La Bête (The Beast)

The Indelible Beast Within

March 2, 2024By Heidi EllisonFilm
Gabrielle (Léa Seydoux) and Louis (George MacKay) at a ball in 1910 in Bertrand Bonello’s <em>La Bête (The Beast).</em>
Gabrielle (Léa Seydoux) and Louis (George MacKay) at a vernisage in 1910 in Bertrand Bonello’s La Bête (The Beast).

Director Bertrand Bonello’s latest film, La Bête (The Beast), is a very stylish movie, carried along by its star Léa Seydoux’s undeniably charming pout, or should I say pouts, as she seems to be pouting – and otherwise expressionless – in every scene of the movie, which confusingly takes her back and forth several times from 1910 to 2044, with a stop in Los Angeles in 2014.

No matter what era we find her in, however, Seydoux’s character Gabrielle has another distinguishing feature: a vague sense of dread – the feeling that she is in store for a major catastrophe – that she just can’t shake off and that prevents her from truly loving anyone. Bonello got this idea from Henry James’s 1903 novella The Beast in the Jungle, which the film is loosely based on. In the book, however, the main character is a man, and the fear of catastrophe affects only one lifetime, not various past and future lives as in the film. In each of these lives, the same would-be lover, Louis (George MacKay), is present.

The past lives gimmick gives Bonello the chance to explore different genres. We have the costume drama set in Belle Époque Paris and a classic horror film in LA in 2014, when Gabrielle is living in an isolated hillside house that is, of course, all glass walls. Louis, her pretendant in other lives, is here a serial killer stalking her, an angry incel who hates women because they won’t sleep with him.

Gabrielle undergoing a black-bath treatment in 2044 to have all emotions erased from her DNA.
Gabrielle undergoing a black-bath treatment in 2044 to have all emotions erased from her DNA.

Then we have the science fiction scenes that take place in the future, at a time when the world is run by artificial intelligence. Computers are hard at work trying to scrub all emotions from Gabrielle’s DNA, including her existential angst, which she has been carrying around with her “for centuries,” according to the voice speaking to her. Inexplicably, however, the erasure treatment doesn’t work in Gabrielle’s case. This process, which begins with a robot arm injecting a needle into her ear, takes place with Gabrielle dressed in a black latex bodysuit and immersed in a bathtub filled with a black liquid. Why is she so resistant to treatment? Well, I suppose it’s because her “hidden beast” is even stronger than AI.

The French reviews of this strange, beautifully filmed, overlong (2 hours and 26 minutes) movie were mostly extremely positive, with many critics calling it a masterpiece and comparing it to the work of two Davids: Lynch and Cronenberg – a little existential angst goes far in this country.

Not all the reviews were positive, however. I have to agree with the critic for Le Journal du Dimanche, who called La Béte “a film as bloated as it is labyrinthine, as annoying as it is boring.”


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