The Beast (La Bête) seen for the BFI London Film Festival 2023
The Beast (La Bête) opens as it intends to go on, with a head-on shot of its protagonist Gabrielle (Léa Seydoux), whose face will remain a constant map modulating the film’s otherwise unstable narrative coordinates. Here, in a moment of pure metacinema, Gabrielle acts out – under audible instructions from an unseen male director – her growing dread as a terrifying beast approaches. Yet everything, apart from her responses, is conjured from the void, as she performs the sequence before a blank green screen, with all the external visuals to be added in post. So too the emotions, the very human presence, that Gabrielle shows appear in a vacuum of empty evergreen, drawn from nothing besides her past experience and her powers of projection.
Viewers too are in a vacuum, having to read Gabrielle’s face to imagine the otherwise non-existent scene, and likewise being kept in the dark about the precise context of this little prologue until much of writer/director Bertrand Bonello’s rather long feature has passed. For the next time that we see Gabrielle will be not in our own era of digital film, but over a century earlier in 1910 at an artists’ soirée. There, while searching for her husband Georges (Martin Scali), she will instead run into the Englishman Louis (George MacKay), who will insist that they have met – and exchanged intimacies – before, even though he seems a little less sure in which year or city on the artists’ circuit.
If this sounds like the set-up from Alain Resnais’ Last Year In Marienbad (1961), then here too, characters are caught in a looping, repeating destiny from which there may be no running away. Gabrielle is a celebrated pianist, anxious that she cannot find the emotion and soul in the modernist Schoenberg piece that she is currently rehearsing, even as her husband manages a factory modelling dolls – definitionally soulless, yet invested by their owners with feelings – on his wife’s visage and eyes. As pianist Gabrielle’s own eye wanders to Georges, and she reveals to him, not for the first time, her deep-seated apprehension about impending doom, Paris is submerged in an overwhelming flood, and the influence, however gender-switched, of Henry James’ 1903 novella The Beast in the Jungle surfaces.
Meanwhile, in the Paris of post-catastrophic 2044, as Gabrielle, sometimes attended by AI doll Kelly (Guslagie Malanda), contemplates having her DNA purified of the affective memories from her past lives, she meets Georges – who is considering the same treatment, and whom she is sure she has met before – in a Lynchian nightclub that specialises in retro evenings. And in 2014, French model Gabrielle housesits in the LA hills, contemplates plastic surgery and hopes to become an actress, even as she catches the eye of vlogging incel Georges who is incapable of understanding what is right in front of him.
The Beast divides itself into these three timelines while suggesting an infinity of further possible narratives across space and time, all playing out variants on the themes of thwarted love and ruin foretold. In other words, it is a recursive tragic romance, with dreams and dolls, ominous pigeons and uncanny prophetesses, a knife and a shadow on the wall, all serving as the motifs that bind together star cross’d lovers ever at risk of coming apart.
As Gabrielle keeps looking back to find rhythms and harmonies that are constantly deferred to the future, she is always weeping to the same evergreen song, unsure of her own individual identity but unable to escape the feelings that define her. Bonello’s metempsychotic melodrama is very much concerned with time – and at just shy of two and a half hours, it takes its own sweet time exploring the cycling traditions and epigenetic traumas of an apocalyptic history that, like the different performances of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly (1904) which different Gabrielles attend, keeps rewriting itself but always with essentially the same ending.
strap: Bertrand Bonello’s Marienbad-like metempsychotic melodrama rehearses the same doomed romance across three timelines
© Anton Bitel