The Beast: “One of my obsessions is how we can live without our dead people”

English Daily #1
The Beast (Bertrand Bonello, France/Canada, 2023), Twisted Apricot, 8-7 22:00 House of Cinema H. Malyan Hall

Starring Lea Seydoux in three different time periods, Bertrand Bonello’s latest feature The Beast is a wildly ambitious exercise in genre, spilling over from a period piece into dystopian science fiction, with a home invasion thriller somewhere in between. As such it’s the ideal opener for this years’ Twisted Apricot program, which presents some of the best and most out-there genre films from the film festival circuit. However, if we are to believe the director himself, we shouldn’t call The Beast a genre film at all. Instead, Bonello conceived of it as an epic melodrama. “Maybe I shouldn’t say this because it’s not very commercial,” the French director jokingly admits in Venice after the world premiere of his tenth feature film, “but the actual subject of the film is loneliness.”

Jumping from 1910 to 2044 and then back to 2014, what ties all these era’s together is Seydoux’ lone protagonist, a tragic woman who constantly believes that some kind of catastrophe is imminent. This is Bonello’s play on Henry James’ classic short story The Beast in the Jungle (1903), a text that’s been adapted multiple times by other filmmakers, but never with the visceral intensity on display here. This creeping sense of dread is a constant in The Beast, resulting in deeply unsettling and exciting scenes. Bonello earlier made the rebellious movie Nocturama (2016) about teenagers in France staging multiple terrorist attacks against the late capitalist society, and seems to be channeling his own dystopian thoughts about the world in this particular opus. “I’ve learned that in every period, you can mix intimate catastrophes with something collective,” he explains. “For example, when I was a kid, my parents always told me tomorrow is going to be better than yesterday. Now I have to tell my own daughter that tomorrow is actually going to be worse. With terrorism, unemployment and ecological disasters, where do you still find the light?”

From its sprawling narrative to its claustrophobic moments of violence, Bonello’s haunting thoughts inform every choice made in The Beast. Death and danger are always around a corner, giving the film an almost supernatural quality as well. “I like the fact that it can be seen as a ghost story,” Bonello concurs with this reading of the film. “One of my obsessions is how we can live without dead people. It’s something very strong in my earlier films like Coma (2022), but also in Zombi Child (2019). What to do with the dead from the past, that’s the ultimate cinema question for me.”

Hugo Emmerzael