It does rather feel as if the universe — or at least the French film industry — is trying to tell us something when 2023 has turned up not one but two loose Gallic adaptations of Henry James’s “The Beast in the Jungle.” That 1903 novella was about a man, John Marcher, who fails to fully live his life because he’s seized by premonitions of catastrophe that never visibly come to pass. It feels glumly relevant in an age of climate change, artificial intelligence and other obvious but indefinite signals of human demise; perhaps we should count this highly specific cinematic mini-trend as another.
Spare a thought for director Patric Chiha’s “The Beast in the Jungle,” a Berlinale premiere earlier this year, with an already modest profile about to be dwarfed by Bertrand Bonello’s starrier, bigger-swinging “The Beast” — a gender-switched James riff in which said catastrophe is very much happening, hovering in the wings or dully in the past, depending on which of its three timelines you’re in. It’s a typically heady brew from Bonello, fashioning the story as a tragic romance spun out across centuries, variously buffeted by the tragedies of natural disaster, toxic masculinity and technological takeover. A first foray into science fiction for the filmmaker, it’s nonetheless of a piece with the formal itch and social unrest of his previous work, not least with the hyper-online techno-paranoia of last year’s lockdown feature “Coma.”
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But it’s also a bit of a drag. Laden with enticing ideas and images that never quite activate each other, “The Beast” instead coagulates into a thick 146-minute triptych of general, fidgeting malaise, and strands a hard-working Léa Seydoux and George MacKay in a cross-time, cross-purposes relationship that keeps shape-shifting without getting us terribly involved. Whether they’re pursuing each other through 1910, 2014 or 2044, there’s no real crackle of chemistry between the stars, which may well be by design. In splicing James’s parable of self-isolation across timelines, toward a point where people voluntarily hollow out their souls to live more efficiently, Bonello has made a film palpably frustrated by a lack of human contact and connection, though it’s frustrating for viewers in turn.
Perhaps it’s best to begin at the end: Paris in 2044, where A.I. advancements have sapped human society of vitality and fundamental employment. Gabrielle (Seydoux) accepts that to find any kind of fulfilling work, she must “purify” her DNA, ridding herself of memories and emotions, and become an automaton herself — as must Louis (MacKay), an oddly familiar young man in the same bind. The clinical process further entails revisiting past lives and incarnations, volleying us to 1910, where Gabrielle and Louis meet in Belle Époque high society, on the eve of the Great Flood of Paris, when the Seine burst its banks, causing mass destruction though no reported deaths. (Bonello’s version of history has a little something to say about that.)
The two are drawn to each other, though Gabrielle coyly refuses to commit, haunted by visions of disaster. A little over a century later, however, in 2014, the dynamic is very different, and the disaster is Louis himself — now a wealthy, men’s-rights-spouting Los Angeles incel, with an increasingly unhinged resentment of the women who won’t give him the time of day. Lonely and adrift in a hostile, unfamiliar city, French model-actor Gabrielle isn’t one of those, though her overtures of kindness don’t placate his vengeful stalking, nor his deranged, increasingly threatening vlog posts.
Structurally, it’s a curious affair, with its trio of timelines rather haphazardly staggered by Bonello and editor Anita Roth: The film’s first half toggles between the distant past and the future, with the near-present lapping them in the second. There’s the sense here, perhaps, of a more dizzily complex narrative having been slightly unbraided for the sake of clarity; if so, it’s come at some cost to rhythm, for these parallel stories don’t reflect or bounce off each other as playfully as they might. The 1910 strand, the film’s most emotionally affecting portion — and, as the only one that DP Josée Deshaies shoots in creamy 35mm, the most formally seductive — is also the one the concludes earliest, with a grand flourish of star-crossed romanticism that the remainder of “The Beast” doesn’t match.
There are sensory rewards, too, in Bonello’s stark imagining of a depleted, anemic near-future — cleverly and economically visualized by production designer Katia Wyszkop not as a time of eye-popping, hi-tech innovations but of growing absence and depopulation — plus the welcome presence of “Saint Omer” revelation Guslagie Malanda, as an ambiguous ally to Gabrielle, to break up the Seydoux-MacKay show. The Los Angeles section is altogether the film’s least persuasive: Not especially authentic-feeling in milieu or pop-cultural detailing, it relies for its impact on a bravely repulsive performance by MacKay (replacing the late Gaspard Ulliel, with whom Bonello developed the film, and to whom it’s dedicated), but Louis’s plight feels too topically ripped from the headlines to startle quite as it should.
It does, however, contain the film’s single most exhilarating coup de cinéma, and a nifty metaphor for James’s phantom fears, as Gabrielle performs a green-screen audition for a horror film, with only sound to clue us into the threats facing her amid the eye-searing fluorescent blaze — the images neatly, time-bendingly filled in later. It’s a reminder that Bonello still ranks among the great, puckish formalists of contemporary French cinema, even if “The Beast” wants for “Nocturama’s” breathtaking architectural precision or “Zombi Child’s” elastic political curiosity. So high on its own conceptual intricacies that it forgets to breathe — or, like the pigeon that keeps waddling into the frame as a comical harbinger of doom, to take graceful flight — it keeping pulling away from us, like Gabrielle or John Marcher, distracted by the weight on its mind.
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