Monday, April 22, 2024

Fear Itself: THE BEAST

Bertrand Bonello’s The Beast is a nesting doll narrative full of resonances fit for an age of anxiety. He’s done this playfully serious structuring around free-floating modern fears before. His Nocturama is a tensely shaggy hangout with a group of disaffected young bombers hiding out in an abandoned mall after a violent protest—captured by capitalism even in rebellion. His Zombi Child is a boarding school drama wrapped around voodoo flashbacks that tie together into a double-knotted story of immigration and isolation—twice over lost to oneself even as one is drawn even deeper into oneself. The Beast is hooked into a modern sense of foreboding and unease manifesting as eerie stasis and passivity that makes dangers, real or imagined, no less possible. It’s wrapped in a bevy of sci-fi conceits. It’s 2044. Some undefined apocalypse has left the streets of Paris largely abandoned, with stray animals wandering about, and passerby wearing clear air-filtering masks. Léa Seydoux stars as a woman who submits a request for promotion to her Artificial Intelligence overlord (Xavier Dolan’s voice) and is told she must undergo an emotional purging. Hooked up to a pseudo-spiritual machine—a vat of goo and wires that’s one part Minority Report and one part Cronenberg—that’ll prompt her to relive past lives and purge her centuries acquiring human softness.

As it begins, the movie quickly settles into a romantic tragedy straight out of Henry James. It’s a flooded Paris of 1910 where a the owner of a doll factory sneaks up to the edge of an affair with a dashing stranger (George MacKay) she meets at an art show. From the near-future interludes to the birth of Modernism—she sees avant garde paintings and is overseeing her product’s transition from porcelain to plastic—she’s stuck in a period of technological and emotional transition. (It also cues ideas about the creation of art as reflection and population of interior spaces, matched in time with an embodied A.I. “doll” played with impressive impassivity by Saint Omer's Guslagie Malanda.) Seydoux navigates serenely yet quiveringly across times with a slippery double role, playing the subterranean romantic yearnings and curiosities as her stuffed-shirt husband drifts away in favor of a pretty and serious flirt. The movie kicks into even higher tension in its second half as the double role adds a third. Now we’re in 2014 Los Angeles where the period piece stylings are rawer within our modern memory. This section deals with the burbling impending violence of MacKay as a vlogging incel stalker (a sadly familiar type) while Seydoux is now an aspiring actress disaffectedly ensorcelled in the labyrinthine gig economy of bad commercials and empty housesitting, only freed from routine by lonely websites, lonelier pills, and somehow loneliest crowded nightclubs. If the Jamesian story is about the pain of denial and the dangerous sparks of new possible connection, the Hollywood one is about the creeping dangers of the lack of connection.

In each time period, Seydoux and MacKay are on a collision course, sometimes romantic, but always fraught with contemporaneous fears and foibles. What form does society give to its unanswerable conflicts, its grinding prejudices and self-fulfilling prophecies? What, after all, is the beast? (A key line has to be an advertising director on a green screen set asking his actress: “Can you be scared of something that isn’t there?”) Here are two parallel plots that play out back to back, with the futurist frame dance between. Their implications and tensions and uncertainties circle, echo, and collapse. Bonello plays each genre almost entirely straight, but their juxtapositions accumulate and resonate. At times fleeting glitches filter in, lingering oddness even before Josée Deshaies’ cool digital frames might suddenly be pixellating, or skipping, or repeating, but just rarely enough to surprise each time. (Pity anyone seeing it streaming instead of theatrically or on a disc for the doubt they’ll have about whether these intentional choices are wi-fi troubles.) Here, in triplicate, is a woman and a man on a doomed loop of trauma reincarnated. Here, human fears feed human foibles and the inevitable dooms of our own, or others’, making. All one can do is scream as old anxieties are reborn anew and expressed afresh—familiar faces in new forms, every beginning fraught with the knowledge that this, too, shall end.

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