4 Stars

Both art-house and high-minded sci-fi aficionados will find common ground for watching the thought-provoking and ambitious The Beast. French actress Léa Seydoux continues to prove she’s an actress of great emotional range and versatility (especially coming off a remarkable supporting performance in Denis Villeneuve’s Dune: Part Two), while British actor George MacKay (1917) also delivers a fascinating performance of many layers. Permeated with much of the same atmosphere and visual style as Nocturama, but considerably even more surrealist and far more emotionally resonating, Bertrand Bonello’s latest film will certainly be a niche treasure, one that could take years to be fully appreciated, but it’s obvious it’s going to continue to make a return in remembrance due to how fascinating the experience is.

The 145-minute mind-bender premiered at the Venice and New York Film Festival, and the film will now be reaching its limited theatrical release in North America by Janus Films, where the sci-fi film is loosely based on Henry James’s 1903 novella titled The Beast in the Jungle. Structurally, the film echoes Cloud Atlas as it takes place in three separate narratives set in 1910, 2014, and 2044, with Seydoux and MacKay playing different versions of themselves, where each story holds themes of missed connections, loneliness, fate, love, and death. With that, we get various aesthetics of different settings depicting the early 1900s while also getting a futuristic city that is mostly populated by artificial intelligence and where most of the citizens long for the past. The 2014 setting is saved for last, while elements of the futuristic setting are sporadically juxtaposed and interwoven into the narrative as it progresses.

The Beast (2024)

Courtesy Janus Films

The film is certainly going to divide moviegoers due to its radical approach that echoes some surrealism of David Lynch, the visual and structural innovation of Jean-Luc Godard, and thematic approach to Tom Tykwer and the Wachowski Sisters Cloud Atlas. For the record, The Beast was wrongfully rejected at Cannes due to severe competition but still played to mostly positive acclaim at the Venice and New York Film Festivals. After missing the New York Film Festival screening, I wish I had made time for this astounding piece of cinema upon watching it.

The Beast has the tone of a fever dream, one that juxtaposes both the past and the future. An audacious piece of cinema that will certainly be celebrated as a highlight in Bonello’s filmmaking career. It’s fascinating, bizarre, and unsettling—one that makes you think of our modern demoralization, where you constantly feel impending doom lurking in the aura of the film. It’s a film about many things, and most importantly, how technology has shaped an era of alienation and narcissism while the future remains uncertain and so much of the past is mysterious. One thing most of humankind is concerned about is how technology can soon replace it, as Bonello envisions a futuristic world with a very high unemployment rate where even companionship and friendship are replaced with artificial intelligence.

In Henry James’s The Beast in the Jungle, which was about a paralyzed man who kept feeling something horrifying was going to happen to him, a beast lurks in the background. In Bonello’s version, each of Seydoux’s Gabrielle characters in each era also feels dread skulking in the background. Bonello will certainly be compared to Lynch here, as we follow Gabrille in different eras where she is reincarnated or exists in parallel realities.

The Beast (2023)

Courtesy Janus Films

The film opens in 2044, where we follow Garbrielle, who is going through an AI process that will refine her DNA and clear out her anxieties that exist from her past lives. She encounters a young man named Louis (MacKay), who has also pondered the process. Interesting enough, this procedure is done in a tub of black liquid that echoes how Baron Harkonnen bathes in Dune. The film travels through Gabrielle’s psyche, where we see her past lives emerge.

The story shifts to Paris, where Gabrielle is married to a porcelain doll manufacturer. It’s the only section where Gabrielle is married. She is a pianist, and we see their chemistry flourish with Louis in this era, who is an admirer of her music. The scenes hold great intimacy, where Gabrielle resists Louis’s passions and desires, but their connection is indisputable. It’s the moment in the film where love feels the most passionate. The story carries through the Great Flood of Paris during a sequence of pure technical bravura that is one of the many greatly staged moments in this film by Bonello and cinematographer Josée Deshaies. It’s a tense sequence where the only way Gabrielle and Louis can escape the flood is by swimming underneath the submerged stairways of floating dead rats and other critters that drowned from the flooding.

The Beast

Courtesy Janus Films

In the final act and most gripping, the film takes place in 2014, where Gabrielle is a model and actress who acts in greenscreen movies where she sits in a wealthy man’s home. She also goes to clubs, where her loneliness shines. Meanwhile, we see Louis again, this time as a menacing incel who films his own misogynist manifestos and uploads them to YouTube. His character is influenced by Elliot Rodger, who uploaded his vile manifestos on social media and tragically killed six people and wounded fourteen others in the summer of 2014.

We see Louis following and stalking Gabrielle, who can feel a brutal presence, which leads her to contact an online psychic who agrees with her sense of danger. The moment in the film of Louis following Gabrielle in her car builds up great tension that echoes the final episode of Lynch’s Twin Peaks: The Return. This is all interwoven into a glimpse of the future of Gabrielle bathing in the black liquid as a robot pierces the center of the ear with a needle, and she builds a friendship with Poupee Kelly (Gusagie Malanda), who takes her to different clubs that are named after certain years (1972, 1980) that only play music from that certain era.

The Beast

Courtesy Janus Films

Quite simply, The Beast is a mind-blowing work of art, a triumph of artistry where themes, impeccable craftsmanship, and exquisite images prove that the power of cinema is still at work. Bonello awes you with its perplexity and audacity, and he does a masterful job in inviting you to get lost in the experience. The film effectively invokes a fear—a surreal feeling that is indescribable. Without a doubt, it’s transfixing and hypnotic, and once you see it, you will soon realize that repeat viewings are inevitable.

THE BEAST opens in limited theaters Friday, April 5th.