As part of our coverage of the 48th annual Toronto International Film Festival, Meg Shields reviews the Bertrand Bonello’s era-spanning sci-fi romance ‘The Beast.’ Follow along with more coverage in our Toronto International Film Festival archives.
Set in a theoretical 2044 where AI has all but eliminated human error and emotion, our heroine, Gabrielle (Léa Seydoux) is looking for a job. Unfortunately, “imperfections” in her DNA preclude her from more stimulating work. But, luckily, there’s a solution: a procedure somewhere between Scientology’s engrams and a Buddhist cleanse. It’s a temporal lobotomy of sorts; it won’t hurt a bit (so they say).
And so, Gabrielle watches passively as her past lives are erased one by one. First: a version of herself that was an esteemed composer in early 1900s Paris. Then: another Gabrielle from 2014 who moved to Los Angeles to become an actress. But of the various consistencies echoing throughout her past, one looms large: a compelling, catastrophe-courting man named Louis (George MacKay).
Untangling itself with non-linear zeal, The Beast is the latest genre foray from French director Bertrand Bonello. As with 2019’s Zombi Child, Bonello’s approach to genre film is flirtatious and creatively disinterested in precedent; unswayed by well-worn conventions and unafraid to take big, potentially alienating swings. Like the best sci-fi, The Beast looks to the past and the future to dig its claws into contemporary anxieties. And it’s to Bonello’s credit that he manages to enmesh such potentially caustic topics in such a unique, unencumbered way. His blend of melodrama and dystopic speculation is utterly delicious; like a breath of fresh air that, perhaps, could only waft over from France. The film’s most overt pop-culture reference is Twin Peaks: The Return, if that gives you any idea of what we’re dealing with here.
A tale of star-crossed lovers finding each other across time and space is, on its face, a dangerous display of sincerity in the year of our lord 2023. But I’m happy to report that such sneering is woefully uncalled for. Gabrielle and Louis’ relationship is, really, the stuff of nightmares; a centuries-long string of unhappy endings with a disturbingly consistent refrain. In every instance of their seemingly cosmic attraction to one another, Louis finds a way to completely obliterate Gabrielle. He is both catnip and bear trap: a beast in sheep’s clothing consistently stumbling into new ways of destroying the woman he loves. (Surely it’s more than a coincidence that La Belle et la Bête was originally penned by yet another Gabrielle).
While MacKay’s Louis is certainly one contemporary Beast, the film’s terrified attitude towards an unidentifiable impending doom does feel like one of the most topical festering wounds of 2023. Maybe it’s the state-mandated ego death. Maybe it’s the floods hinting at an impending environmental catastrophe. Maybe it’s the way the internet has poisoned our understanding of ourselves and those around us. Bonello could have easily dismissed these nightmares in the film’s final moments. Apocryphally, Seydoux reportedly begged him to take the bait of a happy ending. But where’s the fun (or the truth) in that?
We are MacKay appreciators in this house. And The Beast is further proof that he needs and deserves to star in way more movies that aren’t period-pieces. That said, I am overjoyed to present him with the “holy shit, you speak multiple languages!?” award, previously held by I’m Your Man’s Dan Stevens.
Truthfully MacKay is perfectly watchable as 1900s Louis, an aristocrat whose brooding mystery excites and terrifies Gabrielle in equal measure. But it’s his turn as 2014 Louis that takes both MacKay’s overall performance, and the film itself, to the next level. MacKay is — and I mean this as a compliment, I swear — disturbingly convincing as a homicidal incel. What starts as a darkly bemusing Elliot Rodger impression quickly curdles (as it should) into one of the more sinister home invasion scenes in recent memory. It’s one of the best things I’ve seen from Mackay’s career thus far, and well worth the price of admission if Bonello’s unabashedly strange gait wasn’t already an immediate sell.
This almost doesn’t need mentioning at this point, but Seydoux is simply one of the most magnetic screen presences cinema has at its disposal. She infuses each permutation of Gabrielle with such a delicately specific kind of longing; a desire for purpose, love, freedom, and knowledge that remains painfully elusive as it gets overtaken and eclipsed by calamity. She can’t put her finger on what she wants, exactly. But maybe that attractively enigmatic waif she keeps running into will clear things up. Surely he won’t completely ruin her life this time, right?
The Beast is incredibly odd. And at two and a half hours, this barebones romantic terror trip will certainly not be for everyone. But, for better or for worse, I don’t think it’s sci-fi’s job to be an easy pill to swallow. If any of this has piqued your interest, do what you must to seek it out. Except inviting “the ultimate gentleman” into your house. Don’t do that.
As of yet, The Beast has yet to lock in a North American release date. If you’re fancy and you live in France, you can catch the film theatrically on February 28, 2024.