The Inverse Interview

Love Across Multiple Lives

The Beast director Bertrand Bonello talks love, desire, and AI in his cosmic sci-fi romance.

Lea Seydoux in The Beast
Janus Films
The Inverse Interview

Halfway into my interview with director Bertrand Bonello, he quickly replies to my question about whether the pivotal purification machines, featured in his latest sci-fi film The Beast, benefit or destroy humanity. Bonello puts his glass down and asks me, “What do you think?” After I tell him that these machines, which effectively purge people of their emotions by letting them relive key relationships in their past lives, could mean anything and that it’s “a mystery that you don’t have to reveal,” he rapidly becomes candid about their damage to this near-future 2044 setting.

“In 2044, there’s no more catastrophe. You are not even scared. So, this perfect world is a kind of nightmare. It’s on purpose, as with AI, there’s no more problems. The world we see is not the world in which we live,” Bonello tells Inverse, highlighting the film’s contemporary and not-so-distant future mechanisms.

We spoke at the headquarters of its boutique distributor, the Criterion Collection, where The Beast will be a part of the “Janus Contemporaries” label. It will enter the same vault as beloved sci-fi classics Brazil (1985), the John Hurt-starring cinematic adaptation of George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984 (1984), and the first 15 Godzilla entries.

“You put some love into the slasher, some fear into the melodrama.”

The Beast is a loose adaptation of the 1903 romantic short story The Beast in the Jungle, penned by Henry James. In the film, Gabrielle (a tremendous Léa Seydoux) hesitates in going through a purification machine as she worries that she can no longer love the man of her dreams, Louis (a stunning George MacKay), from her present and past lives in 1910 and 2014. If she proceeds, she will not have any emotions and earlier memories.

While Bonello, who also co-wrote the film and co-composed its score, blends science-fiction, slasher, melodrama, and romance in a movie that flips the script by making the original male protagonist a woman, he still follows the novella’s themes. “In [the] Henry James [short story], the two feelings he’s talking about [are] love and fear. So it’s already mixing with genres in a way,” Bonello adds. “You put some love into the slasher, some fear into the melodrama.”

A Sci-Fi Film for the Ages

Gabrielle (Léa Seydoux) and Louis (George MacKay) meet in three different lives, each time more charged than the last.

Janus Films

Within the past decade, the French filmmaker continues to revamp genre expectations to express his protagonists’ societal desires. He has previously dabbled in political thrillers (2016’s Nocturama), horror flicks (2019’s Zombi Child), and “pandemic movies” with his Covid-19 setting and live-action/animated hybrid Coma (2022), which will have a long overdue U.S. theatrical release later this year. Bonello’s tenth completed feature, The Beast, is currently playing in theaters and will mark his first foray into science fiction.

“Science fiction is what it is: inventing a world, creating ideas for the future. It allows you to talk about your fear of the present,” Bonello notes. “That’s really what I tried to do when I invented this 2044 world. I’m just talking about my fear now.”

The 1910 storyline (the only timeline shot on 35mm to give temporal texture) follows Gabrielle gaining an interest in the stylish Louis in a Favourite-esque Victorian-era Paris while married to her doll-making spouse, Georges. Contemporary 2014 takes place in Los Angeles, where Gabrielle is a model and housesitter while the misogynist Louis stakes her out and gives TikTok monologues on women ruling the Earth that resemble the past manifestos from incel Elliot Rodger. The future timeline returns to Paris, which is now dystopian and hosts a primarily small population, as the two lovers consider undergoing a purification procedure.

Gabrielle undergoing the “procedure” to purge her emotions.

Janus Films

Gabrielle maintains her search for meaning across the three timelines. “It’s the period under the scene that makes her different,” Bonello adds. On the other hand, Louis operates and loves Gabrielle differently over the years. In 1910, Louis had a profound memory and grace over his past encounters with Gabrielle. He is socially awkward in 2014 and has a murderous mindset over his love for her. In 2044, Louis slowly loses his memory while he expresses his admiration for Gabrielle.

“Science fiction is what it is: inventing a world, creating ideas for the future.”

Each timeline provides an ebb and flow of emotions matched to its specific genre. The 2044 scenes elicit angst over maintaining human autonomy. 1910 lets us experience the love Gabrielle and Louis develop for each other with pleasure. In 2014, the slasher tale emits a mixture of idiosyncrasy, fear, and (for some) dark comedy. However, the laughs in the incel material of the 2014 timeline threw Bonello off. Given its dark subject matter, he never considered these moments funny.

“Maybe it’s to let the pressure go,” Bonello assumes after hearing audiences laugh during a few screenings.

The Beast’s Greatest Burden

Bertrand Bonello introduces his film at the 61st New York Film Festival.

Theo Wargo/Getty Images Entertainment

The leads rebirthing into these generations is unfortunately similar to the production’s rebirth from postponements like Seydoux’s schedule conflicts, Covid-19, and the death of Moon Knight actor Gaspard Ulliel (who worked with Seydoux in Bonello’s Saint Laurent, and whom The Beast was dedicated to), who was originally going to play Louis.

To avoid any similarities with Ulliel, Bonello cast British actor George MacKay. Bonello appreciated what MacKay brought to Louis’ many traits and didn’t compare the two actors. “I never thought when I was shooting a scene, huh, he’s doing it this way. Gaspard would have done that,” Bonello says. “I didn’t think like that; otherwise, it would be impossible to make a film.”

Bonello is “proud” of making The Beast despite all of its hurdles. “Sometimes, the film that costs you the most is the film that brings you the most,” he says.

AI as a “Tool”

Guslagie Malanda plays Gabrielle’s purification monitor, Kelly — a new version of the dolls seen in Gabrielle’s former past lives.

Janus Films

A constant presence in all three periods is dolls. In 1910, they were porcelain when Georges built them at his factory. Then, in 2014, they become celluloid, where one talks and smokes at the mansion where Gabrielle is housesitting. Then, in 2044, they transformed into fully developed humans, as seen in Gabrielle’s purification monitor Kelly (portrayed by Saint Omer breakthrough Guslagie Malanda).

“Kelly starts like a robot,” Bonello says. “At the end of the film, she starts to have desires for Gabrielle at one moment where people do not have dreams or desires.” Though he does find it “freaky,” Bonello enjoys seeing the possibility “that a robot can be even more human than a human.”

“Sometimes, the film that costs you the most is the film that brings you the most.”

The artificial intelligence implanted in the doll is a tool for advancement. Bonello likens AI to a hammer. “A hammer [is something] you can use to put something on a wall, or you can use it to kill somebody with it. So what do you do with a tool?” Bonello proposes. Bonello recognizes that “technology is mastering” people within AI’s 20-plus years of existence and asserts that “the human must be the master of the tool.”

Be prepared for how society has been technologized from the film’s start to its finale. The only spoiler we will give before you see The Beast is that it ends with a QR code on the big screen under GÉNÉRIQUE (French for credits). Bonello ties it into the digitization motif and grounds the audience’s empathy with Gabrielle as she becomes “solemn [about] her humanity or desires.” Patrons can scan it with their phones and see the remainder from there.

The Beast is playing in theaters now.

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