For some of us who’ve struggled with mental health, the dystopia at the centre of Bertrand Bonello‘s time-jumping romance is a fairly mild one. An AI-dominated future where people can be cured of excessive emotion by a ‘DNA cleanse’ occasional seems quite enticing. Still, a steady equilibrium of vaguely zonked contentment doesn’t fuel a grand passion. It’s ironic then, that The Beast is consistently interesting more than it is actually engaging.

Léa Seydoux is Gabrielle who, in the film’s present of 2044, is scheduled to undergo a cleanse of her past lives to make her more suited to the competitive job market. In each, she is drawn to George MacKay‘s Louis, although he’s not always someone who would have her best interests at heart. To the dispassionately rational AI, love and death and death are too inextricably linked to be healthy.

Bonello is a consistently challenging filmmaker, and few would think to twist the general idea of Henry James‘ 1903 novella The Beast in the Jungle through the prism of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, taking in period drama, home invasion thriller, and minimalist sci-fi along the way. He also nods to Hitchcock and Lynch while slyly commenting on filmmaking itself, with celluloid and greenscreen appearing in different contexts. It’s a work of admirably ambitious scope. It’s also blessed by a subtle and graceful performance by Seydoux, who has the ability to play a consistent character through 134 years of story yet convince as a yearning fin de siècle society wife, aspiring actress and model in 2014, and the last remaining empath of the mid-21st century. MacKay, who replaced the late Gaspard Ulliel, has the more fluid role, playing a charming dollmaker and a violent incel who quotes directly from the manifesto of Elliot Rodger.

Seydoux is a more overt point of continuity than the story itself. For example, it’s clearly intentional that the 1910 portion of the story is rather hermetic and staid, the idea being to evoke the constrained passions common in the period drama. However, it also comes across as overly self-contained when taken as one moving part in a larger narrative machine. It adds to the whole endeavour feeling unwieldy, and as much an intellectual exercise than it is a genre one.

It is however, frequently beautiful. As to be expected from the director of the languid, ravishing House of Tolerance, the 1910 section is lush and opulent, while there is a certain sterile modernity to the 2014 section which amplifies the theme of isolation of both stalker and victim. In 2044, the near future is defined by what’s missing; crowds, vehicles, and other visible signifiers of messy humanity.

Although a cerebral film, it’s arguably Bonello’s most accessible. The compartmentalised structure makes the runtime more than palatable, and the repeated symbols and motifs he uses throughout – dolls, and mediums for example – are clear in their utility. It’s therefore easy to map out the connections that are made throughout, and where the usually obtuse filmmaker lands in his own story; surprisingly towards the romantic, messier end of emotion. It’s a correspondingly messy film in places, but there is much to enjoy in its staging and performance, and perhaps even more from contemplating how it all fits together.

In cinemas from Fri 31 May 2024