HomeMoviesVenice Film Festival Review: The Beast (La Bête)

Venice Film Festival Review: The Beast (La Bête)

Photo Credit: Venice International Film Festival

Co-writer-director Bertrand Bonnello was “freely inspired” by Henry James’s The Beast In The Jungle for his script for The Beast. Its protagonist believes that he is defined by some catastrophic, horrible event that awaits them — like a “beast in a jungle.” So, it might be difficult to imagine how a loose-adaptation of a Henry James novella could lead to a Cloud Atlas-esque thriller that’s part period piece, part contemporary satire that references mass murdering incel, Elliot Rodgers, and part science-fiction. Despite the seeming incompatibility of these things, they all find a foundation in the film’s opening scene. Gabrielle (Lea Seydoux), an actress, is on a green screen and she’s instructed by an offscreen director to imagine a horror. She is told to scream at that horror. She does. 

If the protagonist of James’s novella is defined by his belief in this coming catastrophic event, the opening of Bonnello’s film taps into the notion of belief, and, in doing so, invites the audience in. When Gabrielle stands on a green screen, the most artificial film set imaginable, and screams at a non-existent horror, we are invited to believe that, through the process of acting, this is not Lea Seydoux, but Gabrielle. We’re further invited to believe that, through the process of acting, this is not Gabrielle, but another, unnamed human being. We’re invited to believe that this other sees an offscreen horror, and it horrifies her. This moment may occur in the most artificial context possible, but it is the artificiality that allows us to get to the core emotion. By not looking at Lea Seydoux, by not looking at Gabrielle, but by looking at this unnamed human being tapping into a most primal emotion, we are left to ask: where does this impersonated terror come from? From what truth does Gabrielle’s auditioning, performative screams tap into?

It’s through this notion of belief that the purpose of the shifting timelines is revealed. The period piece elements take place in 1910, the contemporary elements in 2014, and the science-fiction elements that unite them are founded in 2044, with Lea Seydoux playing a woman named Gabrielle and George Mackay (who, giving an excellent performance in his own right, took over the role for the late Gaspard Ulliel, for whom the role was written with Ulliel in mind as far back as 2017) playing a man named Louis in all three. In 1910, Gabrielle and Louis are aristocratic lovers that, supposedly, can never be, as Gabrielle is married.

In 2014, Gabrielle is a struggling actress and model, and Louis is an Elliot Rodgers type: a monstrous loser that thinks it is his god-given right to sleep with women, and if they won’t sleep with him, it’s the women that are the problem. When the film cuts from Gabrielle in 2044 to Gabrielle in 1910, we believe that there is a correlation between this woman in two different time periods, that they have a consistent, underlying soul. The distinct tones of these different periods also complement each other, as they require the audience to look even harder for the correlations. Seeing Louis be a prim and proper gentleman in 1910 and then take on the persona of a monstrous loser in 2014 is a harsh juxtaposition, and it invites you to ask what this means about perceptions and realities of masculinity in these different times. It’s the science fiction elements in 2044 that are meant to reconcile these disparities, going so far as to be Gabrielle’s explicit goal during the time: when trying a new method of purging emotion, she has to confront her past lives, and sits in a pool of black goo with some techno brain device inspecting them.

However, while the science fiction elements are decidedly not real in our world, it’s the 2014 segment that is the most explicitly surreal. Sure, brain-altering black goo may not exist, but you’ll believe it exists the way you might believe in The Force in Star Wars. Conversely, in 2014, the unreality of cinema is most explicitly explored. There are tried and true dream sequences, like when Gabrielle invites a man into the house she’s looking after, and sleeps with him, only to scream in horror when it turns out to be a completely different person. However, the film will also rewind, fast forward, and freeze footage repeatedly, in an attempt to give you hope of a different outcome from what you’re expecting. One particularly compelling moment shows the door to the room Gabrielle locked herself in, with Louis outside, and Gabrielle pleading for him to leave. Having already seen this moment, the film fast forwards from a certain point (let’s call it Point A), and then the frame freezes (let’s call it Point B). After freezing at Point B, the sound continues on from Point A, and the frame resumes motion when the sound finally aligns with the image of point B. 

These formal exercises are both disorienting and grounding. It’s as if, in establishing and re-establishing moments, in calling back to them in unique ways that explore different cinematic techniques, we are meant to question the certainty of these events, question whether or not they’re inevitable. This feeds into Gabrielle’s own mentality, for she believes she might be able to fix Louis. She sees glimpses of compassion, of regret, and she wonders if things have to be as they are, if things have to be as the audience believes they will be. 

That we compare Louis to the monstrous losers like Elliot Rodgers is intentional, and is another testament to the film’s interest in belief. We look at the explicitly artificial opening, with an actress pretending to be an actress pretending to see an unseen terror, and relate to the primal emotion. We understand the truth, the reality of this just as we understand the reality of monsters like Elliot Rodgers. We can take that reality and rewind it, freeze it, be kind to it, sleep with it, all sorts of things, but that reality is always there. It’s lying in wait. Like a beast in the jungle.

The Beast (La Bête) is currently on the festival circuit and premieres international in February 2024.


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