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The Beast (Bertrand Bonello, 2023)

“It was agreeable, it was delightful, it was miserable . . . but it wasn’t strange.” So says the protagonist of The Beast in the Jungle, describing a past affair that failed to shake his conviction that he was meant to be alone. Despite the pulpy promises of its title, the horrors of Henry James’s 1903 novella are strictly metaphorical. The chilling twist of the story—which has been analyzed as one of the writer’s most personal works—is that its subject falls prey to his own conscientiousness. Believing that he is being stalked through life by some malign, animistic presence, he chooses to preemptively spare a potential soulmate from sharing his fate: “a man of feeling,” he thinks, “didn’t cause himself to be accompanied by a lady on a tiger-hunt.” In the process, he dooms both parties to years of quiet, unrequited longing—a melancholy vision of life as what James famously termed “a predicament which precedes death.”

The prevailing feeling of The Beast in the Jungle is a kind of creeping, expectant dread, which happens to be a sensation squarely in Bertrand Bonello’s wheelhouse. The gifted French director’s recent turn toward the horror genre—signaled by the Romero nods of Nocturama (2016), and made even more explicit in Zombi Child (2019) and Coma (2022)—suggests a filmmaker interested in both the mechanics and metaphysics of manipulation, and also in limning the difference between time-tested genre tropes and the raw terror of reality itself. The lo-fi faux bricolage that is Coma, shot by Bonello and DP Antoine Parouty as a kind of COVID-19 home movie, slots proudly alongside Pulse (2001), Paranormal Activity (2007), and Lake Mungo (2008) as a hauntological classic. Given his twin penchants for playfulness and pretension—and the sort of (relatively) lavish budget that comes with casting a transnational art-house draw like Léa Seydoux—it’s no surprise that Bonello’s version of The Beast is, above all, strange, in ways that various viewers will find either delightful or miserable, but not particularly agreeable.

While the subversion of expectations on a grand scale is not always a virtue in and of itself, history has recently been kind to anything even resembling a film maudit. Whether or not he deliberately set out to make a cult classic, at this point in his career, Bonello’s red-carpet ambitions are showing, and so are his influences. Reconfiguring his source text as a recursive triptych focusing on two lovers named Gabrielle and Louis—played in three different time periods and personas by Seydoux and George MacKay— he plunges deeper than ever before into pastiche. Cross-cutting among sequences set in Belle Epoque Paris, early-21st-century Los Angeles, and a grayed-out, emotionless future where A.I. rules supreme, Bonello gives each section its own distinctive but familiar cinematic flavor. The period romance is redolent of Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence (1993); the Inland Empire section of David Lynch; the World of Tomorrow of any number of B-movie dystopias. The film is built on the hope that the universal power of Bonello’s chosen cinematic signifiers, in tandem with his deceptively disciplined array of visual and aural motifs around notions of remembrance and hypnosis, plus the sexy charisma of his stars, will keep the whole thing together long enough for all of its sharply clawed subtexts about social, environmental, and spiritual malaise to spring forth.

He mostly guesses right. As a viewing experience, The Beast is a ride, and if some passages move more smoothly than others, it maintains a strong, thrumming momentum. Once again working with the superlative French-Canadian cinematographer Josée Deshaies—who also shot 2011’s beautiful House of Tolerance—and the inventive editor Anita Roth, Bonello keeps the flow of striking, uncanny images coming. These visions include a serenely morbid recreation of the 1910 Great Flood of Paris and a series of bizarre, biomechanical rituals—involving both sensory overload and deprivation—meant to purge the third Gabrielle of the trauma of her past lives. The most arresting and plangent passages, though, are the American ones, owing to Bonello’s daring, verbatim use—or perhaps the better word is “exploitation”—of mass-murderer Elliot Rodger’s violently misogynistic YouTube manifestos as monologues for MacKay’s 2014 version of Louis. As with Coma’s goofy yet weirdly trenchant deployment of vintage Donald Trump tweets as read by (sentient?) Barbie dolls, Bonello seems determined to address contemporary (Sur)reality in its own voice.

In this case, staying au courant means replatforming—and perhaps empathizing with—a sneering would-be social-media star turned spree killer: the malevolent flip side to James’s portrait of tragic, monastic passivity. This stuff is surely provocative, but also more than that; the scenes of Louis stalking Gabrielle—in this timeline an aspiring actress, à la Naomi Watts in Mulholland Drive (2001)—through her multilevel steel-and-glass sublet come the closest to excavating something truly harrowing from the material, even as they vibrate with rueful and self-reflexive humor. One extended predatory set piece is punctuated by Seydoux battling a proliferation of pop-ups on her MacBook, including grainy video clips that the initiated will recognize from Harmony Korine’s Trash Humpers (2009)—an allusion that is legible as both a total non sequitur and a highlight of Bonello’s pointedly curated postmodern collage.

“There was a strange beauty in analog,” said Korine a decade and a half ago while promoting his deliberately amateurish piece of ersatz-VHS samizdat. The enfant terrible turned art-world savant and impresario is almost always good for a quote about his work, which may have to do with how eloquently (or not) his films speak for themselves. For what it’s worth, the outrageous juvenalia of Trash Humpers remains the most cogent of its maker’s provocations, contriving an outsider-art aesthetic that actually pushed audiences beyond their comfort zones. On the contrary, Spring Breakers (2012) attempted, with undeniable energy and brio, to weaponize teen-friendly MTV imagery against itself—and ended up being the movie that effectively launched its then-unheralded distributor A24 to prominence.

These days, Korine has his own production company—but don’t call it a “production company.” His new start-up EDGLRD is described as a space for bringing together various multidisciplinary talents, including, as per the director, “artists, game developers, cutting-edge tech kids, skateboarders, [and] clothing designers.” Its first release is the 80-minute experimental feature AGGRO DR1FT, which leaves the analog grime behind in favor of heat-sensor cameras. The live-action footage was then digitally manipulated to give the deliberately slender narrative—about a ruminative assassin (Jordi Mollà) preparing to move against a Miami Beach crime lord—the look of an iridescently layered, retina-blazing hallucination. Video-game abstractions melt together to the tune of doggerel electronica, while a voiceover suggests ChatGPT doing a Terrence Malick impression.

“The old world is no more,” muses Molla’s nameless killer, but that doesn’t mean that AGGRO DR1FT represents something new: Korine’s M.O. in his current guise as a multimedia disruptor-slash-prophet is to defamiliarize and amplify—or maybe hump?—cliches until they start to sound profound. (Think James Franco’s croaking koan of “spring break forever…”) For all the hype, AGGRO DR1FT finally manifests as a low-stakes game-changer for film culture at large, and also for Korine, who’s made it less as a showcase than as another of his home movies. Beneath the psychedelic smears of shape and color—indebted, depending on your frame of reference, to the POV of Predator (1987) or the Zone of Sans Soleil (1983)—all we’re really seeing is a collection of friends, family members, and fellow, yes, creatives (including rapper Travis Scott) posing, twerking, and mean-mugging: hypebeasts in the digital jungle, just chilling. In lieu of innovation or transcendence, AGGRO DR1FT radiates mostly with affection for its performers and their commitment to the bit. More trash humping from a filmmaker grimly determined to keep it strange.

Adam Nayman is a teacher and author based in Toronto, as well as a contributing editor to Cinema Scope and a critic for The Ringer.