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‘The Beast’: Henry James’ universe looks towards a future filled with artificial intelligence and incels

French director Bertrand Bonello’s new film takes chances and has certain interesting moments. Still, it doesn’t offer the elegant and profoundly cinematographic prose of the American writer’s story

Léa Seydoux and George MacKay in 'The Beast'
Léa Seydoux and George MacKay in 'The Beast.'Les Films du Bélier
Javier Ocaña

In 2023, two French directors from the same generation — Patric Chiha, 49, and Bertrand Bonello, 55 — each made film adaptations of the same story by Henry James. Since the tale in question had never been brought to the big screen before, the productions give us a lot to think about.

The Beast in the Jungle by Chiha and The Beast by Bonello are each a delight for admirers of the classic American author. And this is despite the fact that neither actually ends up being a good film (even though they take big risks and have interesting moments) or manage to achieve a cinematographic level at the standard of James’ literary work.

The Beast in the Jungle — a story published by James in 1903 — is a loving reflection that drifts towards emotional labyrinths and metaphysical disquisition. In a much more conceptual than specific way, the 50-page-long wonder narrates the various encounters between a man and woman through the ages. They have a lot of love for each other, yet it never materializes. It’s a text that’s almost impossible to adapt to film, so it’s not surprising that hardly anybody dared to do it before. Before 2023, only one Frenchman — the legendary François Truffaut — selected some elements of the novella for his film The Green Room (1978). However, he combined parts of this story with two other sentimental works by James: The Altar of the Dead (1895) and The Friends of the Friends (1896).

George MacKay and Léa Seydoux in 'The Beast.'
George MacKay and Léa Seydoux in 'The Beast.' Les Films du Bélier

In their respective films, Chiha and Bonello have set many of the encounters between the man and woman in nightclubs. However, Bonello turns the genre towards science fiction, through a dystopia set in three different eras: the beginning of the 20th century (when the story was published) the year 2014 and the year 2044, following a tragic civil war that began in 2025.

The various encounters from the story are included in the film, as is the metaphysical element… that beast in the jungle from the title, crouching to act.

“What could the thing that was to happen to him be, after all, but just this thing that had began to happen?” in the words of James. But in Bonello’s production — as in Chiha’s — the elegance and profoundness of James’ vivid prose are absent.

In the dialogue of his film, Bonello points to the essence of the writer’s work — “an ominous feeling that something strange, unusual and fatal will happen sooner or later” — while switching the point of view back and forth between the male and female lead. However, this effect ends up being lost due to the amount of time spent reflecting on artificial intelligence. At one point, it’s mentioned that Earth is experiencing an unemployment rate of 67% due to the technological evolution of too many jobs, while a Machiavellian phrase is uttered by an ideologue, who claims that, in the future, “intelligent people won’t be necessary.” Ultimately, the movie ends up drifting in a David Lynch-style direction, too inspired by imagery, colors, setting and music (although without the American filmmaker’s capacity for restlessness).

There remains, at least, a stretch in which — with clear traces of La Jetée (1962), a classic French science fiction film by Chris Marker — Bonello tells part of the story through motionless frames. Paris — post-flooding — has been converted into a new Venice, while powerful images show human migration, in the style of the photographic pioneers of the early-20th century. There’s also an interesting update of the essence of James’ story about involuntary celibacy, or so-called “incels” — men who say that they’re incapable of having romantic or sexual relationships with women, even though that would be their desire. But, like much of the film, this all gets lost in a structure that’s more incomprehensible than complex. The Beast, ultimately, is a thematic clutter that’s more pretentious than fascinating.

The Beast

Director: Bertrand Bonello.

Cast: Léa Seydoux, George MacKay, Dasha Nekrasova, Julia Faure.

Genre: Science fiction. France, 2023.

Duration: 146 minutes.

North American release date: April 19, 2024.

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