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61st New York Film Festival (September 29-October 15, 2023)
“The great rooms caused so much poetry and history to press upon him that he needed some straying apart to feel in a proper relation with them,” wrote Henry James early in his 1903 novella The Beast in the Jungle, the loose inspiration for writer-director Bertrand Bonello’s disquieting and spectacular The Beast. James is describing the house in which his protagonist, John Marcher, crosses paths with the woman, May Bertram, who will prove not to be the love of his life, mainly because of Marcher’s unwillingness to take a risk on intimacy. This is due to his fear of a “beast” that he feels could pounce at any moment.
That beast isn’t anything concrete or corporeal, but rather a metaphorical unease—a dread of all the terrible things that life could mete out. And as Marcher discovers at the end of James’s novella, the beast has struck without him ever realizing it. Turns out, the man’s lifelong caution doomed him to the loss of the great romantic partner he never had.
Calamitous passivity of this sort is cultivated by context. Few equal James in his ability to evoke the milieus of the late-19th to early-20th centuries that constrict so many of his characters. And Bonello has a no less uncanny ability to utilize the burdensome signs and wonders of his moment for maximum insight and agitation. The Beast’s unnerving first scene plays out against a floor-to-ceiling green screen in a seemingly cavernous studio space. Actress Gabrielle (Léa Seydoux) takes direction from an off-screen interlocutor, his voice and prompts provided by Bonello à la Brian De Palma in the discomfiting screen test sequences of The Black Dahlia.
Like Marcher, Gabrielle is in a “house,” and she too has a “beast”—an unknown intruder who she must fend off with a kitchen knife (the only physical prop at hand). Once “action!” is called, her eyes dart manically from side to side and her body jerks defensively this way and that. “Poetry” and “history” aren’t pressing upon her so much as the fears and desires of an individual imagination run wild. And, of course, when Gabrielle finally screams at the sight of the interloper, she’s reacting to nothing—only a “beast” to be added in post-production. How can one feel “in a proper relation” to what is effectively a nullity within a void?
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