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Until It’s Too Late: Bertrand Bonello on The Beast

Not adapted so much as vertiginously extrapolated from a Henry James novella, Bertrand Bonello’s audacious “The Beast” is a hypnotic and destabilizing vision of a past, present, and future in which two star-crossed lovers struggle to connect in the face of their own fears, as the engulfing threat of unknown catastrophes—both individual and collective—subjugates their tremulous, ever-fluctuating romance to a state of perpetual dread. 

In James’ “The Beast in the Jungle,” an 80-page short story from 1903, a man spends his life alone, paralyzed by the conviction that something terrible awaits him, a beast certain to pounce at any moment, only to realize too late that the beast was his own fear. Cross-cutting between three time periods, Bonello’s vividly unsettling film (now in theaters) transposes Jamesian themes to the realm of genre pastiche, threading together period drama with suspense thriller, metaphysical horror, and insidiously blanched sci-fi futurism to weave a temporally boundless tapestry of desire, fear, and disquiet—of humanity at its most passionate and alive.  

In each of its settings—belle-epoque Paris, on the eve of its great 1910 flood; Los Angeles, in 2014; and Paris in 2044, in an aseptic dystopia ruled by artificial intelligence—two characters recur, souls fated (or doomed) to circle one another in successive lifetimes. In 1910, Gabrielle (Léa Seydoux) is a celebrated pianist who confides in her handsome suitor, Louis (George MacKay, in a role originally intended for the late Gaspard Ulliel), the sense of impending doom that’s been with her all her life, which Louis claims he shares. In 2014, Gabrielle is an actress housesitting in Los Angeles, where Louis—an angry incel whose hateful, self-aggrandizing video rants are lifted verbatim from the chilling manifestos uploaded by the American spree killer Elliott Rodger before his rampage in Isla Vista—begins to stalk her. And in 2044, Gabrielle contemplates a new procedure to “purify” her DNA and erase her emotions, a prospect that fills her and a chance acquaintance, Louis, with a profound terror.

In each setting, Bonello unearths what he describes as a “history of feelings,” depicting how people can express, repress, and suppress their emotions, as well as how the social, political, spiritual, and technological shifts that overwhelm and entrap his characters can also work to drive out their humanity. This is a frequent preoccupation for Bonello, a French director whose past films—the opiated “House of Tolerance,” set in a bordello in fin-de-siècle Paris; decadent biopic “Saint Laurent,” starring Ulliel as the fashion designer; “Nocturama,” a dreamlike vision of young radicals in Paris who retreat to a shopping mall after committing a terrorist attack, only to be ideologically undone by its consumerist excess; “Zombi Child,” in which the ghost of colonialism rears its head at a modern-day French boarding school; and “Coma,” a surreal descent into the dreams and reality of a teenager locked in her bedroom—have manipulated time and space to reflect the relative freedom or confinement of characters within the larger, unknowable cross-currents of cultural context and histories. 

Speaking with over Zoom from the Criterion offices in midtown New York, Bonello discussed the uncanny distortions of self that recur in his work, operating in three different time periods, and the timeless allure of Léa Seydoux.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

The last time we spoke, at the 2019 New York Film Festival, was for an interview about “Zombi Child” and its place within your body of work. You described the film as embodying the “cinema of fear,” both formally and narratively, in how it allowed you to express your own anxieties and fears of the world. The two films you’ve made since, “Coma” and “The Beast,” belong to the cinema of fear as well, so I’m curious how your perception of that concept has evolved over the past few years.

In a way, they do belong to the cinema of fear. They’re not proper genre movies, but they include genre elements that allow me to talk about my fears but also express political thoughts. For example, “The Beast” is the first time I’ve used science fiction and set something in the future, but I realized that, when you invent and create concepts of the future, it’s also a way of talking about your fear of the present.

I had this concept that, in the future, humanity has f—ed everything up, and AI took power and solved everything, and the price has been expensive to pay. It’s the future you see. All my fears of relationships are in there as well. Of course, that can be the fear we all know, of everything happening around us. We don’t know where it’s going to stop or where it’s going to drive us. But it’s also more about personal fears. How do you belong to this world? How do you navigate the relationship between technology and humanity, something that’s been very strong across the last 20 years but is now stronger than ever? God knows what’s going to happen in the future, about that.

What I said about the cinema of fear in 2019, I think of it more every day. “Coma” is a nightmare movie, my nightmare seen through the eyes of an 18-year-old girl. She’s the future of the world, and that’s the subject of “Coma.” I know these are both dark movies, but I tried to make them in a sexy way, with visual ideas and melodrama, both intimate and spectacular scenes. But, of course, beneath all of that is my terror of today.

“The Beast” was twice delayed, once by the death of Gaspard Ulliel shortly before production was set to begin, then again by a year due to scheduling conflicts with Léa Seydoux. In the interim, your producer suggested you make a short and you instead made “Coma,” a feature, with a short’s budget. Though these projects are distinct, they both reflect on fear and love, life and death, real and unreal, and other such juxtapositions. What connections do you see between them, in hindsight?

There are quite a few, in fact. They’re first of all going from one world to another, and mixing different types of images, including the “nice” images of cinema and something dirtier, coming from the Internet. How you can make a YouTube extract become part of cinema links the two. Both films are in between life and death, which I call in limbo. And limbo is a fascinating space, one that has fascinated people before me in painting and writing and a little less in movies, but still there as well. 

With more digital, multimedia means of film production made accessible by the Internet, it feels like filmmakers like yourself are discovering new ways to convey that liminal space. Exploring connections between digital and physical realms, in the context of films that continually shift form, evokes a kind of negative space that surrounds the characters and impacts the audience as well. To what degree do you see yourself as exploring that digital frontier in your cinema?

There’s a very long scene in “Coma,” with young girls in a Zoom call. That’s our daily life now, on Zoom. We live inside it. How can you use this and make it become a movie scene, a movie image? In fact, a Zoom call is like a sequence shot with six cameras. And if you think this way, you think differently, and you can write it. Some people say that it’s improvisation. It’s not improvisation. It’s very precise in terms of dialogue and mise-en-scène, and it’s a sequence shot with six cameras. It’s at once the same thing, and it’s very different. It depends how you talk about it. And it’s the same with many scenes in “The Beast.”

You’re known for manipulating time in your films. “The Beast” crosscuts between three time periods—1910, 2014, and 2044–but moves in accordance with emotional connections or discursive links more than any linear chronology. The film’s structure feels expansive, as if it’s rippling outward from an epicenter that exists outside of all the periods, outside of time. How did you want to work with time in this film?

It started with “House of Tolerance,” released in the U.S. as “House of Pleasures.” I was playing with time and distorting it, to use it in such a way that I could quit reality without quitting reality. Time and space are the main tools of direction, and of mise-en-scène, and I used time across “Saint Laurent” and “Nocturama” as well. Here, in “The Beast,” I decided to make this the subject of the film: distorting time and exploring how you can use time in a narrative way. It’s very obvious in this film. In the others, it’s more insidious. 

Time is an amazing tool. It’s endless. In a way, losing one’s sense of time is losing one’s mind. And in “House of Tolerance,” at any one moment you don’t know if it’s one moment or one year. You lose the sense of time, and the characters lose their minds. We say “The Beast” takes place over 120 years, but it could be a thousand years or five minutes… When they meet at the party in 1910, the first sentence one of them says is, “We have met before. Do you remember?” “Yes, five years ago.” “No, seven years ago.” They’ve already missed each other, in a way.

Other distortions in your cinema are existential, such as your motif of actors seeing themselves reflected in these simulacra of humanity: shop mannequins in “Nocturama,” masks in “House of Tolerance,” inanimate dolls across “Cindy: The Doll Is Mine,” “The Beast,” and “Coma.” 

I know, I do use them a lot… It’s filming a face whose expression you don’t know, which is both mysterious and scary. If you look at a doll’s face or see someone wearing a mask, it’s about what’s behind that. For example, one of my favorite scenes in “The Beast” is when Léa Seydoux is in the salon de thé and [impersonating] the doll; her face just stops moving. For a couple of seconds, you say, “Wow, she’s very beautiful.” And after another five seconds, you say, “She’s f—ing freaky.” I really like this because you do not know what she is thinking. I love this sensation.

And the dialogue in that scene directly addresses the peculiarity of sculpting emotion onto a mold. On some level, we recognize this uncannily “neutral” face, but it lacks emotion and humanity. Gabrielle is haunted by a premonition of catastrophe, and the dolls recur—including in the 2044 section, where a “doll” robot companion is played by Guslagie Malanda—in a way that feels linked to this premonition, as well as to the film’s overriding themes of fear and love.

It really comes from the Henry James novella. This is the argument of Henry James that I took. What’s great about the idea of premonition, of a sign that precedes something, is that you don’t know what the beast is. You don’t see it, and it’s not an actual beast, so you can put a lot of fears into the word “beast,” just as the characters can put a lot of fears into the word “catastrophe.” Something is going to happen. It’s an amazing argument from Henry James, that something can happen and so everyone is in fear, like animals, looking at what’s going to happen. And that makes you very alive. And, of course, the ending is sad because the beast is the fear of love. And when they realize this, it's too late. But that's the essence of a melodrama: it's too late. The idea that we might wait for something to happen until it’s too late is very tragic.

When I was a little lost in my story, I always went back to the novella. Even though it's short, and even after I took its arguments, everything is in it. Everything. When I was working on the 2014 section, and the fear of love in this period, I went back to the novella: the fear of love, and the beast, what would that be in 2014? And I was thinking about the loneliness of this period. She’s connected to a computer, and he with the iPhone, but there is loneliness. In 2014, the fear of love made me think about incels. But I always came back to the novel, even if I didn’t take much of it. What I took was the argument that something is going to happen. It’s the best argument possible: everything can happen, so everything is possible in the mind of the audience and the characters. 

Two of the most harrowing scenes in “The Beast” come with the Great Flood of 1910 in Paris, when Gabrielle and Louis are caught in a fire at the doll factory. You see dolls’ faces melting in the flames, and you follow their attempt to escape underwater. Tell me about filming those sequences. 

These were, of course, two of the most challenging scenes to make, technically. I wanted to do everything on the set; there is no CGI. For the first time in my life, I did storyboard, because it had to be very precise. This is not a $30 million film: it’s a $7.5 million film. We had two days with the fire, and two days underwater, so we had to be very precise. Of course, it’s slow. If you do a shot with a fire, then you have to open everything up for five minutes, because otherwise it’s too toxic. And when you shoot underwater, it's slow, because it’s hard to talk to your actors. They don’t hear you; they don’t see you. 

These types of considerations made it complicated. Though it was challenging, there’s nothing more beautiful than fire to shoot, as it’s so visual, and the underwater sequence was also tough, but we were happy, very quickly, with the sensation and the visual appearance of it. So, we had a location and just set fire to it. That was it. And then for the underwater sequence, we built a location that we dove into, like a pool.

“The Beast” begins by depicting Léa Seydoux’s Gabrielle in front of a green screen, taking direction from you, and cowering from an imaginary threat. You expose the artifice of filmmaking so early, in connecting it to that preoccupation with our fear of something that’s not actually there. Was this always your opening scene?

That was the first thing I wrote. When I started to write the film, I wrote this prologue, and I knew that it would stay there and make it through the final edit. There are many reasons for this. One of them is for the audience, so that everyone watching can make the connection between a green screen and virtuality. If you enter the film in 1910, it looks like a period film. If you go before that with a green screen, the audience understands that it’s going to be weirder than that, that everything will not be real, and so on. I wanted that to be clear.

Secondly, I have for three minutes Léa Seydoux alone in this green ocean, which is another way to say that one of the subjects of my film—perhaps the subject of my film—is going to be her: Gabrielle, but also Léa Seydoux. This scene is divided in two. One’s not quite a documentary but is me talking to her and saying, “Now you’ll do this, and we’ll see that. Are you ready? Action. Let’s go.” And the second is her acting in fear without anything around her, just in her mind. When you enter 1910, you enter loaded: with a scream, with this discussion of the beast, with the idea the beast might be something horrible because she screams. You don’t enter the film the same way. I wrote it very quickly, but I was sure that it would stay in the film. 

To your point about the subject of your film being not only a character but also the actress playing her, tell me more about your collaboration with Léa Seydoux, who previously appeared in your films “On War” and “Saint Laurent” and has a three-role showcase in “The Beast.”

We’ve known each other for a long time. In “On War,” she had a small part. In “Saint Laurent,” she had a supporting role. For many years, we had said we should do something bigger together. I didn’t have an idea, but we had this conversation. When I started to write “The Beast,” she came to mind, not because she was a friend but because I knew that there would be three periods. 

I knew that she was the only French actress that could be in all three periods, because I believed Léa in both the past and the future. She’s modern and ageless; she crosses time, and there’s something mysterious within her that I needed for the writing and the film. It became natural. I wrote thinking of her, I gave her a script, and I knew she would say yes, because the subject of love is so important to her. After that, we didn’t talk much about the film for a couple of years. She doesn’t like to talk too much before the shoot. And she trusts me. I trust her, but she trusts me. That’s why I could push her quite far on set because I had her confidence. 

Often, Léa is acting against technology, including during the scenes of her in Los Angeles, where she’s housesitting right before an earthquake, alone and in front of a computer. I know you looked to Fred Walton’s “When a Stranger Calls” as an inspiration for that section, which casts Louis as a 30-year-old incel stalking Gabrielle through the house…

That’s a beautiful film. The idea that you have this guy who has killed two kids, and then you spend time with him, and you don’t excuse him—of course not—but you have some empathy, because you see his sorrow. He’s this lost guy in a lost America. I’ve never seen that before in movies. 

But doing the sequences with Léa in 2014, alone with a computer, even if it looks easier than doing scenes underwater, was difficult. She’s just alone. How do you create tension? She doesn’t have a partner. Her partner’s a computer. How do you create tension between a shot list and a face? That was possibly the most difficult scene to do. Often, you find ideas because you have a problem. That’s how you find your best ideas: “I don’t know how to do it, so how can I do it?” In the house in Los Angeles, that was often the case.

You shot the 1910 section on 35mm, which gives it this lively and sensual glow, and the other sections on digital, which is colder—and further restricted by the square format you adopt in 2044. In the future you envision, there’s this unsettling absence: of warmth, of texture, of sound. What kinds of choices were you making in creating this artificial tomorrow? 

It was the most difficult thing to imagine. In 1910, you recreate. 2014, you recreate. 2044 was for us to invent, so we decided to take the world as it is today and to begin taking things away. We took away cars, screens, advertisements, relationships with others… We emptied everything out. We emptied the sound and made it fake. There are no more things you can relate to. There are no more textures. There is nothing you know. 

It took us a long time to find how Gabrielle would go back to the past, to purify herself. The idea of this black bath took ages. We started to draw some machines, to consider her taking pills, and everything sounded fake. I don’t say that the bath looks real, but you can feel something from it. You can feel it. When we had this idea, we knew that we had it. I don’t know why. I don’t know how it works. But, for me, it works.

“The Beast” is now playing in New York and Los Angeles, with a national rollout to follow in the coming weeks. 

Isaac Feldberg

Isaac Feldberg is an entertainment journalist currently based in Chicago, who’s been writing professionally for nine years and hopes to stay at it for a few more.

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