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VENICE 2023 Competition

Bertrand Bonello • Director of The Beast

“Cinema and hypnosis go well together”


- VENICE 2023: The French filmmaker gives us a few clues to decipher his subjugating film of a very broad ambition

Bertrand Bonello  • Director of The Beast

With the startling The Beast [+see also:
film review
interview: Bertrand Bonello
film profile
, Bertrand Bonello takes part for the first time in the main competition at the Venice Film Festival. The French filmmaker gives us a few clues to decipher his film.

Cineuropa: How was the idea for the film, which is an extremely free adaptation of Henry James’ The Beast in the Jungle, born?
Bertrand Bonello: I wanted to confront the genre melodrama, which brought me back to Henry James because this short story is one of the most beautiful melodramas possible on the idea of failure. Because melodrama isn’t just failure. Within that, I also wanted to confront genre because I find that fear and love are things that go very well together. Another desire was to mix eras, to work on temporality, which I had already done a lot, but never to such an extent. I also wanted to approach science-fiction a little and that’s why the film’s starting point is the future. But I didn’t think it would be so contemporary when I wrote the film, seeing the number of articles on artificial intelligence today. All these desires attached themselves to a fundamental desire: to have, for the first time, a female lead character.

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What about the choice of the three eras: 1910, 2014 and 2044?
1910 is a little bit after the short story, but I wanted it to be a luminous period because we still believe that the 20th century will be marvelous. I also wanted to bring together, at each era, the idea of an intimate catastrophe and a more collective one, in this case the flooding of Paris in 1910. In 2014, given the character interpreted by George MacKay who was inspired by a real person linked to the date (the killer Elliot Rodger, editor’s note), it had to be before 2018, before the MeToo era. And it’s also the period where the catastrophe of the amnesia provoked by all these social media creates this kind of character in the United States. And 2044 because I wanted it to be a very near future, that we can touch with our fingers: it’s tomorrow. Working in science-fiction isn’t simple and I wanted to avoid the most typical avenues which are the over-technology or the post-apocalyptic angle. So I chose a world a little as it is now, transforming it more in its mode than in its visuals: visually, I chose to empty it rather than filling it up.

Was the film conceived of as a hypnosis?
There’s something to it about the idea of travel, and not only through time. It’s also a sensory, maybe even physical journey. All of this can bring it closer to hypnosis, but cinema and hypnosis go well together.

From the idea of cleaning the DNA of the protagonist of her past lives, the film veers towards the mystical and seems to have a lot of hidden elements. Is it to be playful?
There are quite a few hidden things. To me, it’s not just playful. I have the feeling that for the spectator, even if he doesn’t notice them, these elements nevertheless create resonances, things that we can’t necessarily name but that we feel.

The subject of clairvoyance also returns regularly in your films. Why this interest?
I find it amazing to have a character who sees things that the others don’t see. And again, this resonates with cinema. In this film, the fortune-teller of 1910 doesn’t see anything about 1910 but she sees the future and the one from 2014 also sees an entirely different period. This also brings it a bit towards the supernatural.

The female character is omnipresent.
I had already filmed groups of women in House of Tolerance [+see also:
film review
interview: Adèle Haenel
film profile
and had other female characters, but never a female character so central, who is in absolutely every frame. And it’s for that reason that I began the film with that prologue on a green background. It’s a way of saying: voilà, my subject is her, it’s Gabrielle but it’s also Léa Seydoux. It doesn’t become a documentary about her but she is looked at from every angle.

Why Léa Seydoux in particular?
We had already worked together twice before, but of course not in those proportions. First, Léa is to me the only one who could have been in all three periods because she has a kind of modernity and timelessness. But most importantly, she has this unbelievable thing: she has a mystery, we don’t know what she’s thinking. And that, for the camera, is attractive.

I find this film very emblematic of your cinema in which we walk in an unreal world that is nevertheless very real. What do you think?
Yes. My hope as a spectator, at least when I enter a cinema, is to understand the beginning of the film and to not at all know what happened to me when I leave, it’s to have this kind of journey. There’s a complexity in this film, yet at the same time never in my other films have I been so simple in the emotions of the scenes: love, fear, things as direct as that, I had never done that. So all the feelings are rather real, but it’s the treatment that makes the thing a little unreal.

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(Translated from French)

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