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TIFF23: The Beast Time-Travels in the Name of Love

Courtesy of TIFF

The Beast, a selection of the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival, is categorized as a time-travel science-fiction romance, but that’s not even close to what the film is really about. Yes, the main characters, Louis (George MacKay) and Gabrielle (Léa Seydoux), pop up throughout history, but they’re not time travelers per se. What the audience is seeing is the various past lives of these characters. Sometimes they’re aristocrats in 1904 France. Other times, they’re a vlogger and a model living in 2014 Los Angeles, but they’re not the same people. Except they are, kind of. They look the same and they have similar personalities, but the present-day versions of themselves are not transporting back in time. The aristocrats lived a full life and then it was time for the next Louis and Gabrielle. Time and again, they find each other and share foggy memories of when they were together.

The science fiction aspect comes into play in the 2042 time period. Louis and Gabrielle are not alone in their ability to remember each other through space and time, but after an undisclosed catastrophic event in the 2020s, humans have decided that emotions are a detriment that can only harm the human race. There’s a purification process that wipes out the trauma of past lives and cleans a person’s DNA. Gabrielle is hesitant to undergo the process because she believes that emotion, good or bad, is essential to humanity. The purification process entails having a large needle inserted into the ear and then reliving aspects of past lives that continue to bring trauma.

While the premise sounds like it could come from a Black Mirror episode, the execution of the story is far closer in line with a David Lynch product. It’s odd, disjointed, and somewhat nonsensical, but even individuals who don’t always vibe with Lynch’s type of filmmaking, The Beast somehow works. Instead of getting too bogged down in the details, The Beast glides through time periods, coasting on the ever-relevant concept of loneliness and the lengths humans will go to in order to avoid it.

Louis and Gabrielle gaze into each other's eyes
Courtesy of TIFF

What makes The Beast so relevant is not actually its thoughts of love and humanity. The subtext of the film is a more prescient battle that’s currently being waged between the AMPTP and the unions of actors and writers. This is both a bad time and a perfect time for a film like The Beast to be released. It’s an ardent supporter of emotions and an ode to their thorny existence. No good emotion exists without risk of a bad one; that’s simply the flawed reality of the human condition. The people in this futuristic society are confident that the best version of humans is streamlined, with all the unnecessary weaknesses ironed out so that productivity can be maximized. What then separates humans from robots? Is this not the same argument for replacing writers with AI? The Beast and the strike at large are asking if art should be created by those who feel things, no matter how ugly. Isn’t the point of art to express the complexity of being alive through a medium of the creator’s choosing? Don’t we lose something entirely essential when we rely on AI?

The title of The Beast comes from the Henry James novella The Beast in the Jungle. If that phrase rings a bell, it’s because horror auteur Mike Flanagan used the works of James in the second season of the Netflix horror anthology The Haunting of Bly Manor. One of the characters asks her lover if she wants company while she waits for the beast in the jungle. It’s about the idea that something devastating is going to happen. No one knows when, where, what, why, or how, but something dangerous and anxiety-inducing is on the horizon. We all have a beast in the jungle lying in wait, and sometimes, like a global pandemic, it’s beyond our wildest expectations. If you let the shadow of the beast consume your life, you will never risk anything, feel any deep emotions, or live a full and complete life. The doomed reality of the beast is that it may never come. Maybe the beast is of your own creation, but no matter what, you will drive yourself mad worrying endlessly about it.

The Beast is a centuries-jumping, Lynchian affair led by two incredible young actors. They are the baseline, the emotional soul of the film. Seydoux and MacKay are two of the brightest young stars working today, and they give an evocative performance as they tumble throughout history, trying to discover what it means to be human.

Written by Tina Kakadelis

News Editor for Film Obsessive. Movie and pop culture writer. Seen a lot of movies, got a lot of opinions. Let's get Carey Mulligan her Oscar.

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