Credit: NYFF/Film at Lincoln Center
by Morris Yang Featured Film Spotlight

The Beast — Bertrand Bonello

April 5, 2024

“You were to suffer your fate. That was not necessarily to know it.” So declares May Bartram to John Marcher, both doomed lovers of Henry James’ epochal novella, The Beast in the Jungle. Doomed they are, however, not as lovers, but as precisely those for whom love proves elusive and impossible; and May does not quite declare this utterance, sibylline, so much as she pronounces it in retrospect and with regret. The obsessive panic and portending of doom, for James, necessarily precludes foreknowledge of it, and it’s this cruelest of ironies which he inflicts on the suffering celibate along with his hopeless beloved. The parallels with history cannot be clearer: Kierkegaard’s injunction of faith in “looking forward,” Hegel’s tempering of the dialectic in that Minervan owl which “spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk,” Sloterdijk’s diagnosis of the twentieth century as that insatiable search for ineluctable Truth — instantiated not as reality, but as ideology — all point to the terrible paradox between living and knowing, a conflict of will and thought played out endlessly in the theaters of wars and death camps. Between the individual and the world, there lie a multitude of selfsame conflicts, each preoccupied with telling their story whilst living it.

This desire to narrativize reflects a desire for control which, in most filmic adaptations of James’ text, presents itself rather conservatively; i.e., through the light ballroom steps and dancerly grace meant to both reflect and literalize the author’s florid linguistic constructions. Such confinement of textual source to its genre locale, though not undue, risks squandering the rich ambiguity of his prose for prosaic, stultifying interpretations; Patric Chiha’s eponymous version, for instance, does mesmerize with its “lush, hypnotic, if sometimes impassive rendition of a Parisian nightclub as liminal, timeless space,” but invites little more than academic scrutiny from those already keen on Jamesian allusion and neuroticism. In what will be rightly viewed as the novella’s most radical adaptation thus far, however, the French filmmaker Bertrand Bonello transposes the tale of John and May onto a dazzling canvas — spanning three time periods across two centuries — over which fate and history are, like Apollo and Dionysus, diametrically opposed yet cunningly aligned. Arguably the most faithful adaptation put to screen as well, The Beast finds its fidelity mediated through its towering novelty, announcing a bleak and sterilized future where emotions are dead, historical time is confined, and past lives have become accessible for the purpose of bodily catharsis.

Against this twilit backdrop, two souls emerge, having always known each other. In 1910 Paris, Gabrielle (Léa Seydoux) meets Louis (George MacKay) at a ball and confides in him her premonition of a formless but deadly beast, entreating him to keep watch over when it should pounce. Gabrielle, a musician wedded to an enterprising dollmaker, faces her enlivened reality with languid imagination, hovering over her Belle Époque-milieu in a kind of trance: the great floods of that year are on arrival’s cusp, and the likes of Schoenberg and Stravinsky will soon revolutionize, then render vulnerable, the horizon of musical expression. Louis, likewise a member of Parisian high society, intercedes — first through a spiritual medium, the better to anticipate the future with, and then with his hand, professing a love which Gabrielle unhappily rejects. The beast, naturally, is this refusal of love, that fear of consummation that strikes them amid a torrent of flood and flame. John and May, their sexes now inverted, continuously strive and continuously fail to achieve the literary grandeur promised them by their time; the age of Modernism, as it were, heralds tremulous premonitions but withholds their breathless cadences from materializing.

Slightly over a century later, in 2014, the beast strikes again — Gabrielle, now an aspiring model in Los Angeles, soaks in its balmy afternoons and cacophonous nightlife whilst house-sitting in a resplendent abode; Louis, her star-crossed lover, appears in the periphery, looming menacingly with stocky build and vengeful countenance. “I only have sex in my dreams,” he announces, recording his life’s will and administering his last rites in front of a camera, malice and wounded pride swirling within and about to be unleashed in a blaze of cold fury. Reminiscent of the gunman Elliot Rodger, Louis forgoes celibacy this time not voluntarily, but unwillingly and arguably out of a penetrating fear of loving another. The “beautiful things in this chaos,” which Gabrielle tries in vain to convince him of, still inhere despite a century’s worth of upheaval and disillusionment. Past the gilded hallways of Parisian boudoirs, from some past life of hers, remain traces of action and intention (a table, a knife, an unseen threat), albeit conjured through greenscreen fog. If the 20th century was, in Merleau-Ponty’s view, an age of embodiment, the 21st teeters over into the zone of disembodiment, its digital smears and pixelated mirages conferring an excess of reality upon reality itself; the decline of the West, as popularly and calamitously intuited, follows from this rupture, while dread and the inevitable become one.

The third act of The Beast takes place in 2044, some years removed from the present day but curiously entangled with the latter’s preoccupations and nascent realities. High tension has made way for an aseptic nostalgia, and history and time have properly stopped. Paris, once again, comes under the camera’s mellow gaze, although this gaze has been emptied, stripped of vital substance. Under the hollow afternoon sun, the city’s vacant streets recall mausoleums, monumental in their dead vainglory; artificial intelligence has sought the total rationalization of society and consecrated the atomization of its individuals. Gabrielle, made anew, is out of work and in search of purpose, which she finds with a state-mandated caveat of emotional purification. She must purge the residue of her past lives, and in doing so re-enter life as homo economicus, trading in breathless stupefactions for airtight ones. “Nothing can happen to us now. The catastrophe is behind us,” parrot her contemporaries. Chancing upon Louis at the purification center, she meets him again at a dance floor, its changing years the simulacra for an eternal present. Through lives and deaths and life once more, the pair are united.

But this unity is fraught, of course; how could it not be? Bonello’s signifiers are numerous, but two most prominent are his figures of motion and stasis: the flight of the pigeon and the indifference of the doll. Flight is doom’s harbinger; indifference its tacit acceptance. Slowly, creeping through the ages, they settle, and in settling, enslave the lovers to their dispassion. Premonition, made sublunary thus, is proclaimed over in Bonello’s daringly sci-fi tour de force, the soul having been materially extracted and yielded over to empiricism. In The Beast, such empiricism first proves reactionary — amid the global crises of identity politics and sexual hedonism in 2014 — and then rote, when history, already ended in 2044, resurrects its marionettes one last time to expunge them. What Bonello realizes so radically throughout these interwoven periods is how the malaise of the present forever haunts its visions of the future, just as how the future has always arrived, is always the age of unattainable nostalgia for the light. With stylistic precision and visual panache, he fashions a haunting metaphysical reverie of the human soul, condemned to meaning it cannot decipher. Gabrielle, musing over the transition from porcelain to celluloid dolls in old Paris, becomes a doll herself in the city of broken dreams: substituting last-minute as the lead for a road safety commercial, she mounts a rig, is hoisted onto a slab by an imaginary vehicle, and collapses, frozen. “You’re dead!” the director tells her. “Don’t move. You are dead.

Death, for the denizens in The Beast as with James’, renounces fear and catastrophe, whereas life itself is the openness toward them. A counterpoint to mainstream Jamesian exegesis — which attributes John’s reticence to his queerness — may be found in Eugene Goodheart’s reading of The Beast in the Jungle, arguing that “what May knew,” namely, the “aesthetic consciousness” of John to which James affixes her undying devotion, constitutes the work’s underlying bestial tangent. Within this moral order, the stubborn aesthete finds solace through preservation; sentiment and emotion, which Schoenberg would develop to heart-stirring effect in his string sextet “Verklärte Nacht,” have little place here. But precisely because Bonello flirts with doomed love, his Dionysian personae are just as headstrong, just as staunch in their tempestuous embrace of asceticism untamed. They — Louis initially, as socialite, and then Gabrielle, as postlapsarian lamb — seek out, just as the prodigal Thomasina does in Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, the twin flames of wisdom and passion, echoing the lithe dolls of Bonello’s 2011 House of Tolerance: “If we don’t burn, how will the night be lit?” But the lit night is an Arcadian fantasy, evoked in the throes of certain ruin. “When it’s evergreen, evergreen / It will last through the summer and winter too,” croons Roy Orbison, his sentimental ballad fittingly installed, in the closing minutes, over the lovers’ dance of death. It is a dance of immense aching, of loving and fear, and of the ones we fear only because we love them the most.

DIRECTOR: Bertrand Bonello;  CAST: Léa Seydoux, George MacKay, Kester Lovelace, Guslagie Malanda, Dasha Nekrasova; DISTRIBUTOR: Sideshow / Janus Films;  IN THEATERS: April 5;  RUNTIME: 2 hr. 26 min

Originally published as part of NYFF 2023 — Dispatch 2.