The Beast TIFF review bertrand bonello interview

Bertrand Bonello on his film The Beast, a tragic love story, incel slasher film and tale of AI domination

An interview with the French filmmaker about the inspirations behind this haunting experience, set in three time periods.

When The Beast, directed by Bertrand Bonello, screened at TIFF last year, a QR code replaced the usual credits. Scanning it with your phone opened a website featuring the names of the workers who brought the film to life. Whatever the motivation for this decision, it contributed to the film’s lingering affect. The movie didn’t just exist on the screen, it was now on your phone so you can carry it with you. When I opened my browser later that day, the credits were still there; a digital imprint of the experience that, over six months later, still haunts me.

Bertrand Bonello has always been an eclectic filmmaker. His best known works, House of Tolerance, Saint Laurent and Nocturama, are often brimming anachronisms, non-linear storytelling and lush sensual photography. He breaks with narrative expectations while leaning into the inherent romance of the screen. He’s classical and post-modern; his work abounds with beauty while also being helplessly disillusioned. His fascination with social outcasts — sex workers, revolutionaries and the downtrodden — recurs throughout his career. The paradoxical nature of his approach can sometimes feel like whiplash, as reality constructs and deconstructs itself over and over again.

With The Beast, his latest film, he takes inspiration from Henry James, but the film cascades across three different time periods: 1910, 2014 and 2044. The “present” is in the not-so-distant future where humanity has capitulated to an all-powerful artificial intelligence that has quieted and minimized our existence. “Catastrophe” no longer exists. As the story begins, Gabrielle (Léa Seydoux) volunteers for the procedure to “cure” her of strong emotions — a process that involves a journey through her past lives. 

Gabrielle soon learns of a deep yearning that has haunted her across centuries. Loneliness, romance and violence recur through her repeated meetings with a young man, Louis (George Mackay). It’s a film that deeply touches on the questions of the present, capturing the messy, digital and explosive atmosphere of the 2020s so far. There’s no other movie like it.

I spoke with Bertrand Bonello about the film while he was in Montreal attending the Festival du Nouveau Cinéma in October 2023. 

Justine Smith: The Beast was partially inspired by a Henry James story , but there is also a very strong Faustian element to the narrative. What do you think the Faustian bargain of modern life is?

Bertrand Bonello: Do we have to sell our souls to the devil? Yes, we do. It’s not very romantic. It’s a matter of narcissism and our relationship to power and money. That is today’s devil, and a lot of people sell their souls. It’s more and more difficult to remain free.

JS: The film speaks a lot about freedom. When we’re talking about making a deal with the devil, we are also talking about compromising our freedom in a way. I feel many of us, myself included, are alienated from the real idea of freedom or liberty. Too many of us conceive it as something selfish — to be free is to be able to choose to be a bad person. 

Bertrand Bonello: It’s a very important word and the meaning has really changed. Everybody thinks they are free because they’re so connected. You are free to get, at two clicks, any song, any film, any video. I feel free but it’s not being free. It’s like being in a system that is just killing you, that is taking away from humanity and what humanity is. It’s very dangerous. You can see it in commercials, they often use the word “free.” You are now “free” to do this and that. Get this phone and you’re going to be free. Free of what? 

The Beast bertrand bonello interview
George Mackay and Léa Seydoux in The Beast

JS: In your vision of the future in the film, it’s not only how clean it is, but more importantly how quiet it has become. 

Bertrand Bonello: One of the most difficult things for me, because I’m not a specialist in science fiction, is that there are two main directions in science-fiction: either you’re in hyper technology or some post-apocalypse. I tried to find a third direction and, actually, 2044 is tomorrow. I tried to take the world today and take things away. There are no commercials, no screens, no internet, no cars. No more sounds, as if we have all been put in a box. You will never have any problems in the box, but you’re still in a box. It’s a fake idea of freedom. You know, the AI (in the film) says there are no more catastrophes because we solved all the problems, but maybe the worst catastrophe is that there is no catastrophe. Today, the world is getting mroe and more dramatic. A few days ago [the interview took place on Oct. 11], it is now more dramatic than ever. The world is full of fear but fear is also what makes you feel alive, for better and for worse.

For the sound, when I’m in Paris, it’s very very noisy. Sometimes I wish I had some calm, but at the same time, it’s life, you know? Kids have to play. When I go to a bar, I like to have some music. Now everything shuts down at 11 p.m. We conceived much of the sound for the 2044 part as really fake. 

JS: Another element of the film I find fascinating is the use of slasher film tropes you use in the section of the movie set in 2014. Could you talk a little bit about how you deconstruct slasher elements within The Beast?

Bertrand Bonello: I really wanted to try once to make one, because I love them. The idea of putting a girl alone in the house, I love that. You have to respect the rules and break the rules at the same time. One of my favourites, that I saw before shooting, is When A Stranger Calls from the end of the 1970s. I love this film and I love Carol Kane.

Inside of that, you have to find new ideas. For example, at the end of this part of the film in Los Angeles, everything begins to bug because it’s all created by a machine in 2044. They recreate your memories and that brings a new level of fear in a way. It was quite a challenge because I didn’t realize how difficult it was to make a film with just a girl alone in a house. We have this computer and this phone. She has the inside world and the outside where sometimes she goes to the club. Now that the film is finished, split into these three parts, I think it’s my favourite part. 

JS: This section of the film is also set in 2014, which is and is not that long ago.

Bertrand Bonello: Time is changing so quickly. The 2014 parts really come from videos I saw in 2014 of Elliott Rodger [a young man who committed a misogynistic terror attack in the U.S.]. It’s fascinating. Not only because the guy was crazy and killed some girls. It’s the way he expresses himself, the words he uses. He’s so calm, so gentle and very sweet. There’s no anger. If I had written them myself, I think the dialogue would have been more crazy. It’s stronger that it’s his (words) because they’re not crazy. He says things simply, very softly. There’s no like, “I’m going to kill these bitches.” This is very terrifying. I saw the (videos Rodger made) in 2014 and was really terrified by the tone of his messages. I put that in a notebook, and so when I decided to write the slasher part, I came back to this. It gives something quite real, almost non-fictional to this part. 

I was in New York a few days ago to present the film. In America, they ask a lot more questions about this part. I’m not saying we don’t have serial killers in France, we do have them, but (America) creates these characters. The audience was shocked that I said that but I think it’s true. 

George Mackay The Beast
George Mackay in The Beast

JS: I find sometimes when I’ve been to the U.S., the culture can be very alienating. Isolating.

Bertrand Bonello: In New York, it’s the opposite. It’s a city where people walk and talk to each other, but you never know what they think. They have a problem where if you meet anyone, they (tell you), “You’re great! You’re gorgeous! It’s fantastic!” Everything’s fantastic! But everything is not fantastic. I think it’s quite scary and I don’t feel comfortable. There’s lots of things I love about the USA, but not that. 

JS: In these different time periods, there is this moment in the past where it’s almost like Lea Seydoux’s character becomes, in a sense, like a living doll. 

Bertrand Bonello: I’ll tell you, when (Léa Seydoux) arrived on the set, she said, “What are you going to do with your favourite doll today? Put me in the water? Throw pigeons at me? Put some fire behind me?”

I think my favourite shot is actually the first shot we did, when she (pretends to be) the doll at the café. When the guy says, “But what’s a doll’s face?” and she does the doll face. It’s quite a long shot, but one of my favourite moments. I like the image of dolls in movies because there’s something very childish and very scary at the same time. 

JS: We’ve already spoken a bit about Elliot Rodger, but what I find so interesting is how kind women are to him, especially Gabrielle. She’s very open to him, but he decides not to see it, or he can’t — he’s too afraid.

Bertrand Bonello: He has these terrible messages, but my point of view, of course, is not of Elliot Rodger but of the character. Unconsciously, it’s his fear of love more than his hatred of women. When Gabrielle sees him, she sees a lost boy. She’s trying, you know, to bring him back to something. She says it, you know, this is a fear of love. He’s almost on the verge of going towards her but there is something stronger; the fear is stronger than the possibility of abandoning yourself. 

JS: That’s from Henry James, isn’t it? I haven’t read it, but it’s about a character who is afraid to love or else something terrible will happen.

Bertrand Bonello: In the first scene in the ballroom (in the 1910 section), all the dialogue is from Henry James. After, I exploded everything but the dialogue is very faithful. The character says, I cannot go into a relationship because something horrible will happen. The Beast. The beast is just the fear of love but it’s too late in the novel, because her beloved has died. It’s the essence of melodrama. Everyone in the audience knows these two people should be in love and be together but when they realize it, it’s too late. 

JS: This film feels so much of the moment. How do you move on from this? It’s such a monumental work, you can’t repeat it. I imagine you have to go in an entirely new direction.

Bertrand Bonello: I have some friends, directors, that feel that every film becomes easier and easier. For me, it’s more and more difficult. I have to go deeper inside myself to find things. This film is like the end of something and I have to go somewhere else now. I’ve been following my obsessions and it’ll be dangerous to repeat them, so I don’t really know what I’m going to do. ■

The Beast (directed by Bertrand Bonello)

The Beast is now playing in Montreal theatres. Read our review of the film from TIFF here.

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