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The Beast Shows Love and Death Intertwined

George Mackay and Lea Seydoux in The Beast. Image: Sideshow/Janus Films

We’ve had countless films that have attested to the transcendent power of love to good and bad results, but Bertrand Bonello’s (Something Organic, Saint Laurent) The Beast makes love feel like a terrifying, uncontrollable march toward the end, a kind of death in its own way. Opening on a lone Gabrielle (Lea Seydoux) acting against a green screen, receiving direction from Bonello’s own disembodied voice, acting out the moment of the titular beast’s appearance. It is this moment that haunts her, and the audience, throughout the film, and as we learn more about Gabrielle and her life, or rather lives, we better understand the weight of this moment, making her ultimate fate that much more powerful. 

The Beast stars Lea Seydoux as Gabrielle, a woman with multiple lives across disparate eras. It is the 2044 version of Gabrielle that anchors the narrative, as a woman in a future where people have discovered their past lives and the ability to relive them through new technology. In this process, people can be cured of the scars or “affects” that plague them throughout time, achieving “purification,” something seemingly akin to nirvana. Indeed, a character even remarks at one point that the world of 2044 has simply discovered what Buddhism has known to be true for generations. 

Gabrielle is reluctant to relive her past lives, attesting to fear of losing some crucial element of her identity or her will to live, knowing that perhaps that would mean her best years were behind her. Is it not Buddhism, in fact, that tries specifically to escape reincarnation? To escape this earthly life? This is a weighty prospect. But, Gabrielle relents; The reality of life and work in 2044 makes her, as a non-“purified” person, part of a class of “useless people,” pushing her toward this process. In one life, she’s a Parisian pianist and aristocrat in the early 20th century who owns a doll factory with her husband; in another, she is an aspiring actress in 2014 Los Angeles. Through it all, she finds herself acquainted with a strange man named Louis (George Mackay), whose relationship to her changes with the time. She seems to think that finding Louis is the key, that he can protect her from whatever is coming. Through it all, Gabrielle attests to a fear of a singular moment, a seemingly impending doom. This is the symbolic heft of the titular beast. What is this beast, what does it mean, and what is in Gabrielle’s future? 

The Beast’s science fiction story is light on the science and more interested in the technology’s implications for narrative. The future it spins is strange, desolate, and isolating, making the prospect of revisiting one’s past lives perhaps more appealing. We at times see the disappointing results of the process of purification; people appear to be cured of something, but ultimately regretful. It is a kind of spiritual death that awaits the “purified.”

One of the most interesting parts of The Beast, however, is how the film and its characters contrast across time. When Gabrielle and Louis are early twentieth century Parisians, they take long walks through the streets of Paris, or through beautiful gardens and ornate salons, discussing their lives and entanglements. This portion of the film is highly contemplative and portrays a kind of repressed romance. In 2014 Los Angeles, Gabrielle and Louis find themselves in dark clubs and the nighttime streets, or in the beautiful but startlingly see-through house Gabrielle is staying in. This era is a slow-burn psychological thriller, and is the creepiest portion of the film, highly evocative of Mulholland Drive or Lost Highway. Meanwhile, 2044 Gabrielle walks through the streets of her lonely city in a mask, spends time alone in her apartment, and visits a club that evokes a specific year, changing each night. The future technology that has enabled everyone to live their past lives has meant that everyone is either soulless and bland or completely stuck in the past. The distinct visual identity of these three time periods provides a very nice and clear contrast.  

Indeed, even with the film’s leads playing, essentially, three different characters across three time periods, as well as often switching between speaking French and English, The Beast is never confusing. This speaks well to Bonello and crew’s production design, costuming, hair & makeup and visual cues that make each era distinct. Seydoux and Mackay, too, each do a wonderful job of communicating that even though the characters they play are different and shaped by different experiences, they are, at their core, all versions of the same person. 

The Beast seems to want the viewer to know that it is building towards something horrible, something that Gabrielle knows to resist no matter what year it is. Even so, Gabrielle’s ultimate fate feels unavoidable. Even her 2044 self is drawn to Louis seemingly out of love, but also out of some kind of necessity; are they in love, or are they simply bound together, and does it even matter? These questions make The Beast an enthralling watch, suspenseful, charming, terrifying, and fun in its own ways. Love is a very scary thing. 

Written by Chris Duncan

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