Review by Sean Boelman
Some films are so ambitious that you could never imagine their lofty swings paying off, and yet they do. Masterfully blending sci-fi, horror, and romance, The Beast is a dense movie that lends itself to analysis and dissection over multiple watches, but it’s an experience you will not soon forget.
The film follows a woman who decides to have an operation to have her DNA — and memories of her past lives — erased, finding that her fate might be inexplicably intertwined with that of a man she finds eerily familiar. Taking inspiration from a 1903 short story called “The Beast in the Jungle,” the movie is best described as if David Cronenberg had directed Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
One of the most challenging things about the film is its intricate narrative structure that unfolds like a puzzle. With storylines set in 1904, 2014, and the future, The Beast weaves together these different permutations of the tragic love story to create an evocative dive into the ideas of memory and love.
The movie is extremely dense in a way that demands multiple watches to fully grasp everything it is trying to say. The central theme of love radiates throughout the film, but in a way that is nothing short of unorthodox. However, there are some other interesting themes that Bonello and his co-writers play around with, including the toxicity of online culture, that feel extraordinarily modern and zeitgeisty.
Also intricate is the character development, which goes beyond the standard archetypes you would expect from a star-crossed lovers storyline. Particularly when it comes to the male love interest, the movie challenges the viewer’s expectations of what we are supposed to think about love interests.
The film is buoyed by what are two of the best performances of the year from George MacKay and Léa Seydoux. While Seydoux is just excellent at doing her own thing, MacKay’s performance is incredible, as he effectively plays three different characters in one. And the chemistry between the two of them — across all three timelines — sparks in a way that few other on-screen couples ever have.
The narrative ambition of The Beast is only matched by Bonello’s visual ambition. The timeline set in 1904 would be impressive enough on its own as a period piece with some fantastic production design. However, when you add in the futuristic storyline and the horror-tinged 2014 storyline, you have what might be one of the most visually eclectic and distinct movies of the year.
While some viewers will understandably be put off by the complex nature of The Beast’s narrative, it’s one of the most profound films you will see this year. A pinnacle of filmmaking in all of its genres, The Beast is the type of movie that will undoubtedly make a splash among cinephiles, even if it has little to no chance of being a mainstream breakout.
The Beast screened at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival, which ran September 7-17 in Toronto, Canada.