Toronto 2023 review: La Bête (Bertrand Bonello)

La Bête is dense and cerebral, but its intellect and philosophy never get in the way of its ultimate goal, which is romantic and passionate.”

Without fully retreading material that he’s already visited before, Bertrand Bonello’s latest film La Bête, a trifurcated voyage across time and locations, nevertheless echoes some of Bonello’s previous works. The perfection and attention to detail that is evident in House of Tolerance’s period work may even be surpassed here in the 1910 segment; Saint Laurent and La Bête both prove that Bonello is one of the few contemporary filmmakers who can be trusted to use split screens effectively; and Bonello’s mastery of the ominous tension of Nocturama is repurposed in a thriller/slasher adjacent element in La Bête’s 2014 timeline. While all of these elements can still be found in La Bête, and Bonello’s style and perspective still feels familiar, none of these works could have suggested what an epic romantic melodrama this would turn out to be.

Immediately following a pre-title prologue where Léa Seydoux’s Gabrielle appears to be auditioning on an empty soundstage for a horror film, La Bête opens in 1910 with Louis (Geroge MacKay) and Gabrielle crossing paths at a party in France. They’ve met before, but each of them has different memories of the occasion: both recall meeting at an opera in different cities in Italy, and they disagree with each other’s memories of how they were dressed that day. They’re reintroduced by fate, though Gabrielle is already married by the time they’re brought back into each other’s presence. Their reunion proves to have very mortal consequences for both of them. In another sequence set in the not too distant future of 2044, Bonello, admittedly accidentally, prognosticates what has proven to be a timely rumination on the threat of artificial intelligence, especially considering how it is affecting actors’ and writers’ abilities to work in the film industry.

If La Bête has any flaw, it’s one that is felt in a bell curve, which is that once the film returns to a relatively contemporary 2014 Los Angeles sequence (which is also the last of the three timelines to be introduced), it is so perfectly narratively tight and its emotional arc so cohesive and rewarding in its conclusion, that the 1910 and 2044 sequences feel a bit overshadowed by this one, maybe because it is the easiest to unpack in a single viewing. In this timeline Gabrielle has relocated to Los Angeles, attempting to pursue a temporary career in modeling to use as a springboard for her ultimate ambition of becoming a successful actress. Meanwhile, Louis returns to this timeline as a black-pilled, very bitter incel who still has never even been kissed by a girl, despite his efforts to mold himself into what he imagines is prime boyfriend material. Their paths cross when Louis catches sight of Gabrielle at a dance club, is unsurprisingly drawn to her beauty, and follows her back to a mansion that she is house sitting for a friend. Louis is already convinced that it will never be possible for him to have a romantic and/or sexual relationship with a woman, and becomes convinced that they no longer deserve to live, choosing Gabrielle as the target of his retribution. Once Gabrielle and Louis have the chance to interact in the aftermath of an earthquake that draws out all the residents of the neighbourhood to the street, there’s immediately a twisted and disturbing, and very sorrowful romantic tension that springs between them. Both are facing a deep existential loneliness and longing for companionship, and Louis in particular is unable and unwilling to accept that Gabrielle’s expression of her attraction to him comes from a genuine place. He is so far gone in his commitment to a belief system, that someone could actually be attracted to him isn’t something that even registers as a possibility, and he assumes her goal is sadistic manipulation. They are an unlikely couple to root for, but Bonello and these two gifted actors are able to inspire a feeling of investment in this relationship, in spite of how dark and twisted and disturbing a lot of the dynamic is.

La Bête is dense and cerebral, but its intellect and philosophy never get in the way of its ultimate goal, which is romantic and passionate. The film is full of vivid imagery – there are multiple appearances of aggressive and threatening pigeons, shots of doll faces – but none of these visuals appears overly coded or opaque, and it seems clear that Bonello’s intention is for these to be felt viscerally. Much like several of Bonello’s previous films, it is immediately certain that La Bête is destined for cult status, which is something that definitely feels earned: Bonello has given cinephiles and lovers of star-crossed lovers much to analyze and ponder.