Past Is Present
An Interview with Bertrand Bonello about The Beast
By Leonardo Goi

Bertrand Bonello’s first sci-fi foray, The Beast imagines a near-future that’s neither a post-apocalyptic wasteland nor a screen-infested dystopia. The year is 2044, and Paris is an eerily depopulated and quieter copy of the metropolis circa 2023, with an atmosphere of anemic calm hanging over it. There are no cars, no phones, no screens, “none of the things,” Bonello tells me as we sit in a suite at the Excelsior Hotel a few days after the film’s premiere at the 80th Venice Film Festival, “that are bad for us.” Artificial intelligence has usurped humanity, and emotions have been outlawed, deemed obstacles to optimal work productivity. Haunted by the specter of unemployment, Gabrielle (Léa Seydoux) decides to purify her DNA of all feelings. Except the surgery sends her back in time to bump into previous incarnations of her soulmate, Louis (George MacKay), another thirty-something who’s also chosen to undergo the same treatment. They meet (again) in 1910 Paris on the eve of the Great Flood, and then (again) in 2014 Los Angeles—Gabrielle an aspiring actress, Louis an incel stalking her.

Written by Bonello, The Beast repurposes Henry James’s 1903 short story “The Beast in the Jungle” for a 21st-century audience. The central metaphor survives intact: in both book and film, the titular animal isn’t a flesh-and-bones creature so much as a calamitous dread that prevents the protagonist from taking a chance on love. But the A.I. paranoias Bonello layers over it make The Beast an eerily prescient watch, all the more so considering the director began working on it in 2017. And yet, for all its technophobic commentary, Bonello’s latest radiates the same buoyancy and inventiveness of its predecessor, Coma (2022), another film that’s alive to the creative possibilities offered by our plugged-in lives.

As in Coma, there are times when Bonello’s longtime cinematographer Josée Deshaies turns the screen into a kaleidoscope of different images and image-making sources. The Beast seesaws between the 35mm stock of its Belle Époque chapter and the digital sheen of all other segments, between the constrictive 4:3 ratio of Gabrielle’s 2044 present and the widescreen that frames her Parisian life. Once it fast-forwards to 2014, the film accommodates a bevy of digital media, and Gabrielle’s odyssey intersects TV programs, online chats, social media stories, and CCTV footage. The cognitive overload mimics the image production and consumption regimes of our very online zeitgeist. Yet Bonello doesn’t seem interested in aping that aesthetic so much as testing its limits, and troubling our definitions of what cinema can be, and what it can accomplish.

Equal parts sci-fi, romance, and horror, The Beast employs genre as a vehicle to advance a stark vision of the future. A fatalistic tale, however, this is not. Thrumming beneath the film’s ergonomic facades is a subversive hope: that a supposedly moribund art-form will never run out of ways to reinvent itself.

Reverse Shot: I was hoping we could start with your connection to the Henry James text. What intrigued you about it, and how did you happen into it?

Bertrand Bonello: I’d long wanted to make a melodrama, and the book had been sitting on my desk for ten years or so. It’s such a heartbreaking and beautiful story, and I knew it’d be perfect material for the genre. So, I decided to take its premise—this idea of a beast hidden inside us—and see what I could do with it. This is no adaptation, of course; it’s a very free take on the book, which I betrayed in countless ways. And sometimes followed verbatim, as in the long scene at the beginning, in the parlor room. All the words you hear are taken from James’s text.

RS: Speaking of betrayals, aside from the very 21st-century themes you graft onto it, one of the most significant departures from the novel is your decision to switch narrators. This is no longer Louis’s story, as James had envisioned it, but Gabrielle’s. Why that shift?

BB: Well, there were many reasons why I wanted to make the film—I told you about my interest in melodramas, but another crucial one was my wish to make, for the first time in my life, a film where a female character would play the central role. I’d made films about women before, like House of Tolerance, but that was a group portrait, and here I wanted to focus on one individual, and use genre to deal with her—and our—fear of love. And it seems to me that in the process this portrait of a woman turned into a kind of documentary about an actress.

RS: Could you talk about your writing process? I was curious to hear how that unfolds, usually, and where you’d place yourself within the intuitionists vs. control freaks divide. Do you come to the shoot with a script your actors must stick to, or do you leave room for improvisation?

BB: All my collaborators say with each new film I’m becoming more and more of a control freak… [laughs] But no, I don’t leave room for improvisation, and I have a very, very precise shot list. I’m the first to enter the editing room, and the last to leave. I do my own music. When I think about my creative process—it’s like architecture, you know, or a mathematical formula. As for how the writing unfolded here… it wasn’t very different from my previous films, in all honesty. But it was a much longer process. And the reason is that in the film you have these three very different time periods, and the struggle was to find an equilibrium between them. I work a lot with Post-Its; I like that you can use different colors and can stick them to the wall. It’s a very visual method, which is how I prefer to work. And I think in the end I probably wrote like 20 versions of the script, which is twice as many as I would normally do.

RS: It’s interesting to hear you stress the rigor of your approach. I must confess when I watched The Beast I sensed the opposite—it’s a film of much freedom, so much playfulness…

BB: That may be true, but for me freedom is something that demands a lot of work. I think the freer you want your work to feel, the more precise and rigorous you’ll have to be within that freedom.

RS: When did you start working on the film?

BB: A while back, in 2017.

RS: In retrospect, your concerns about A.I. register as sinisterly prescient.

BB: That’s right. And I would have never imagined this stuff about A.I. would feel so contemporary by the time we’d be ready to show the film. Not to mention how much more relevant it seems now with the actors’ and writers’ strikes still ongoing. It’s not that I didn’t foresee the dangers of artificial intelligence, but I thought it’d be something we’d have to deal with in 15 or 20 years. And then this spring that was all the media seemed to talk about, with newspapers predicting A.I. would lead to the end of the world, and the guy behind it admitting he’d created something worse than the atomic bomb. So yeah, it’s now a real subject, with all kinds of ethical and political considerations. And don’t get me wrong, I can see the good side to A.I., all the research it can help to advance, but it’s a tool, you know, like a hammer. You can use it to hang a picture or kill someone. The difference is that we used to think of ourselves as masters of the tools we used. Now you just can’t be so sure.

RS: And yet, even as The Beast posits A.I. as anathema to humanity, there are several exchanges that seem to complicate that position. I remember one in particular where Louis and Gabrielle wonder if it’d ever be possible to make music without sentiment, and what that would sound like. And I’m pretty sure I’m paraphrasing here, but he tells her, “It would sound very primitive, something we haven’t experienced in a long time.”

BB: You have a very good memory. That’s a line from a book by Thomas Mann. Doctor Faustus.

RS: It’s the suggestion that we might have experienced that type of music in the past, which I found very fascinating. As if the existential dilemmas A.I. has only recently triggered had been with us a long time already.

BB: It’s one of those statements that can be read in so many levels—that’s why it’s so intriguing. Louis and Gabrielle are talking about the Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg, whom Doctor Faustus suggests was able to revolutionize modern music because he sold his soul to the devil, as in a pact. And they’re also talking about love, of course. Music offers them a way to articulate feelings they may struggle to talk about as openly. But there’s also a sense that all this—their predicament, their romance, their anxieties—may come from long before their time, because the film itself is open to this idea of reincarnations and past lives.

RS: Still on the subject of music: I was hoping you could talk about how you go about selecting and weaving pop songs into your films. They seem to play a different role in The Beast than in your previous projects; here, they’re employed chiefly as temporal markers.

BB: I like to think very early about which songs I’ll end up using. And then I include them in the script. I can spend a long time finding the perfect song, and when I do, it fits into my screenplays like a dialogue. Or a description. I’d never pick one just because I love it, or because I need a filler for this or that club scene. It has to have meaning.

RS: Do you have a playlist you listen to while you write?

BB: It depends on the moments or scenes I’m working on. But I always write with music, because it cuts me off from the real world. And that’s hell for people living with me. I can work on a scene and listen to the same song 25 times in a row.

RS: And the songs you listened to while writing The Beast—were they the same songs that ended up in the film’s score?

BB: Some of them yes, but not only. I listened to plenty of Richie Hawtin—you may know him under his alias, Plastikman? He’s a British-Canadian electronic musician I really like. And classical music, of course. I need it.

RS: This is your first sci-fi film, but the future, as you imagine it, is neither a postapocalyptic no man’s land nor a hyper-technological milieu.

BB: You’re right. Those are the two traditional routes, and I was hoping to find a third one. It’s the future, yes, but it’s also tomorrow. We’re in 2044, 20 years from now, so many things still look the same. Which is why I decided to take the world as we know it and just remove things. There’s no internet, no social media, no phones, and no cars either. People are really isolated. It’s the world we live in, except with none of the things that are bad for us, so to speak. It’s a strange atmosphere.

RS: And it’s so sanitized, so anemic! That atmosphere is possibly the most frightening thing about the film. How did you go about conjuring it?

BB: First, we redid all the sound. It’s totally artificial. And then we cleaned the frame from anything that could distract your eyes. It’s all very minimalistic.

RS: Watching your films, I often feel like I’m venturing into a kind of multiverse. Here too, not only do you alternate different aspect ratios, you also mix all kinds of image-making sources: social media stories, online chats, TV programs, archival photos, footage from other films… What informed your conversations with Josée Deshaies, your cinematographer?

BB: Josée and I have worked on so many films through the years, and she’s always been integral to shaping their looks. In The Beast, for instance, she was the one who came up with the idea of shooting the 2044 segments in 4:3, to give Gabrielle’s life a more claustrophobic feel, and to film the 1910 section in 35mm. But the rest comes from the script. I mean, all through the chapter set in 2014 Léa is, I guess, in 60 percent of all her scenes alone in a house, looking at laptops and screens. Where the sections set in 1910 are all in 35mm, the rest is digital. That’s what our lives are like today. We are surrounded by screens, bombarded with images that come at us from all directions. Which is to say that the film in those moments is kind of a reflection of our everyday experience, of the textures we are familiar with.

RS: I was wondering how you view The Beast within the context of your filmography. We talked about departures, but there are also continuities between this film and your previous teenage-themed trilogy, whose characters struggle to make sense of their reality just as desperately as Gabrielle and Louis do here.

BB: I think… [pauses] I think, for me, The Beast marks the end of something. And I need to go somewhere else now. Maybe if you ask me the same question in four months I’ll tell you the exact opposite, but I don’t think I can go further with the themes and obsessions I’ve dealt with so far. I have to venture someplace else, where I’m not expected, and where I don’t expect to find myself in either.

RS: The Beast also cobbles together different genres—romance, horror, sci-fi—to advance, among other things, a cautionary tale of the kind of future we’re heading into. Do you see genre as a good vehicle to convey politics?

BB: Absolutely. We were talking about the things that made me want to tackle the book, and another key reason was that I wanted to mix genres. Mixing fear and love, for instance, meaning melodrama and slasher films. That was really the starting point of The Beast. I’ve been an avid fan of genre films since I was a kid—films by George Romero, John Carpenter, David Cronenberg, which I’ve watched many times since. They are very important to me, because for all their B-movie credentials, these are works from great directors who made them in the first degree, so to speak. They themselves believed the fear they were bringing to the screen, and they worked with genre because that allowed them to articulate their anxieties about the world—and often those concerns are political. That’s what Carpenter’s cinema is about, ultimately. Or Romero’s… I think genre films went under the radar for a while because they were written off as mere entertainment, but over the last five to seven years they’ve enjoyed a huge comeback. Think of Jordan Peele, or other directors from his generation, especially in the States. Some of the things that are being made today are really quite interesting. And in The Beast, the mixing of different genres means that fear blends with hope, too. There’s light at the end of the film. You know it’s a melodrama, and the romance is doomed from the outset. But in the end Gabrielle still learns something about herself and the world. She couldn’t give a name to the terror that used to haunt her. Now she knows what it is: the fear of opening up to love and getting hurt in the process. Understanding and embracing it is what helps her remain human.