The bad year​ in Bertrand Bonello’s dizzying film The Beast is 2025. That’s when everything went wrong. By 2044, the latest date in the movie, the world is steady again and much improved. The bots are in charge and humans have only humble clerical jobs where their mistakes will not matter much. The bots are human in their fashion, a long way from being mere machines. They have emotions but are not burdened by the baggage of their pasts in the way humans are.

There is a lot of time and space travel in the movie: to Paris in the early 20th century, to Los Angeles in the early 21st, and repeatedly back to an unspecified city in 2044. The improbable but helpful constant in all this movement is that the main characters, Gabrielle Monnier (Léa Seydoux) and Louis Lewanski (George MacKay), remain the same throughout. Both performances, especially that of Seydoux, are amazing.

Just before we see the film’s title, we are shown Gabrielle alone in front of a green screen, receiving instructions from a director (Bonello) about what will happen next. She will hear sounds, she will pick up a kitchen knife, and ‘the shadow of the beast’ will appear. The director asks if she is ready, and she mimes all this, ending in a violent scream of fear. Cut to the title, followed by the return of Gabrielle to one of her past lives, in Paris around 1910.

She is at a soirée looking for her husband, who is in another room, and bumps into Louis, a person she scarcely remembers meeting a few years ago. And although Gabrielle and Louis are presumably unaware of this, they have also stumbled into the opening scene of Henry James’s ‘The Beast in the Jungle’. The gender roles are reversed but almost everything else is the same. The first time they met, Gabrielle (or John Marcher) told Louis (May Bartram) the great governing secret of her/his life. She/he was waiting for a ‘strange, rare and terrible thing’ to happen, an event that would spring at its victim ‘like a hidden beast’ and perhaps ‘obliterate’ that person. This is the language of the film and very close to that of James, who says Marcher ‘had the sense of being kept for something rare and strange, possibly prodigious and terrible, that was sooner or later to happen’. The listener is fascinated on both occasions and promises to watch and wait with the victim until the prodigious moment arrives. In James it never does – or it arrives twice. Once when Marcher fails to understand that May is the great love of his life; once when, contemplating her grave, he realises that waiting, when it occupies a whole existence, is an extravagant event in itself.

After the Paris conversation we move to an image of the present-day Gabrielle. She wants a more interesting job than the one she has, and there is a form of mental surgery that will allow her to compete with the bots. It involves ‘purifying’ her DNA by visiting various moments in her past and getting rid of lingering loads of feeling. Dressed in a black leather suit, she lies in a tub of liquid, receives an injection in her ear and takes off into the past. The soirée we attended was part of the first of her trips.

Let’s look at some of this more closely. Periodically we return to the tub of liquid or the interview Gabrielle had before she started on the operation. In the first of these interludes she meets Louis, who is also contemplating the same treatment. They are much busier than James’s protagonists. We see them again in Paris, where they both die; in Los Angeles around 2014, where he kills her; and later, back in the city of the present day, where she learns that the exorcism of feeling worked for him but not for her. She is still passionate where he is only charming.

In the Paris sequence Gabrielle is a classical pianist who is asked to play a piece by Schoenberg. As a last Romantic she feels the work lacks feeling, but Louis is much more up-to-date on modernist music. Gabrielle is married to a man who owns a doll factory, which allows Bonello to go to town on the imagery of imitated humanity – he did quite a bit of this with masks in his film The House of Tolerance (2011) – and to create a wonderful scene where the factory catches fire, the dolls burn, and Gabrielle and Louis, visiting the site at this inopportune moment, try to escape by swimming underwater through a flooded basement. They don’t make it.

When Gabrielle returns to the past again, she is an actress and model living in Los Angeles, although her main source of income is house-sitting. It doesn’t pay all that well, but she has a nifty red sports car. Perhaps it comes with the house. She hasn’t changed much, but Louis has, as we learn from his first monologue in this time and place. He is a self-absorbed maniac and would-be serial killer, convinced that his failure to have had any sort of relation with a girl or a woman is a fault of that sex and needs to be avenged. He picks Gabrielle as his target, the woman who will pay for the perceived crimes of all the others.

There are two amazing moments in this sequence that I am far from understanding but found gripping in terms of psychology and filming. One occurs when Gabrielle invites the psychopath Louis into the house where she is living and persuades him to kiss her and sleep with her. She cures him, in effect. When she wakes up after sex, the man on top of her is not Louis but someone else, a neighbour. This man is surprised at her surprise and leaves quickly. Has she replaced a current real lover with an imaginary Louis, or has she dreamed of both? What does the filming of such scenes say?

We can ask a similar question of the other moment. This time Louis enters the house with a gun, determined to kill Gabrielle. She retreats to her bedroom and locks the door. She is safe. But as with the invitation to join her in the house, she wants to play the kindly therapist rather than the loved woman or the victim. This is the scene we saw rehearsed before the appearance of the title, and now we see it repeated. Gabrielle opens the door three times and stands there unharmed with Louis unmoving. The fourth time he kills her. Here, surely, we are looking at narrative as an explicit matter of choice rather than fate, an implication reinforced by the fact that we are in the past, within the orbit of the operation. In the next present-day scene Gabrielle will be alive again, and Louis will not be an incel.

Beneath all these antics is the sketch of a sentimental anti-bot story, a tale about being human, a defence of feeling and individuality at all costs. But the sense finally created by the film, by our living for a couple of hours with Gabrielle and Louis, is rather different, closer to speculative fiction than science fiction. The preoccupation with what may happen in the midst of what does happen seems very relevant, and if this interest is often an obstacle or deviance in ordinary life, it is also the full-time job of many writers and filmmakers. In the movie we see a lot of what James called the jungle of human life, the paths in the vegetation, the escape routes taken or missed, and we face or fail to face the knowledge that some people have no life except in this unliveable world.

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