The Movie Waffler New Release Review - THE BEAST | The Movie Waffler

New Release Review - THE BEAST

The Beast review
A woman experiences her past lives as she undergoes a treatment to cleanse her of emotion.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Bertrand Bonello

Starring: Léa Seydoux, George MacKay, Guslagie Malanda, Dasha Nekrasova, Elina Löwensohn

The Beast poster

Bertrand Bonello's previous film, Coma, was an intimate project shot within the confines of his home during the pandemic lockdown. His latest, The Beast, is a sprawling sci-fi thriller that plays out over three timelines on both sides of the Atlantic. Despite such differences, the two movies are thematically joined at the hip, and I would recommend seeing them in the order Bonello made them, though modern distribution patterns being what they are, that may not be possible for most viewers.

Through the central figure of a suicidal teenage girl, Coma explored the growing feeling that we're all losing our sense of free will and self determination, that we're increasingly manipulated by other forces into leading someone else's life. The Beast takes this idea and expands upon it in some style. Like Coma, it suggests Bonello gave Twin Peaks a rewatch during the lockdown, and like that movie it also seems influenced by Rob Savage's no-budget pandemic horror hit Host in one particular scene involving a video call.

The Beast review

Just like Twin PeaksThe Beast revolves around a doomed blonde. Or in this case, three doomed blondes, all played by Léa Seydoux and all named Gabrielle (in all three roles Seydoux is playing a character a decade or so younger than herself, but you never question it).

If The Beast can be thought of as an anthology movie, its framing story is the one that takes place in Paris in 2044. There we find a society where AI has progressed so rapidly that humans struggle to find work. Gabrielle has a mundane job that involves sitting around all day and occasionally reading the temperature of a server. To acquire a better job she agrees to undergo a process of having her DNA "purified," in order to rid her of the sort of messy human emotions that might interfere with her career advancement. This process sees her experience past lives, which is where the film's other two storylines come in.

The first takes place in 1910 Paris, at the time of the city's great flood, and is loosely inspired by Henry James' novella 'The Beast in the Jungle' (which was recently adapted as another French film maintaining its full title). James' story is about a man who is so obsessed with a feeling of impending catastrophe that it precludes him from enjoying a relationship with the woman who loves him. Bonello takes the starting point of that story for a doom-laden period romance, adorned with sumptuous settings and fabulous costumes that stand in stark contrast to the clinical drabness of the world we see in the later segments. Here Gabrielle is a famous concert pianist married to a doll maker who produces a bestselling line based on her image. At a society shindig one night Gabrielle encounters Louis (George MacKay), an Englishman who recalls meeting her in Naples six years earlier where she mentioned that she was consumed by a feeling of impending catastrophe. The two fall for one another but Gabrielle's fears mean she can't bring herself to express her true feelings for Louis.

The Beast review

One of the worst film reviewing cliches is to compare anything slightly off-kilter to the work of David Lynch, but there's no avoiding such comparisons with the film's second story, set in 2014 Los Angeles. The Gabrielle of this timeline is a French actress who has moved to California to make it in Hollywood, and is house-sitting one of those lavish mansions in the Hollywood hills while she tries to get her career started. Far from the dashing Louis of 1910, here we find MacKay playing Louis as an incel who drives around the city following oblivious women while he documents his grievances in a series of YouTube videos. Wouldn't you know it, Gabrielle finds herself in his sights.

In stark contrast to the 1910 story, which plays for the most part like a conventional period romance, the 2014 segment leans into that unique Los Angeles weirdness that we've seen in the work of Lynch, Nicolas Winding Refn and Tom Ford, a city filled with dead-eyed vampires constantly seeking fresh blood. The Lynch comparisons are compounded by the recurring motif of Gabrielle crying at a Roy Orbison song ('Evergreen'), even when it's being butchered by a bad karaoke singer in a very Lynchian TV show within the movie. With its Hollywood hills setting and stalking subplot, it's clearly also influenced by erotic thrillers, particularly David Schmoeller's The Seduction, in which Morgan Fairchild grows sympathetic towards her socially awkward stalker, played by Andrew Stevens.

Bonello creates a terrifying atmosphere, greatly aided by a deeply unsettling performance by MacKay, displaying remarkable range in his multiple roles. Gabrielle's sadness and feeling of alienation in a city of millions of unfriendly souls drives her towards Louis in a way that made me think of the women played by Debra Winger in James Bridges' Mike's Murder or Caroline Munro in William Lustig's Maniac. Like Lynch and Bridges, Bonello understands that there's nothing more upsetting than witnessing the spark leave a young woman's eyes as she's exposed to the cruelties of the world. When Seydoux lets out a primal scream, it's impossible not to think of Sheryl Lee's Laura Palmer.

The Beast review

It's in the wraparound 2044 storyline that The Beast is most in tune with Coma. Gabrielle visits a series of nightclubs, each themed on a specific year of the 20th century, where she encounters another version of Louis, an affable young man considering having his own DNA purified. Gabrielle is accompanied by Kelly (Guslagie Malanda), an android assigned to keep an eye on her while she undergoes the process. Kelly is essentially The Beast's version of the malevolent influencer played by Julia Faure in Coma. Faure also appears here as Sophie, a voice Gabrielle confides in and who causes us to wonder if she's human or another AI. Like the limbo forest of Coma, the nightclubs here allow for the expressions of free will denied elsewhere. Gilles Deleuze's warning about becoming caught up in other people's dreams is manifested in The Beast to sometimes horrific effect.

With all three storylines culminating in depressing denouements, The Beast might be considered a deeply cynical venture. And yet in the three Gabrielles we're given something to cling onto, a flower sprouting up through the tarmac of a paved paradise. As we enter an uncertain future guided by AI we're going to have to engage in serious philosophical questions about what it means to be human. With Hollywood intent on not just embracing AI but propagandising it with films like The Creator and Atlas, auteurs like Bonello and films like The Beast are set to play an important role. Like Gabrielle, we all feel we're headed towards an uncertain catastrophe, but for now at least, we still have free will. Exercise yours and see The Beast.

The Beast
 is in UK/ROI cinemas from May 31st.

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