The most indirect critique of technology ever made?

Watching Bertrand Bonello’s The Beast for New Scientist

“Something or other lay in wait for him,” wrote Henry James in a story from 1903, ”amid the twists and turns of the months and the years, like a crouching beast in the jungle.”

The beast in this tale was (just to spoil it for you) fear itself, for it was fear that stopped our hero from living any kind of worthwhile life.

Swap around the genders of the couple at the heart of James’s bitter tale, allow them to reincarnate and meet as if for the first time on three separate occasions — in Paris in 1910, in LA in 2014 and in Chengdu in 2044 — and you’ve got a rough idea of the mechanics of Bertrand Bonello’s magnificent and maddening new science fiction film. Through a series of close-ups, longueurs and red-herrings, The Beast, while getting nowhere very fast, manages to be an utterly riveting, often terrifying film about love, the obstacles to love, and our deep-seated fear of love even when it’s there for the taking. It’s also (did I mention this?) an epic account of how everyone’s ordinary human timidity, once aggregated by technology, destroys the human race.

Léa Seydoux and George MacKay play star-crossed lovers Gabrielle Monnier and Louis Lewanski. In 1910 Gabrielle fudges the business of leaving her husband; tragedy strikes soon after. In 2014 an incel version of Louis would sooner stalk Gabrielle with a gun than try and talk to her. The consequences of their non-affair are not pretty. In 2044 Gabrielle and Louis stumble into each other on the way to “purification” — a psychosurgical procedure that heals past-life trauma and leaves people, if not without emotion, then certainly without the need for grand passion. By now the viewer is seriously beginning to wonder what will ever go right for this pair.

Somewhere in these twisty threaded timelines are the off-screen “events” of 2025, that brought matters to a head and convinced people to hand their governance over to machines. Why would humanity betray itself in such a manner? The blunt answer is: because we’re more in love with machines than with each other, and always have been.

In 1910 Gabrielle’s husband’s fortune is made from the manufacture of celluloid dolls. In 2014 — a point-perfect satire of runaway narcissism that owes much, stylistically, to the films of David Lynch — Gabrielle and Louis collide disastrously with warped images of themselves and each other, in an uncanny valley of cross-purposed conversations, predatory social media and manipulated video. In 2044 mere dolls and puppets have become fully conscious robots. One of these, played by Guslagie Malanda, even begins to fall in love with its “client” Gabrielle. Meanwhile Gabrielle, Louis and everyone else is undergoing psychosurgery in order to fit in with the AI’s brave new world. (Human unemployment is running at 67 per cent, and without purification’s calming effect it’s virtually impossible to get a worthwhile job.)

None of the Gabrielles and Louises are comfortable in their own skin. They take it in turns wanting to be something else, even if it means being something less. They see the best that they can be, and it pretty much literally scares the life out of them.

Given this is the point The Beast wants to put across, you have to admire the physical casting here. Each lead actor exhibits superb, machine-like self-control. Seydoux dies behind her eyes not once but many times in the course of this film; MacKay can go from trembling Adonis to store-front mannekin in about 2.1 seconds. And when full humanity is called for, both actors demonstrate extraordinary sensitivity: handy when you’re trying to distinguish between 1910’s unspoken passion, 2014’s unspeakable passion, and 2044’s passionless speech.

True, The Beast may be the most indirect critique of technology ever made. Heaven knows how it will fare at the box office. But any fool can make us afraid of robots. This intelligent, shocking and memorable film dares to focus on us.