The Mouth Agape: On Bertrand Bonello’s “The Beast”

Brendan Boyle considers Bertrand Bonello’s 2023 film “The Beast.”

By Brendan BoyleMay 30, 2024

The Mouth Agape: On Bertrand Bonello’s “The Beast”

SEE THE SCREAMER, lips parted, teeth bared, tongue recoiling. The actress opens her mouth and out creaks a turbulent whimper. This puny sound crumples under the weight of accumulated tension; a viewer might yank her ears back in disgust, pull off his headset. On-screen, the slasher film producer turns to the sound recordist (John Travolta) and lambasts him for the inadequate effect. In Brian De Palma’s Blow Out (1981), a “good scream” is what they need, and in the course of the film, through De Palma’s particular blend of paranoia, fetishism, and political despair, Travolta’s Jack Terry secures for this B-movie production a shriek worthy of his 20th-century nightmare.


There’s a lot of pop-cultural jetsam floating about in The Beast, the 2023 film by modish French auteur Bertrand Bonello. It, too, opens with a scene in which a film production, later revealed to take place in 2014, tries to coax a “good scream” from an actress, in this case Léa Seydoux’s Gabrielle. Here, though, Gabrielle doesn’t have a sound booth or an actor playing the killer in front of her. She has perhaps worse than nothing to work with: the frame around her is an enveloping green screen, which the director tells her they’ll later replace with a table, assorted other props, the room in which the scene takes place. In this scene, “the beast” is coming for her. The direction is so vague—Can you imagine this happening to you? Can you react as if the beast is coming for you? Seydoux screams, and the ellipsis abruptly closes: the movie takes off with a transition to another place, and another time.


For although the actress Gabrielle cannot precisely visualize the beast, as it turns out, she knows its presence well. Bonello’s film adapts a Henry James novella, The Beast in the Jungle (1903), into a time-hopping fantasia that moves between Gabrielle’s past lives, from 1910 Paris to 2014 Los Angeles and back to Paris again for a speculative frame narrative set in 2044, when AI has solved climate change and now directs the development of humanity. In that future, Gabrielle contemplates a procedure that will purge her of human emotion and thus fit her for a career working for the machines. Less overtly stated is the temptation to rid herself of her spiritual idleness, her endless romantic yearning, and the nameless dread that has haunted her, as the film traces, across lifetimes.


The beast that is the subject of the novella, and of Bonello’s adaptation, is “The Big One”—the anticipation of either a totalizing doom or a transformative romance. John Marcher, the hero of James’s novella, identifies the beast as a lurking threat keeping him from marrying, from making any commitment to another person, so long as he feels this knowledge of an eventual doom in his breast:


to have to meet, to face, to see suddenly break out in my life; possibly destroying all further consciousness, possibly annihilating me; possibly, on the other hand, only altering everything, striking at the root of all my world and leaving me to the consequences, however they shape themselves.


Here, Marcher could also be describing the great love of one’s life, the romantic attachment that renders all prior couplings mere rehearsals for the grand affair. This kind of all-consuming love both compels and terrifies; to commit totally to another person signifies, in some form, the obliteration of the old self. Marcher’s confidante, May Bartram, puts this theory to him in the novella’s opening passage:


She took this in, but the light in her eyes continued for him not to be that of mockery. “Isn’t what you describe perhaps but the expectation—or at any rate the sense of danger, familiar to so many people—of falling in love?”


John Marcher thought. “Did you ask me that before?”


“No—I wasn’t so free-and-easy then. But it’s what strikes me now.”


“Of course,” he said after a moment, “it strikes you. Of course it strikes me. Of course what’s in store for me may be no more than that. The only thing is,” he went on, “that I think if it had been that I should by this time know.”


The equation between fear and yearning that runs through Marcher’s internal monologue comes naturally to Bonello, a student of screen terror. His previous movies are indebted to classic horror: Zombi Child (2019) is a Gen-Z descendant of Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked With a Zombie (1943); Nocturama (2016) is a shopping-mall siege à la Dawn of the Dead (1978). It’s a fertile lineage as well as a savvy one for a modern, self-styled auteur like Bonello. Two decades since Claire Denis’s Trouble Every Day (2001) was reviled at the Cannes Film Festival, art-horror hybrids regularly compete for the top prizes on the festival circuit (see Palme d’Or winners Parasite [2019] and Titane [2021]). And what is scarier, in the classic horror formulation exemplified by Tourneur’s collaborations with writer-producer Val Lewton, than the unknown—that which one imagines rather than recalls?


Imagining, perhaps, a near and terrifying future: The present climate crisis unfolds in The Beast principally through an analepsis to the Great Flood of Paris in the 1910 section, only a few years removed from the publication of James’s text. Here, Gabrielle appears for the first time to meet Louis, her star-crossed lover played by British actor George MacKay in each timeline. It is in this section that Bonello most directly adapts The Beast in the Jungle, with the 1910 Gabrielle in the role of Marcher and Louis as Bartram, the platonic counterpart held at a tragic emotional distance that nonetheless generates its own intimacy. As Gabrielle takes Louis into her confidence, the characters also discuss the impending floods, the natural disasters that at once seem imminent and are actually, at present, unfolding around them. The water levels continue to rise and enter the city even as a psychic confesses that she has grown tired of being asked, “Will Paris flood?”


As a treatment of external apocalypse, the choice of the Great Flood creates a poignant parallel to the disasters of our present day. In the 2044 section, it’s established that the new computer overlords have conveniently solved the climate crisis for humanity. The Gabrielle of 1910 cannot see the unfolding catastrophe for the very real danger it poses to her and Louis until that danger is at the door; her sublimated longing for an individualized oblivion blinds her to experiencing and contextualizing—and hence understanding—her immediate circumstances.


Bonello’s favored mode of filmmaking is pastiche, the formal means by which he works contemporary concerns into this bewilderingly ambitious film spanning disparate time periods. For an example of this tendency, look no further than the scene where Louis caresses Gabrielle’s ungloved hand in the backroom of a workshop, beseeching her to let go of her doomer fantasies and recognize the love they could share with each other—a clear callout to Martin Scorsese’s 1993 romance The Age of Innocence, itself adapted from a 1920 Edith Wharton novel about a tragic hero whose name, Newland Archer, rhymes with that of James’s story.


Pastiche, of course, takes many forms, such as the encyclopedic knowledge and synthesis that filmmakers like Scorsese and De Palma bring to bear on their treatments of period and genre, or the restaged noir tropes in the L.A. odysseys of David Lynch recalled by The Beast’s 2014 section. The comparison that Bonello’s mode of pastiche more often brings to mind is, rather than his cinematic forebears, the mash-up artist or DJ. True acolytes of Bonello’s cinema can name their favorite needle-drop moments, like the rightly iconic use of “Nights in White Satin” over a mournful farewell party of turn-of-the-century sex workers in 2011’s L'Apollonide: Souvenirs de la maison close (a.k.a. House of Tolerance). For me, it’s the use of Chief Keef’s Young Chop–produced “I Don’t Like” in Nocturama that has, ever since, led me to think of Bonello in terms of the rap producer, and more specifically the lush, culturally omnivorous productions of Kanye West in his early 2010s period.


Any Kanye reference nowadays requires the world’s boldest asterisk or qualifying statement: no comparison between Bonello and Ye’s personal life or public statements is intended. Yet these artists share a quality of dubious judgment, an expansive cultural appetite that threatens to bite off more than it can chew. While Bonello’s reference points tend to be unassailable elders worthy of emulation and homage—De Palma, Scorsese, and, most directly in The Beast’s finale, Lynch—he also has a familiar French affinity for shock artists, cultural reactionaries, and provocateurs.


This affinity emerges most obviously in the even more ambitious 2014 section, which includes, as an acquaintance and fellow model of that timeline’s Gabrielle, a minor speaking role for Dasha Nekrasova, an actress and filmmaker who is also the co-host of Red Scare, a podcast known for giving softball interviews to the likes of Alex Jones and Steve Bannon. Meanwhile, Gabrielle house-sits for a wealthy, unseen Angeleno and consults a psychic on her laptop, plagued by pop-ups that include a clip from outsider auteur Harmony Korine’s film-maudit gross-out Trash Humpers (2009). One could go on: in a recent interview for The Film Stage, Bonello confesses his admiration for the stand-up work of Ricky Gervais and admits that he abandoned the idea of another section for The Beast, set in 1936, with Gabrielle as “a stand-up lesbian comedian.”


Bonello’s films are often funny in brash ways; they don’t have traditional plots, and they build to punch lines rather than resolutions. In The Beast, his dream of the future suggests an overlaid series of conceptual gags. He has fun in the 2044 section imagining a Paris taken over by machines—see especially the recurring scenes of nightclubs themed after different decades of the 20th century, whose decor and dress codes barely resemble the periods in question, recalling more the orthogonal, imprecise “artworks” produced by generative AI, or the flashback episodes from BoJack Horseman (2014–20) that lampooned period signifiers with establishing shots of malls (including a “1999 Store”). Against the cutaways to Gabrielle submerged in an immersive tank of black goo (the vehicle for her exploration of past lives), these scenes contrast a human ability to both recollect and synthesize the past with the limitations of machines, which can only create blurry superimpositions.


In the framing of the green-screen prologue, Bonello presents a dichotomy between acting methods: the Lee Strasberg approach of “affective memory” versus the Stella Adler–Sanford Meisner school of playing within a scene’s “given circumstances” to access its emotion. Think of Laura Dern as Helen Sullivan approaching Philip Seymour Hoffman’s cult leader Lancaster Dodd, in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master (2012), to question him about a change in the group’s doctrine. She questions the significance, even the wisdom, of revising a religious text that once read “can you recall” past lives to “can you imagine.” Dodd first reassures her, then seethes and erupts when further questioned. He cannot explain to his followers that this distinction merely refines a sales pitch: inviting the yearning acolyte to participate in and reshape, not merely replay, their past.


From one critical vantage point, the layering of history in Bonello’s films resembles the tesseract discussed by the Mrs. Ws in A Wrinkle in Time (1962)—a succession of textile folds, gathered atop one another, that can be traversed or joined with the swift stroke of a needle. At their best, as in the 1910 section of The Beast, these jabs are witty, precise, and elegant, threading historical trends and cultural detritus together to create eerie thematic linkages. To this point in Bonello’s career, it’s been his skill as a curator of images, songs, and cultural-historical artifacts (less a garbage trawler like Korine than a chic crate-digger) that has set him apart from his peers on the festival circuit, not least those seeking to capitalize on the art-horror trend. What this leaves him open to, though, is a sense of hollowness or posturing when that curatorial sense begins to fail him.


Bonello’s provocateur tendency falters most significantly in The Beast with Louis, who in the 2014 section plays the Marcher figure, the one who bears the burden of an all-consuming fear. But the fear has a more specific target in this narrative: women. For this version of Louis has been modeled on Elliot Rodger, one of the paradigmatic “incel” murderers who, in 2014, uploaded a written manifesto and a video announcement of his intentions shortly before going on a killing spree in Isla Vista, California. Bonello has Louis stalk Gabrielle around the city and on her house-sitting assignment as he records himself delivering a series of monologues drawn almost verbatim from Rodger’s confession:


For the last eight years of my life, since I hit puberty, I’ve been forced to endure an existence of loneliness, rejection, and unfulfilled desires, all because girls have never been attracted to me. Girls gave their affection and sex and love to other men, never to me. I’m 22 years old and still a virgin, never even kissed a girl. And through college, two-and-a-half years, more than that actually, I’m still a virgin. It has been very torturous.


Personal discomfort with the citations of a mass murderer aside—Bonello is not the first filmmaker to work real-life serial killers into his fictions, and he won’t be the last—the unresolved question posed by this section is whether Rodger’s personal malaise connects to the one suffered by Marcher and Gabrielle. To look at it generously, killers like Rodger suffer from their own sort of myopia: the inability to contextualize one’s own unhappiness, the drive to obsess and create a punitive worldview out of one’s own experience of alienation. Conversely, if one thinks of inceldom as a particularly contemporary phenomenon, and a phenomenon tied intrinsically to male sexual entitlement, the comparison to Gabrielle’s longing breaks down a bit, as does the film’s structure.


Said breakdown is all the more frustrating because it robs Bonello’s filmmaking—and in particular his effects—of its mystery. Unlike Lynch, whose effects have fueled film-critical discourse for decades, it’s all too apparent what kind of inference Bonello wants us to draw from Louis’s video monologues, whether or not one recognizes the allusion to Rodger. But if one takes Lynch at his word, he, too, has drawn from a similar well of inspiration. Among the deluge of trivia that circulated on the occasion of O. J. Simpson’s recent death, an excerpt from Lynch’s scant quasi-memoir Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness, and Creativity (2006) made the rounds on social media wherein the director confessed to having been, during the development of his 1997 film Lost Highway, “sort of obsessed with the O. J. Simpson trial. […] I think the film is somehow related to that.”


Lynch was referring to the split consciousness of his 1997 movie, which begins with Bill Pullman imprisoned for (probably?) murdering his (perhaps?) unfaithful wife, played by Patricia Arquette. In prison, Pullman inexplicably vanishes, replaced by the younger Balthazar Getty, who then leaves the cell and begins another narrative, drawn to a mysterious woman played by Arquette in a secondary role. Lynch has used the term “psychogenic fugue” to describe this phenomenon of a (potential) murderer dividing into two selves, one conscious of the act and another not, to explain Simpson’s seemingly untroubled demeanor during the trial.


One of the questions raised by this excerpt is whom, exactly, Lynch thought he was kidding: this notion of a “fugue” arguably had nothing to do with the media spectacle of the trial or with Simpson in particular—rather, the filmmaker was drawn, as always, to the idea of splitting into multiple selves, a concept he had explored earlier with “good Cooper” and his demonic doppelgänger in Twin Peaks (1990–91), and later with the dual roles and dream slippages that divide the first two acts of Mulholland Drive (2001) from its conclusion. The notion, then, that Lynch would offer the Simpson rationale as a skeleton key (it’s more like a red herring) has something to do with what David Foster Wallace identified as the filmmaker’s “creepiness,” in his Premiere magazine essay about the making of Lost Highway—a piece that doubled as an opportunity for the gonzo author-critic to work through his evolving ambivalence about Lynch’s body of work. As Wallace writes:


Lynch’s movies seem to be expressions of certain anxious, obsessive, fetishistic, oedipally arrested, borderlinish parts of the director’s psyche, expressions presented with little inhibition or semiotic layering, i.e., presented with something like a child’s ingenuous (and sociopathic) lack of self-consciousness.


Wallace’s essay is typical of his aesthetic conservatism—he’s too in love with prevailing movie wisdom about directorial personalities and Lynch’s then-endangered Hollywood career, not to mention too caught up in his own goldbricking tendencies, to consider what the films themselves might really be up to. But he locates a resonant critique in his discomfort with Lynch’s creepiness, something that endures in discussions of the filmmaker, and in the viewer’s own experience of his films—when, in short, the postmodern process of remixing a pop-cultural artifact seems to break down, and what emerges is not a lush, mysterious movie landscape but a crude and juvenile cartoon. Another memorable excerpt from “David Lynch Keeps His Head” concerns Wallace’s disgust with the casting of a wheelchair-bound Richard Pryor:


In Lost Highway, Richard Pryor’s infirmity is meant to be grotesque and to jar against all our old memories of the “real” Pryor. Pryor’s scenes are the parts of Lost Highway where I like David Lynch least: Pryor’s painful to watch, and not painful in a good way or a way that has anything to do with the business of the movie, and I can’t help thinking that Lynch is exploiting Pryor the same way John Waters exploits Patricia Hearst, i.e., letting an actor think he’s been hired to act when he’s really been hired to be a spectacle, an arch joke for the audience to congratulate themselves on getting.


The reflexive skepticism—bordering on antagonism—with which Wallace (and other contemporary critics such as Roger Ebert) treated Lynch speaks to one experience of Bonello’s cinema, which at times suggests a montage of stylish surfaces with little behind them but an affirmation of the viewer’s omnivorous good taste. Part of this skepticism has to do with a suspicion of outsiders: Lynch as the art-school interloper bringing tormented images into the mainstream, or Bonello as a slumming tourist within his assembled worlds—the bordello in House of Tolerance, the shopping-mall hideaway of the fashionable youth terrorists in Nocturama, who are happy to vamp in Shirley Bassey drag as the executioners assemble outside.


Yet that reflex to protect one’s own territory, be it geographic or cinematic, from the gaze of an outsider can also be a reactionary impulse, as it surely was when Ebert took offense on Isabella Rossellini’s behalf for the treatment of her character in Blue Velvet (1986), or even when Wallace read some of his own discomfort with Pryor’s appearance into Lynch’s artistic intent. Pryor comes off just fine in the finished movie, eluding whatever cold, bullying gaze Wallace detected on set. It’s telling that, even in a first-person essay as diffuse as Wallace’s, this case of projection escaped his eye, appearing as the passage on Pryor does alongside a section in which the author quotes, unattributed, the musings of the film’s several crew members as to Lost Highway’s true meaning:


“It’s about L.A. as hell. This is not unrealistic, if you want my opinion.”


“It’s a product like any other in a business like any other.”


“David is the Id of the Now. If you quote me, say I quipped it. Say ‘“David is the Id of the Now,” quipped _____, who is the film’s _____.’”


“The Id of the Now”: this arch moniker could apply just as well to Bonello, and the way his films put a finger on some contemporary pulse. When Gabrielle web-surfs in 2014, trying to get a reading from an online psychic, the production’s recreations of desktop and web designs strain credulity. Yet the confusing irritants endemic to user experience, the unwelcome intrusions like the Trash Humpers clip, seem somehow on target. The internet just feels like this now, getting worse all the time. This caustic quotation does highlight the way that, while trafficking in references to the ugly and monstrous, Bonello’s films are for the most part studiously handsome, often thanks to his longtime cinematographer and ex-partner Josée Deshaies. When House of Tolerance cuts to a final shot that jumps 100 years ahead to the present day in grainy digital video, it is a rupture that seems to mourn the long-gone bordello’s tainted glamour. Yet the spare texture of The Beast’s 2044 Paris captures something truer about our AI-inflected present: a future emptied of beauty and meaning, where Gabrielle wanders alone with only echoes of the past to haunt her.


Lynch has also treated the emergence of a digital present in his 2006 film Inland Empire, which arguably contained too many ideas for a single movie but had a singular collaborator in its star, Laura Dern. Similarly, the best case for Bonello as a worthy descendant of Lynch may be his partnership with Seydoux—like Dern, a generational talent with eccentric, outsider ambitions who is equally at home in the mainstream. (So identified is Seydoux with the contemporary film industry in her native land that, within the same year, 2021, she played a Bond girl named Madeleine Swann and the title character in France.) In each timeline, Seydoux plays Gabrielle as the Lynchian “woman in trouble,” haunted by the gulf between an immediate threat and her own nameless dread, which is also a nameless longing. In the film’s best moments, particularly the one that closes the 2014 section and pays off the use of Louis as threat, her ability to play fear and desire together thoroughly redeem any of Bonello’s shortcomings—shortcomings that vanish when real suspense takes over. The bravura direction that climaxes Gabrielle’s house-sitting stay in Los Angeles brings her together with Louis once more in a sequence that unites the awful violence of Nocturama’s conclusion with the most elliptical aspects of Lynch’s filmmaking and the repressed, heart-stopping romanticism of Wharton and James. Here, MacKay plays the hateful, homicidal Louis as suddenly unsure of himself, as if recalling his own past and future identities—a chivalric archetype tragically twisted by his own shortsightedness into an instrument of calamity, like the doppelgängers of Kyle MacLachlan’s Agent Cooper in Twin Peaks: The Return (2017).


The James text telegraphs its conclusion far in advance: this was the strength of his short fiction in particular, made up of long, eddying sentences with fractal structures that could imbue a simple idea like Marcher’s fate with vast and terrifying depth. Bonello’s ending, too, reverberates with gestures and signifiers that recall specific moments from Lynch’s filmography. But De Palma himself also drew upon familiar, popular iconography for Blow Out’s devastating climax, in which Jack Terry once more played the impotent witness, a restaging of the paranoid plot’s inciting incident that recalled the Chappaquiddick incident and John F. Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas. Bonello has none of De Palma’s New Left defeatism, but he understands that experience and even cynicism cannot salve the infinite human capacity for self-sabotage, nor soften the blows of failure. It was the Giant in Twin Peaks who put this lament most simply: “It is happening again.”


Gabrielle’s fate, like Marcher’s, is to unify her awareness of the present with the awful threat of the future only once it is too late to change it. The finale’s pastiche imagines this O. Henry-like twist as a fate both of the moment (the accumulated memory of the last century, which the AI has molded into a suffocating trap) and evergreen (the longing for a love that transcends). What unnerves about this conclusion is the sense not only that this lovers’ reunion has come too late but also that the scene itself is another uncanny mimicry of Bonello’s influences, a puny and half-remembered prison. One may respond to this ending with some more reflexive skepticism, or embrace the choice of staging and soundtrack for its own pleasurable chill. For there is, finally, something enduring about Gabrielle’s lonely cry. It’s a good scream.

LARB Contributor

Brendan Boyle is a writer and editor living in Chicago, Illinois. His criticism on film, television, and literature has been published in Cinema Scope, The Ringer, Downtime Magazine, and Fran Magazine.

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