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Bertrand Bonello La bete Review


La Bête (The Beast) | Review

La Bête (The Beast) | Review

In the Mood for Love & Death: Bonello Explores the Final Frontier of Emotional Intelligence

Bertrand Bonello The Beast ReviewThroughout the dizzying centuries-spanning odyssey of an unrequited love in Bertrand Bonello’s formidable film La Bête, we puzzle together a complex set of symbols, subtexts and parallel themes on the evolution of how humankind’s technological advances may have affected but still not answered how to satisfy our eternal quest for the thing called love. Outside of solutions which aim to simply numb it, cut it out, or therapize it with tranquility assisted by medication. Such is a main approach into conveying the spectacular cinematic experience of Bonello’s latest, an aggravating, aching masterpiece about the satisfaction of a longing we’re conditioned to search for, but never feels like the experience we’re coerced into expecting based on a myriad of cultural signifiers.

As one such couple grapples with finding one other across three distinct periods, 1910, 2014, and 2044, it would appear our only future major contribution for ourselves is to tranquilize love as if it were some historical trauma through an invented purification process of one’s DNA, which literally rids the body of its ingrained muscle memories (apparently across intergenerational descendents or our own haunted past lives). Andrzej Zulawski once announced The Most Important Thing Is to Love (1975) via a film defined by excessive manifestations of what it might look like. Bonello finds love is actually, as the title indicates, the beast, whose fated dance partner is death.

At a party in 1910, Paris, Gabrielle (Léa Seydoux) has a chance encounter with Louis (George Mackay). They’d met at a previous party several years prior in Naples, when she was unmarried, and drunkenly confessed she would never be involved in a relationship because she had a terrible premonition of something catastrophic which would ‘obliterate’ and ‘annihilate’ her and anyone she loves. It appears her fears have faded, but Louis, who is quite attracted to Gabrielle, asserts he now has the capability of standing guard with her against this supposed catastrophe. Their flirtation takes on a greater dimension, but mass flooding in Paris stops them short. Nearly a century later, in 2014 Los Angeles, Gabrielle is now an aspiring model, while Louis is an angry young man who feels he’s neglected by women and on the verge of violence because of it. Spying Gabrielle outside of a nightclub in downtown Los Angeles, he follows her to the swank home where she’s staying in the Hollywood Hills, their reunion marked by tragedy. And then, in 2044, Gabrielle is now a menial, unskilled worker in a world where AI has taken over, and humans who want a satisfying experience must have their DNA cleansed in a process which will remove errant emotions. At a purification center, she meets George again, who is about to undergo the same process. However, they fear this cleanse will negate their ability to have any sort of deep seated emotion, and they struggle to reunite in a world which now derides the notion of love.

“Fulfillment lies in the lack of passion,” remarks Louis in one of his various encounters with Gabrielle, perhaps the single most important observation in a film whose characters are consumed with consummation of their shared desires. Bonello’s jumping off point is loosely adapted from Henry James’ 1903 novella The Beast in the Jungle (which was adapted earlier this year by Patric Chiha, who kept the complete title and also applied a nightclub theme as a uniting device for two people who are literally wasting their lives in anticipation of fate’s fatal blow).

Bonello litters his film with a myriad of other literary and musical references supporting his own approach. In the 2014 segment, the home Gabrielle is housesitting has Rudyard Kipling’s poem “If—“ framed on the wall, a moralizing message about restraint. Meanwhile, Roy Orbison and Patsy Cline appear on the soundtrack, their vintage pop classics crooning about either ownership or the transmogrifying, eternal power of love. Puccini’s opera, Madame Butterfly, quite ominously, seems to be the template they seek to emulate. However, Gabrielle notes that seeing it again felt less potent, blaming it on the performers, never realizing our innate inability to reexperience a moment or a feeling in quite the same way.

In 1910, Gabrielle’s husband owns a doll factory, currently transitioning from porcelain to celluloid (the more durable rubber), the latter which can be more easily fashioned into a variety of expressions beyond the neutral template used to make dolls universally appealing. They’re also a template for how humans will eventually shape themselves. Likewise, the use of psychics, peddlers of manipulation who also, maybe sometimes, tap into a certain undefined experience of the human experience, at least as utilized here. Elina Lowensohn grants Gabrielle a mysterious reading the intent of which is not realized until an online psychic appears in 2014, both confused because they are seeing into Gabrielle’s past/future lives.

As a woman, Gabrielle is faced with cultural modification across all three periods, first as a married pianist expected to adhere to fidelity, struggling with embracing the atonality of Arnold Schoenberg, then as model in L.A. requiring plastic surgery to get better work, and then to have all semblance of her emotional individuality reset to achieve a more meaningful position in a society that doesn’t allow emotional humans to work in any type of decisive career affecting the lives of others. Seydoux, as she’s proven before (particularly in Bruno Dumont’s France, 2021), is bewildering in her emotional capacity in portraying yet another woman caught in a bizarre maelstrom. As her counterpart, Mackay (in a role originally intended for Gaspard Ulliel, to whom the film is dedicated), has the less sensational role, but does an exemplary job of playing what could have been a reductive, campy role in his 2014 segment as a virginal incel. Notably, in the 2044 segment Guslagie Malanda, of Alice Diop’s Saint Omer (2022) is on hand as Kelly the Doll, an amusing robot ‘nanny’ assigned to Gabrielle to monitor her cleansing process.

What exactly attracts Gabrielle to Louis is negligible, having confided in him an anxiety she’s kept secret from polite society. They share a bond and their attraction is interrupted before it’s allowed to run its course. Such is the nature of longing and fantasy. In a world unfettered by their cultural norms, an affair might have petered out quickly. “When they get what they want, they never want it again,” Courtney Love cryptically notes in Hole’s “Violet.”

DP Josée Deshaies (Bonello’s wife and usual DP, who notably lensed his 2011 masterpiece, House of Tolerance) returns to visually demarcate each of these periods separately, evolving from sumptuous period piece to contemporary digital platforms, and eventually a sterilized future which hollowly tries to evoke past human experiences via a nameless night club merely known as a ‘free zone,’ where every night features a different year of music with which the clientele can nostalgically visit a time long gone. As Anne Clark notes in her song “Full Moon,” “the speed of change we’re forcing tears our souls away.” A 2014 club, Fractal, is more obvious in its allusions to our repeated patterns dictating how humans keep doing the same thing, a search at the end of which they usually find ruination.

Bonello, who composes his own score alongside his daughter, Anna Bonello, seems to be collapsing a number of Kubrick’s themes and templates, suggesting our salvation as a species exists only through the process of obtaining “a spotless mind,” where there is no room for the off kilter, unexplainable realities of romantic love. While 1910 and 2014 showcase Louis and Gabrielle as people who are denied a reciprocation of their feelings, what keeps them alive throughout time is their yearning. As La Bête ends with a howl of anguish, the beast in the jungle at last rears its head. Perhaps Joy Division said it best. “Love will tear us apart again.”

Reviewed on September 3rd at the 2023 Venice Film Festival – In Competition. 146 Mins.


Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2021: France (Bruno Dumont), Passing (Rebecca Hall) and Nightmare Alley (Guillermo Del Toro). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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