Credit: Aurora Films
by Morris Yang Featured Film

The Beast in the Jungle — Patric Chiha [Berlinale ’23 Review]

February 28, 2023

It’s arguably a Sisyphean task to adapt Henry James’ late work to the screen, and in particular his 1903 novella The Beast in the Jungle. With erudite intellect and an esoteric tongue, the novelist’s enigmatic tale of life, death, and the indelible touch of desire on both resists interpretation as much as it philanders around the realm of exegesis and explanation. John Marcher and May Bartram meet one mysterious evening at a party, and they discover they had met before, some years ago. A secret had been spilled then, one so potent yet impenetrable, of “the sense of being kept for something rare and strange, possibly prodigious and terrible, that was sooner or later to happen.” Years pass since the two are reacquainted, and she, having agreed to keep vigil over his fate, does so with conviction and discretion, until he suspects her of knowing something he doesn’t. The Beast has pounced, or it is pouncing, or it soon will; haunted by this indeterminacy, as well as the futile reminiscing of a life gone to waste by its hands, John lives out the rest of his days a broken, defeated man.

And yet, several adaptations have been spun: one in 2017 by a Brazilian directorial trio (Paulo Betti, Lauro Escorel, and Eliane Giardini), another in 2019 by Dutch filmmaker Clara van Gool, an upcoming scenario simply titled The Beast, helmed by French maestro Bertrand Bonello, and — at present — a lush, hypnotic, if sometimes impassive rendition of a Parisian nightclub as liminal, timeless space. Patric Chiha’s follow-up to If It Were Love, his 2020 documentary on the lives of dancers in Gisèle Vienne’s touring piece Crowd, retains the latter’s magnetism and trains it on the ecstatic but equally fatalistic landscape of which John (Tom Mercier) and May (Anaïs Demoustier) now find themselves a part. Spanning a quarter of a century, from 1979 to 2004, The Beast in the Jungle has the trappings of a museological survey, gazing coolly across the throngs of hot-blooded sensuality and youth, witnessing their dynamism in stasis. Epochs change, but time stands still. All around the duo, sound and color alternate, fluctuate, as time’s arrow moves with indescribable finality toward the black hole of the future, cautious in practice but consistent in its ambition for something to transpire and shake the world.

The many interpretations of James’ novella, spawned over a century, tend toward the repressed and the psychosexual: Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, in Epistemology of the Closet, points to male homosexual panic as bestial emblem, while other readers and literary scholars alike have examined the gaping negativity at the beast’s heart, of desire deferred, consummation feared, communion unrealized. Strikingly Kafkaesque in its conceit — with a keen paradoxical parallel in the Bohemian author’s parable “Before the Law” — and adorned with dysfunctionally ornate expression, the tale of John and May both enthralls and frustrates; or rather, enthralls precisely because it frustrates. To adapt it, then, would entail a denial of finality, the better to receive, with open arms, the clarion call of the void. Chiha recognizes this, and his oneiric venture is quick to immerse its participants and onlookers into an irresistible torpor.

There are some faults to this. We, for one, aren’t privy to the interiority of our doomed lovers, one who loves with indecision and one who loves himself so that he may not confront the insurmountable fear of loving another. The magnetism on the dance floor, in other words, is an exhibit sealed off from us and the world, its hedonistic reveries left to significations to be borne and breathed within Chiha’s tableaux vivants and not by the outsider. As periods shift, their costumes and cultures change: music flits from disco to techno beat, crossdressing — women with pencil mustaches, men in lipstick sheen — turns toward modern garb, and the festering orgiastic tension marking John and May’s fateful encounter shifts, ever so subtly, in the direction of cool, casual neon. History, too, is dutifully transcribed into an otherwise ahistorical locale by means of reportage, a televised montage of AIDS, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the Twin Towers as some of the markers that persist in spite of the collective longing for escapism.

Yet one can’t help but be beguiled by the mise en scène sensuously lensed by Céline Bozon, an aesthetic miasma that aches even as the languorous camera itself doesn’t. The chronological presentation recalls, somewhat unexpectedly, Annie Ernaux’s autobiographical novel The Years, which recounted a collective bourgeois history through the post-war decades in France; the central threat lurking, however, remains an object of anxious neurosis throughout, even to those well-acquainted with James and his other adaptations. As the years now spiral toward an inevitable horizon, the retroactive veil soon peels free and uncovers its shrouded contents. Béatrice Dalle, as the club’s bouncer (styled the “Physiognomist”), remains as others come and go, like a watchful omen in service of the titular Beast that never comes — or does come, only too late. She guards the night, but lets it loose when the time is up; the nocturnal odyssey of The Beast in the Jungle thus chases its mystical tail like an ouroboros, eternally confined to the ghosts of lovers past, forever destined for a spectral, forgotten grave.

Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 8.5.