invocation of its obvious influences, ranging from David Lynch to other time-bending science fiction films with similar ideas on their minds. But Bonello isn’t nearly as interested in what might happen in the future than he is curious to unravel how our past and present are already dictating its course. We are constantly making choices, he argues, whether it’s to embrace risk or run from it, to break a heart or to have ours broken, et cetera. As André Aciman wrote, “to feel nothing, so as not to feel anything—what a waste.” After all, who are we to rid reality of its authenticity? Something to chew on, perhaps.

Grade: A-

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