Bertrand Bonello makes audacious films. But The Beast is audacious even by his own standards.

The French filmmaker, who broke out at the height of the New Extremity, is perhaps best known for his boundary-pushing films Saint Laurent (2014) and Nocturama (2016), which feel downright traditional compared to his latest directorial effort, The Beast. Loosely based on Henry James' turn-of-the-century novella The Beast in the Jungle, the movie spans three distinct time periods and just as many genres: It is science fiction, it is a techno-thriller, it is noir, it is a romance.

The Beast stars Léa Seydoux as Gabrielle, a woman who undergoes a purification process to erase the pain she has suffered due to romances in her past lives. As she journeys back to each timeline, she falls in love with a different incarnation of Louis (George MacKay), the couple returning to one another in 1910, in 2014 and in 2044.

"I wanted something futuristic that we could imagine and almost touch," Bonello explains of the near-future setting. "We remember 20 years ago, so we can imagine 20 years in the future even if we cannot imagine exactly what the world is. You can figure it out. I think it would be freakier if it were something realistic."

Bonello not only co-wrote and directed The Beast, but produced the film, composed the score, and cast himself for a voice-over role. Here, the filmmaker sits down with A.frame to discuss why Seydoux was the only person who could play this part and to explain his decision to end the movie with a QR code.

Bertrand Bonello with Léa Seydoux behind the scenes of 'The Beast.'

A.Frame: The Beast is about the fear of love, but at times, it almost felt like it was about the fear of the fear of love. Is that a fair reading?

You're right, and it came during the process. The basis of the fear of love comes from Henry James, and then I decided to push the two feelings of fear and love as far as I could through [time] periods, multiple genres, contamination of the genres, and things like that. In a way, the fear element became more important than love. So, yes, it could be a fear of the fear of love. It could also be about the fear of something that you don't know, or of catastrophe, or of everything. The great thing about the novel is this idea that something will happen, which is fantastic for a director. There is a beast, but it's invisible. It's great for imagination, for writing, and for everything, really. "Something will happen" is the best sentence.

As you mentioned, we never see the beast other than hints of it, but it is always present. Did you ever consider the idea of actually manifesting the beast physically? Or was the mental manifestation always more effective?

You do see the silhouette, but it's more about creating mental stuff that makes you scream. Until the end, they don't know what the beast is, that the beast is just the fear of love. I say that, but in some Q&As, people asked me, "What is the beast?" I answer, "The beast is what you want it to be." For one person, it could be technology. If I stick to what Henry James wrote, it's the fear of love, but it's okay for me if everyone sees the beast where they want to see it. It's just the idea of the catastrophe, of something that is stronger than you and will destroy everything.

Léa Seydoux has a timelessness that suits all of the different eras in the film. How hard was it to find someone who was capable of capturing that?

To be honest, I wrote the film for her; if she had turned it down, I don't know who could have played it. She's the only one I know who, for me, could be in the three periods. I believe in her in the past. I believe in her in the future. She's very modern and, at the same time, very timeless. She also has a kind of mystery to her. Even if the camera looks at her for two hours and 25 minutes, you don't know what she is thinking. She's stronger than the camera. For a director, that mystery is fantastic.


Part of this film is set in 2044, which is the future but it's not ultimately that far into the future. What did that offer you, and what were the restrictions?

If you place the film in 2300, you are like, "Well, we'll never see that." If you say, "Hey guys, it's in 20 years," you don't see the scenes the same way. You might take it more seriously because of that. It's true that there are no flying cars, but I wanted to avoid the two major tracks of science fiction: the hyper technology and the post-apocalyptic. I took the world precisely as it is. With Paris, I took off a lot of things instead of adding. There are no more cars, no real sounds, no internet, no social media, no physical relationships. It's empty and minimalist. The idea is that AI succeeded, there are no more problems, and it's fantastic! But what you see is so cold and terrifying in a way. I like the mix of the two. With 2044, I don't know what the world will be like, but it's tomorrow.

The cinematography is unique to each of the different time periods too. Is that a mix of film and digital? There is even some footage that looks like it might have been filmed on a phone.

In fact, 1910 was shot in 35mm, because we needed a certain feeling. 2014 and '44 were shot digitally, because the coldness and sharpness were perfect for those periods in the film. And yes, some scenes were shot on the iPhone 11. There is also camera surveillance footage and even computer screens, so there are many, many textures. I tried to include a real mix.

The 2014 section, which takes place in L.A., also has the vibe of a slasher movie from the late '70s. There is almost this Grindhouse feel to it.

It's a classic narrative, in a way. You have a nice girl, you put her in her house, and there is someone outside who wants to kill her. Before the shoot, I re-watched a film called When A Stranger Calls. It's by Fred Walton. I did that for two reasons. In the first half hour, you have this girl, played by Carol Kane, alone in the house, and the phone is ringing. And then seven years later, you spend time with the killer. In that film, it's very interesting how he gets you to empathize with the killer. It doesn't mean we excuse him, but we have some empathy. It's very important that Lewis, even though he posts these horrible videos of killing women, there is a reason for his loneliness. It doesn't excuse him, but you spend time with him, and I thought that complex situation was very interesting.


George MacKay plays Lewis. I was very impressed by his French. Is he a fluent French speaker? Or did he learn to speak French for his role?

Before the shoot, he couldn't speak one word of French, but he didn't want to play it phonetically. George wanted to act in French, so he learned. It's very impressive.

Beyond the dialogue, The Beast uses sounds and the soundtrack very effectively. There are large parts of the film without orchestration, and there are other parts where the sound is almost like another character in the film. Considering that you also composed the score with your daughter [Anna], what was your approach to that aspect of the film?

Sound and music are narrative, so I write the music while writing the script. I don't wait to be in the editing room and say, "All right, we need music here." If I write a scene and I think it will need music, I stop writing and I go into my studio. I start to find some sounds, colors, notes — stuff like that — and then I go back to my desk. It's like a game of ping-pong. The script is always written to mark the beginning of the music and the end of the music. It's very precise. And if there is a song that is not my music, the song is written in, and it has to mean something. There are a lot of indications of sound in the script, because I really think you must not just write a script; you must write a film, and the film is the addition of everything. The movie you saw is very close to the script, even in structure. Everything is very precise: the split screens, the repetition, it's all very close to what was on the page.

The Beast is not lacking of creativity and unexpected choices, but I was particularly curious about the choice to put the film's credits in a QR code. Where did that idea come from?

It was not in the script. It came up in the editing room when we were watching the film. I wanted something brutal at the end. I remember all these films from the 1940s and '50s where you have the last scene and then the end! It's finished. I wanted to bring back that brutality and not have a seven-minute credit sequence. I also thought that the QR code fit well with the dehumanization of the film at that moment in 2044. You know, George becomes a kind of robot, and there is Gabrielle, who is the sum of humanity, and that makes her even more lonely. The QR code is very cold. It felt right.


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