Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick is a novel that was famously adapted by Ridley Scott into the film Blade Runner. Similar to this dystopian sci-fi work, Bertrand Bonello’s latest feature film, The Beast (La Bête), combines various ideas, time periods, and genres into a narrative that could be titled “Do French Girls Dream of Androids While Trying to Escape from Incels in L.A. After the 1910 Paris Flood?”
The Beast is a loose adaptation of Henry James’ 1903 novella, The Beast in the Jungle. In James’ story, a man refrains from pursuing the woman he loves because he fears a terrible fate will befall him. However, he later realizes that by never pursuing her, he brought his own fate upon himself. Bonello takes this initial premise and reimagines it, placing the female protagonist, played by Léa Seydoux, in the forefront. Her love interest, played by George MacKay, undergoes a transformation into a violent American stalker who records creepy confessions on Facebook Live.
Set simultaneously in 2044, 2014, and the belle-époque Paris of 1910, The Beast is both an anxiety-ridden romantic thriller and a conceptual exploration of the potential end of humanity. The film features incredibly lifelike robots, exposed green screens, freaky ceramic dolls, and scenes of Seydoux engaging in futuristic hot yoga and dancing to trap music while under the influence of drugs.
While The Beast is ambitious and accomplished in terms of its technical craft, it lacks consistent dramatic conflict, which undermines its overall engagement. The storyline takes numerous unexpected turns, making it seem as though Bonello is more focused on exploring theoretical concepts rather than constructing a cohesive narrative. In this sense, The Beast shares similarities with Bonello’s 2022 COVID-inspired film essay, Coma, which also combines different genres and mediums. Both films are likely to resonate best with Bonello’s small but dedicated fan base.
The film showcases Bonello’s remarkable attention to detail, seen in his previous work like Saint Laurent, with exquisite production design by Katia Wyszkop and fluid cinematography by Josée Deshaies, who seamlessly switches between different aspect ratios. Despite these technical achievements, the film lacks a sense of forward momentum and could benefit from a tighter edit, as it meanders through various thematic and aesthetic concepts.
The framing device for The Beast is set in 2044, where Seydoux’s character, Gabrielle, lives in a post-apocalyptic Paris populated by empty streets and friendly androids. The world is dominated by artificial intelligence, and Gabrielle is offered the option to turn herself into a semi-robot, eliminating her emotions through a surgical procedure reminiscent of Jonathan Glazer’s film Under the Skin.
During the operation, Gabrielle experiences hallucinations, dreams, or memories of her past lives. The story then jumps back to 1910, where she meets Louis, portrayed by MacKay, at a society ball. The two characters share an immediate connection, as if they have known each other for years, and they begin meeting up in Paris, including a visit to Gabrielle’s husband’s doll factory.
Bonello focuses on the factory’s new production methods that result in more realistic dolls and prototypes of the androids seen in 2044. The Beast is filled with these connections between past and present, old and new technologies, and past and future disasters. These connections become the central focus of the movie, removing some of the thrill from the narrative. However, for those interested in delving into Bonello’s trippy exploration of history repeating itself, the film can be intriguing.
The final section of the film takes place in Los Angeles in 2014, where Gabrielle house-sits a modernist mansion while pursuing a career as an actress and model. This section satirizes celebrity culture, social media, and the city of Los Angeles itself. It includes a cameo by actress and Red Scare podcast host Dasha Nekrasova, and explores themes of inceldom and the potential for violence. However, these aspects feel overblown and fail to have the impact that Bonello intends. Filmmaker David Lynch handled similar themes more effectively in films like Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive.
The music in The Beast, including Roy Orbison’s “Evergreen,” creates a feedback loop of repeated and varied pop tracks. This parallel with the film’s plot reinforces the idea of history repeating itself. Seydoux delivers a more subdued performance compared to her recent roles, at times appearing robot-like. Bonello deliberately references this characterization when Seydoux freezes up, resembling a ceramic doll. The film begins with Seydoux pretending to escape a monster in a digital studio, highlighting the film’s self-awareness and desire to capture the viewer’s attention.
In conclusion, The Beast is an audacious and technically accomplished film that tackles a range of ideas but lacks a strong narrative and consistent dramatic conflict. Bonello’s attention to detail, combined with the film’s thematic explorations and unique framing, makes it an intriguing watch for fans of the director. However, its meandering nature and lack of forward momentum may limit its broader appeal.