Bertrand Bonello’s sci-fi drama “The Beast,” which premiered at the Venice Film Festival on Sunday, follows a star-crossed duo, trying — and failing — to make love work across three timelines. Moving between 1910, 2014 and 2044, the film mixes period drama, speculative sci-fi and bouts of genuinely chilling horror — particularly in a middle section set in contemporary Los Angeles.
There, aspiring actress Gabrielle (Léa Seydoux) catches the attention of Louis (George MacKay), a self-described incel with a violent hatred for women. Bonello based the character on Elliot Rodger, a 2014 mass killer who uploaded a misogynist manifesto to YouTube before claiming seven lives. The filmmaker also re-created scenes from Rodger’s infamous video verbatim in the film.
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Why did you choose to cite Elliot Rodger?
When I learned of the story back in 2014, I was shocked by the atrocious attack, of course, but I was also shocked by his words, so much so that I had to put them down in a notebook. They are horrifying for their normality, their banality, and their calm. That’s what terrified me and that’s what I transcribed in my writing. When I started this script, I went back to that notebook.
Did you feel any qualms about dramatizing such a figure?
I wondered, I wondered. However, unlike the real Elliot Rodger, the character in the film is not a mass killer. And I was more interested more in the repression of desire. I would never have been able to express that with such strong dialogue, with nothing as shocking as those selfie videos. They are so frontal and so directly address the viewer. Obviously you take a risk when taking inspiration from something real, but at the same time, it’s part of the world.
What drew you so deeply?
I was curious about the America that produces these kinds of figures, those who take refuge behind atrocity. The incel community fascinated me, particularly in its violence. These incels receive violence and then send it back. It’s a larger symptom of the times, of the social networks that make this possible.
You wrote the part of Louis for Gaspard Ulliel, and of course, had to recast after he tragically passed away. Did anything change in that process?
We knew right away that we couldn’t use a French actor, as I didn’t want any comparisons. So I called an American casting director and found George. I didn’t change anything from the script, except that I did this first part, [for the 1910 segment], half in French, half in English. I think it’s quite beautiful to have a mix of languages like that, with people who are fairly educated, European, that lends the film an interesting musicality Otherwise, little else changed.
How did you develop the film’s rather unique vision of the future for the 2044 segment?
Well, it’s a very near future, only 20 years from now. In 20 years, most of the buildings we live in will still be there. In science fiction we mostly see either ultra-modern machines or post-apocalyptic landscapes. Either everything’s sophisticated or everything’s destroyed, and I wanted neither. So, I took a normal world and instead of adding, I subtracted. There are no cars, no one on the street, no internet. I wanted to find a slightly different approach to science fiction, to create a sparse atmosphere we’ve never seen before.
“The Beast” mixes costume drama, horror and sci-fi. What films did you look to for inspiration?
I really liked the film “When a Stranger Calls,” which is a great B-movie, and quite hard to find. But for the most part, rather than going for references, I tried respect and hijack certain codes. Respect the slasher code, but do it in a slightly different way. Take the code for the romantic costume film and twist it. I’m from a generation that had no problem loving Robert Bresson as much as Dario Argento. As long as there’s real filmmaking involved, it’s all the same.
But you do have a soft spot for horror.
As a viewer, I’d rather be tense than be moved. I prize tension most of all. If a film doesn’t create any tension, then at some point there’s something wrong with the director.
It seems like your previous film, “Coma,” was something of a test run for “The Beast.”
Exactly. We made “Coma” because “The Beast” had been delayed for a year due to COVID, and my producer and I had to figure out what to do. We decided to make a very, very, very low-budget film that inevitably extended the obsessions, themes and ideas I was trying to work out for the larger project.
One those shared themes is the sense of impending doom, and how we should react.
We’ve seen an acceleration of disasters, particularly ecological ones, in recent years so there’s an awareness today that wasn’t there two decades ago — still not enough, of course — and that takes us to the question of our own consciousness. Should we look at things clearly or try to distract ourselves? You end up doing both, confronting them, then distracting yourself anyway. In any case, when we’re faced with a catastrophe, we regain our humanity and try to find a solution. If there’s no problem, there’s no solution. If there’s no solution, there’s no life.
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