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The Beast ★★★★★



Released: 31 May 2024

Director: Bertrand Bonello

Starring: Lea Seydoux, George Mackay

It’s rather startling to think that Bertrand Bonello’s Coma first screened over 2 years ago now – a film so deeply entrenched within the “lockdown movie” mode, yet one that rings especially prescient and timely today. This mention of Coma isn’t merely a reminder to go watch that film (seriously, it’s phenomenal), but a crucial piece of a larger puzzle that Bonello seems to have been constructing – from the start of his career, no less. Since the pandemic which irreparably altered our methods of human connection, it seems like the filmmaker’s fascination with the hidden depths of the psyche has shifted towards the future, his texts turning prognostic and increasingly lonely. It is truly a sign of the times that Bonello, in his typically post-modern fashion, chose to create something as sprawling and violently impenetrable as his latest, The Beast, amidst the cultural ubiquity of cynicism and artificial art. Where Coma looked at apocalyptic doom-scrolling and a teen’s worldview impacted by technology, The Beast is an all-encompassing, Odyssean look at emotions lost to time within the world of pervasive spiritual isolation.

Taking its inspiration from Henry James’s novella The Beast in the Jungle, Bonello’s cinematic triptych is an intertwined romance spanning over a century. By 2044, AI has taken over the world deeming humans obsolete due to their emotions, replacing jobs with centralized data centres. Each and every facet of existence is now managed by phlegmatic machines, who urge humans to “purify the DNA” in order to adapt to this hollow new world. Distraught by her seemingly aimless existence, Gabrielle (Léa Seydoux) decides to undergo the DNA surgery and by doing so, experiences radically different past lives from the years 1910 and 2014.

With hints of Twin Peaks and Cloud Atlas, Bonello’s latest is truly an untamed beast: a film so radical in its rejection of contemporary cinematic conventions and unsentimental love stories, one may find it difficult to readjust themselves to its tragic humanism. There’s something utterly nightmarish in Bonello’s reworking of James’s text to fit the techno anxieties of the 2020s, a world of tomorrow turned into a momentous elegy for human connection. Where Coma felt like a premonition of the watershed moment, The Beast functions as its ideological successor, with Bonello bracing for the post-apocalyptic future of eternal solitude.

And once again, it all comes down to the terrors of gender. As Gabrielle dives headfirst into the DNA purifying experiences across the generations, she encounters Louis (George MacKay) – a man, whose taciturn elegance feels almost synthetic. Both of them are stuck within the confines of their time-appropriate personas: 1910’s wide-eyed Gabrielle moulded after the design of her husband’s dolls, while her 2014 rendition is a model who’s being preyed upon by Louis’s craven incel. But despite the heart-breaking costume drama of the 1910 or the sexless voyeur thriller of 2014, it is 2044 that acts as a surmise for the tangible lack of sincerity in the AI-dominated world – the greatest tragedy of all. This progressive decline of on-screen desire mirrors the cultural shift in the algorithmic art of today, subjugating earnestness with calculated detachment.

With The Beast, Bonello mourns cinema that challenged the viewer to feel, to connect, to share the difficult emotions that define us. It was allowed to be messy and melodramatic, devoid of strategic decisions mandated by the engagement-fuelled structures of late-stage capitalism. “There must be beautiful things in this chaos”, Gabrielle tries to assure Louis in her 2014 memory, hoping the course of time heals our collective wounds and shapes the future where love can coexist alongside the imperturbable machines. As we enter the new era of AI-infused art and dispassionate filmmaking, her statement echoes throughout the empty cinema halls – a guttural scream that will never be heard.

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