The Beast (2023) Review

The Beast (2023) Review

The Beast (2023)
Director: Bertrand Bonello
Screenwriter: Bertrand Bonello
Starring: Léa Seydoux, George MacKay

One of the most anticipated films of the 2024 Glasgow Film Festival was Bertrand Bonello’s centuries-spanning tale of romance and obsession, The Beast. Starring Léa Seydoux (No Time to Die) and festival favourite George MacKay (1917), the film had the star power to garner attention, the story to gain interest, and the runtime to intrigue many. Making your choices at any film festival is always a risk, and coming in at one hundred and forty-five minutes, The Beast successfully marketed itself as a science fiction epic. Was it worth the hype?

Loosely adapted from Henry James’s “The Beast in the Jungle”, the latest from Saint Laurent and House of Tolerance director Bertrand Bonello finds its setting in the year 2044, a future in which emotion is deemed dangerous and society strives for apathy. The film follows Léa Seydoux’s character Gabrielle as she attempts to ‘purify’ her DNA from emotions, a process which leads her on a trip through her past lives. In the process, it becomes clear that her multiple existences have been entwined with those of a man named Louis (MacKay), for good and for ill. 

Focusing on three separate existences – in 1910, 2014, and 2044 – the major differences in setting allow the film to jump between genres such as romantic drama, thriller and science fiction. Whilst the film prefers to flow between these timelines rather than showing them one after the other, it is only natural that such major differences in sections of the film will lead to many differing views on what section of the film they thought worked best. Equally so, for fans of the film, which section you like the most could change depending on the mood, leading to a film that in its very nature has great rewatch value. Be that as it may, each section certainly has its pros and cons.

The 1910 portion of the film follows the repressed love between the married Gabrielle and socialite Louis. The 2014 section see’s MacKay play Louis Lewinsky, an Elliot Rodger-inspired wannabe killer who stalks Seydoux’s model through Los Angeles. And lastly, the 2044 section sees Gabrielle trying to purify her DNA, yet still being drawn to Louis.

Opening during a ball in Paris in 1910, we are introduced to Louis and Gabrielle as they discuss their first meeting at a previous event. Though the context of the dialogue is very literal, the premise of the film gives it a subtext that points towards their meetings in past lives. With this in mind, and with the brilliant chemistry between Seydoux and MacKay apparent, we very quickly buy into the fact that these two characters are forever deeply tangled in each other’s web. As we see more of their lives in the early 20th century, we see the two grow fonder of each other, yet they suppress their feelings. This repressed love allows for two incredible performances by the lead actors, perhaps best shown in one scene in which the two simply hold hands, a perfect example of restraint and desire.

Though the portion of the film that takes place in 1910 comes with its own set of issues, such as some foreshadowing and symbolism which work more as a red herring than anything else, it is still the most impressive part of The Beast thanks to its fantastic production design and enticing relationship presentation.

Bonello does a terrific job as director when it comes to setting up the film and the bigger picture that it represents. Not only do we believe that these two individuals have played a major role in each other’s lives, but we are desperate to see their other relationships and how they will play out. Whilst the change in the dynamic between Gabrielle and Louis, from lovers to stalker and prey to strangers in the night, is interesting on paper and allows Bonello to experiment with style, genre, and story, in execution the overlap gets a little muddy. 

Such drastic changes in character, setting, and style essentially work as a reset. Though we feel the connection between these characters, it weakens with each crossing from one lifetime to another. The change from an extravagant soirée in 1910 France to a handheld vlog from 2014 means Louis Lewinsky comes across as more jarring than effective. Equally so, things feel even more uneven when the changes in Louis’ character are so extreme, yet Gabrielle is virtually unchanged over one hundred-plus years.

Ultimately, such discrepancies in the storytelling and direction give us three wonderfully distinct performances from MacKay, who steals the spotlight in this one, yet three performances from Seydoux which grow tiresome in comparison. As the protagonist whom we follow throughout this sci-fi epic, Seydoux simply can’t keep our attention. 

Though The Beast works on paper and is certainly an intriguing idea, Bonello’s direction of the picture is ultimately what lets it down. There is not enough variety to keep things entertaining, not enough connective tissue to hold it together. The Beast crumbles before our very eyes long before the credits begin to roll.

With a promising start and an excellent performance by George MacKay, The Beast feels like a film that has all the right ingredients to work, but can conclusively be understood to be a recipe for disaster.

Score: 12/24

Rating: 2 out of 5.

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