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The Beast Review

The Beast Review

2044. Years earlier, an uprising left AI in control, and humans – who are experiencing a 67% unemployment rate – on the back foot. If they want a good job, they must submit to a process that removes their strong feelings, which the AI consider harmful to human prosperity. This involves reliving past lives, and reckoning with rogue emotions, in order to ‘purify’ their DNA.

Gabrielle (Léa Seydoux) is a reluctant participant, but yearning for a better life, she agrees to undergo the process. In 1910, she finds herself in Paris and married to a wealthy dollmaker, but she soon embarks upon an intense affair with Louis (George Mackay), who she feels she has met before. In 2014, she’s a struggling actress housesitting in LA, and Louis is an incel who sets his dangerous sights on her. She catches up with Louis again when she’s back in 2044, and he’s another human struggling with the same process as her. In whatever timeline they’re in, despite their evident attraction, their relationship is haunted by the inescapable spectre of doom.

The Beast – written and directed by Bertrand Bonello, and loosely based on the Henry James short story The Beast in the Jungle  – is a wildly ambitious movie, dizzying in the scale of its ideas. Yet there’s a pinpoint precision to the way it conjures up the shadow of existential dread that follows Gabrielle everywhere she goes, and will feel mighty familiar to anyone who’s ever battled anxiety. Although the film is set up as a science fiction, prominent threads about Incel culture and the rise of AI ground it very much in our current lived reality (Bonello actually started the screenplay in 2017, and was himself surprised at how timely it would turn out to be).

Throughout the movie, and across the three timelines, there are recurring motifs that give The Beast a puzzle box quality that is in turns fun and disturbing in a distinctly Lynchian manner. Pigeons are omens of death. Dolls appear in various guises – sentient and not. Snatches of dialogue are repeated, and recontextualised. Clairvoyants are always close at hand. Despite its skipping back and forth through time and genre, these motifs help keep together a movie that could so easily have been unwieldy, or even incomprehensible. Even in the wildest moments, it never seems as if Bonello has lost control.

Arguably more impressive still is the ever-reliable Léa Seydoux, who here turns in what might be the finest performance of her career to date. Whilst she’s technically playing the same character throughout, it’s the same character from several very different angles, and the way she inhabits these differences whilst making sure the various Gabrielles are still recognisably shades of the same person is hugely impressive. And though she experiences a broad, intense array of emotions over the film’s two and a half hours, the role necessitates a certain restraint (after all, she’s trying to convince her AI overlords she can hold her feelings in check), which the enigmatic actor manages without issue. When she does scream, you feel it right in your very core.

Borderline miraculous in its marriage of huge scope and tight control, The Beast is an unforgettable experience.


The Beast – in cinemas 31 May 2024

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