The Beast

Original title or aka: La bête

Director: Bertrand Bonello
Starring: Lea Seydoux, George MacKay, Guslagie Malanda and Dasha Nekrasova
Distributor: Rialto Distribution
Runtime: 155 mins. Reviewed in Jun 2024
Reviewer: Peter W Sheehan
| JustWatch |
Rating notes: Mature themes, sexual references and coarse language

This film explores the impact of Artificial Intelligence used to help people cope with an unpredictable future.

At the Venice International Film Festival in 2023 it was clear the theme of AI was destined to influence movies to come. The festival itself was affected by a strike about AI; there was anxiety about how AI would affect future cinema screenings; and concern was evident that few quality movies have so far appeared that feature the distinctive challenges of AI. This Canadian-French drama addresses the theme that human emotions can be neutralised or changed by AI, and it adopts a sci-fi format to highlight its themes. Written by director Bonello, from a story he wrote with Guillaume Breaud and Benjamin Charbit, which itself was based loosely on the 1903 novella, The Beast in the Jungle by Henry James. ‘The Beast’ in this film is metaphorical – it signifies the terrible things that life can deliver, and the film accrues meaning best by assuming that the Beast lies within us.

It is 2044, and humans can ‘erase’ their feelings through AI. In the film, Gabrielle Monnier (Seydoux), requires a fresh start to be eligible for a job she wants, and she puts her DNA into a machine that immerses her in the past and rids her of feelings and traumatic memories she once had. In so doing, she embarks on the process of ‘purification’ by AI. By means of AI, she repeatedly falls in love with different incarnations of Louis Lewanski (MacKay). The film explores different aspects of their relationship to each other, spread across different timelines. One shows Gabrielle with a husband who treats her coldly; another explores the theme of violent retribution; and a third depicts life governed by AI which can totally ‘purify’ one’s past love attachments. The film depicts the enormous struggle to stay ‘human’.

Gabrielle has spent her life looking for the perfect partner, and the two main characters of the film, Gabrielle and Louis, inhabit elusive scenarios. Gabrielle interacts with various personifications of Louis, and looks to form a human connection that never eventuates. Bonello’s direction echoes James’ preoccupation with humans pursuing a path that is destined to deliver unhappiness. The film imaginatively represents the fear of falling and staying in love, and the difficulty of coping with the emotional traumas that life provides.

It is not a film against AI, but it is an unsettling and unpredictable film with deeply evocative imagery that comments provocatively on the possible impact of AI. Reality, it argues, should never be erased, and AI can be threatening. The film is compellingly acted by Seydoux, who shows what can happen when personal feelings and emotions are obliterated when reality is distorted. AI is able to place society and human beings in a state of total unawareness of the meaning of life. Such a state is anticipated by the film’s startling ending that shows Gabrielle traumatised by Louis’ unexpected decision to ‘purify’ himself.

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