The Beast review | An intriguing sci-fi romance that runs out of steam

George MacKay and Léa Seydoux in The Beast
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Léa Seydoux potters around her past lives in search of George MacKay in Bertrand Bonello’s dense sci-fi drama. Here’s our The Beast review.

The Beast, Bertrand Bonello’s intriguingly impenetrable sci-fi fable, is a difficult film to describe without making it sound very plot-y. Bonello is clearly interested in the more philosophical angle of the genre, for better and for worse. The Beast’s first hour, at least, ponders a lot of very human questions out loud just as the second struggles to build upon them or throw new ones into the mix. There’s enough here in the set-up and leading performances to satisfy the thoughtful sci-fi fan, but even they will find their patience tested by a second half which just doesn’t seem to know when to call it a day.

The film is nominally (read: not really) based on Henry James’ 1903 novella The Beast In The Jungle, home to The Beast’s most interesting idea. An early scene in 1910 Paris finds Gabrielle, as a renowned pianist, confessing to Louis that she’s bloody terrified of something she can’t quite place. Though she has a husband (he owns a doll factory, and is very boring) the pair seem strangely drawn to each other.

Coincidentally, this exchange plays out like an early 20th-century novel, with all the intrigue and repressed innuendo that implies. That the film continually jumps around – both within this particular timeline and without – only makes the drama more compelling.

In 2044, for example, things are looking a bit bleak. AI has taken everyone’s jobs (uh oh) and humans are considered “useless” unless they sit in a pool of goo and have their DNA scrubbed of all emotions. This, as it turns out, is how future Gabrielle is seeing visions of 1910 Gabrielle – and why both can’t seem to keep themselves away from their own versions of Louis.

There are a lot of ideas thrown at the wall here, and that’s what makes The Beast’s first hour or so work. The wistful “what could have been”s of Past Lives; the painful emotional surgery of Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind; the first half is an intriguing whack-a-mole of thinky sci-fi premises which could have translated into a fascinating end product if it kept up the momentum.

As in all things, though, (more-or-less) modern life gets in the way. In 2014, “Louis” is the designer sunglasses-wearing Louis Lewanski, an incel recording his video manifesto from various isolated corners of Los Angeles in a timeline the film becomes more and more obsessed with as the story progresses. Lewanski’s parodically American-sounding surname aside, this is by far the film at its least interesting, as Gabrielle sits in a posh house (she’s house-sitting) waiting for McKay’s character to murder/fall madly in love with her for an interminably long time.

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It’s a slow-build tension which absolutely can work in the right hands, but once the 1910 plotline seems to have resolved itself, the film almost entirely runs out of steam. A brilliantly disturbing pigeon motif aside, there just don’t seem to be the number of interesting images or ideas to justify a plodding trip through 2010s LA. Instead we’re stuck watching Gabrielle go through the motions, less careening towards what we all know is coming than sleepwalking into a plot device without the initial intrigue of multiple timelines to distract from the mundanity.

The cast is, of course, fantastic, and there’s some value here in just watching Seydoux and MacKay tackle something with this level of density and ambition. But at 145 minutes, an intriguing set-up gradually loses its bite.

The Beast arrives in UK cinemas on 31st May.

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