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Transfigured Night: Bertrand Bonello on The Beast

A woman and man stare at a fire in a doll factory.Léa Seydoux and George MacKay in The Beast

The anxious energy running through the films of Bertrand Bonello is fueled by seemingly contrary cross currents: a mix of naturalism and dream logic, coolness and hysteria, the emotional equivalents of ice and fire. While hopping across distinct genres—his filmography includes a portrait of a bordello in fin-de-siècle Paris (House of Tolerance), a 1960s/’70s fashion biopic (Saint Laurent), a contemporary zombie movie (Zombi Child) and a take on millennial hipster terrorists (Nocturama)—Bonello stays close to characters who get lost in psychic underworlds, highlighting the mind’s slippery dark side and the human tendency (abetted by genre conventions) to fall into one abyss or another.

In choosing to adapt Henry James’s quietly shattering 1903 novella about a man whose fear of a lurking, preordained fate makes him blind to true self-knowledge and to love, Bonello has been cunning, ambitious and a bit crazy. The Beast flips the gender of the central protagonist in James’s The Beast in the Jungle, giving Léa Seydoux the opportunity to embody three incarnations of a haunted heroine, vulnerable yet defiant, as her story is sliced, reimagined and layered across three vastly different timeframes. The original early 20th century setting flows into two parallel worlds: Los Angeles in 2014 and an unnamed future city tagged with the year 2044. George MacKay plays Seydoux’s triply unattainable love interest, a steadfast female presence in James’s tale transfigured into a notably fragile/psychotic male counterpart in The Beast. (When transplanted to LA, MacKay becomes a murderous American modeled on Elliot Rodger, the 22-year-old incel who went on a killing spree after spewing a series of self-pitying online rants.)

The film’s futuristic setting features a sci-fi mind-laundering apparatus that allows Bonello to justify the time travel and to pack in and subvert a multiplicity of references and riffs. A flash of fantasized sensuality, conspicuously lifted from Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence, coexists with other allusions pouring in from all sides, as though Seydoux—and Bonello’s imagination—is swimming through a collective unconscious of images and atmospheres, movie memories converging with past lives, internet role-playing and actual historic events to come together in one lush fearful dream. The result is romantic and doom-laden and, ultimately, true to the spirit of Henry James: Despite compelling doses of danger and violence, nothing in The Beast is as dramatic as the spectacle of Léa Seydoux opening and closing her eyes.

The following conversation took place December 16, 2023, in a rackety Paris café chosen by Bonello. The transcript has been edited and condensed. The Beast enters limited release on April 5 from Sideshow/Janus Films.

Almereyda: The press kit acknowledges that when you read the Henry James novella, it upset you very much. What were you upset by?

Bonello: Henry James is amazing when talking about the human soul. When it comes to feelings, he is, for me, one of the most precise and accurate writers. In this novel, every feeling, every word is exactly at the right place. This story talks so much of love and fear of love. At the end, a man realizes that the beast is just the fear of love and that it is too late. It’s so heartbreaking. And at the end, he throws himself on the grave—it’s not even clear if he’s collapsing or if he’s unconscious, but it’s very powerful.

Almereyda: I tried rereading James on the plane. Maybe I wasn’t in the right frame of mind because I forgot how convoluted the sentences are. And I was almost playing a game with myself, thinking, “Does he ever declare the word ‘love’?” I’m not sure. Right? We know that’s what it’s about, but the writing is so circular and metaphoric. The feelings you describe—when did you know you wanted to translate that into a film?

Bonello: It was on my mind a little; then, I decided to do a melodrama, and that brought me back to the book instantly. So, it started with the idea of genre, melodrama, which is something I’ve never done before and really wanted to try. The desire of melodrama drove me to Henry James. For me, melodrama is when you know that these two people should be together, but they do not. And when they realize, it’s too late, which is exactly the novel. So, I took this as an argument and really exploded it.

Almereyda: Are you familiar with this Henry James quote? A line he wrote in a letter to a friend: “I have the imagination of disaster and see life as ferocious and sinister.”

Bonello: No.

Almereyda: I think you can agree that that might be your point of view, too—the imagination of disaster.

Bonello: Totally. There are disasters all around the film, intimate or collective.

Almereyda: One thing I did to prepare for this was to catch up with your previous film, which hasn’t come out yet in the States. I think it’s equally remarkable, and in some ways a premonition of The Beast, and it’s brimming with disasters. At the risk of bewildering readers who haven’t seen the film, can you talk about the relationship between Coma and The Beast?

Bonello: In fact, I was ready to shoot The Beast and the film was delayed because of Léa Seydoux’s schedule. So, we had a whole year free and decided with the producer to do a very, very small-budget film, self-produced, without asking for financing. And it is a small film; it’s 250,000 euros. So, Coma is influenced by The Beast—I wanted to try some stuff, and there were some relationships between the two films.

Almereyda: It’s very moving to me on many levels. One, it’s explicitly a letter to your teenaged daughter. The other is that it’s very rare for a filmmaker who has your resources to go backward and make something that’s like a sketch. That’s exciting to me. And the idea of the free zone, the in-between space bridging dual realities, carries over in a big way into the bigger film.

Bonello: I like to do small things between films. For example, I still enjoy doing short movies. I’d like to do my next film as a short. Because for me, it’s not like the short movies are like school and then you make your features. It’s like novels and short novels, you know? Hemingway said, “If I do a novel, it’s because I fucked up a short novel.” And being short is a talent; it’s difficult. Of course, Coma wasn’t a short; it’s a short feature. But there are things that have to do with virtual and real life, where they blend and you can’t escape the combination. We have dialogue that’s shared between levels of reality, and the idea of creating several different worlds in the mind of a young girl. All these worlds contaminate each other. But, it was also a reflection of images because there are images everywhere in our life. And what’s an image of cinema in the middle of all these images?

Almereyda: In one of your interviews I saw online—even though I don’t speak French, I could gather the intent and meaning—you’re in a video store surrounded by wire DVD racks, as if in a cage, and you’re talking about some of your favorite films or influences. There’s Argento, John Carpenter, Lynch, and there are clips from their films. It’s like your brain is lined with these films.

Bonello: It’s how I discovered cinema. You know, I was 12, 13. It’s the arrival of VHS. I was living in the countryside, and the video club only had horror film and porn film. So, with my friends we were renting all the horror films of that period—Argento, Cronenberg, Lucio Fulci, Romero, Don Coscarelli—and watching them all, like, 10 times. So, I’ve got a really strong relationship with them, but for me, they were just fun. Much later, I started to really be interested in movies, saw them again and realized they were great directors, with a relationship to the world and to the genre movie, which is, in the first degree, one of no irony, and a way to put into these films their fear of the world, which is something that got lost after that in the genre movie and that’s coming back a little now.

Almereyda: You also spoke in the interview about these films being political.

Bonello: They are very political. Maybe the most political of them is Carpenter, but Romero also. David [Cronenberg], it’s more intimate. But he’s talking about himself very strongly in his films and his own fear. And in a way, Argento, because of Brigate Rosse and stuff like that, it’s quite political also.

Almereyda: I’m not familiar with—what did you reference with Argento?

Bonello: The Red Brigades, a terrorist organization, during the ’70s. The climate in Italy was very tense, and one can imagine that this climate is reflected in his films.

Almereyda: I am a stupid American. That’s an element I wasn’t aware of. When I was watching The Beast, so many of the echoes, the references and allusions, are thrillingly layered onto Henry James’s story. You collide James with unexpected genres and filmmakers—and one conspicuous precursor that you don’t mention in that interview is Resnais. What has he meant to you?

Bonello: Well, there are two views, which are really related to the women. He has his first wife, Florence [Malraux], and then he went to Sabine [Azéma], and his cinema was really different. I love him more and more. The more I age, the more I love him. I admire his freedom, his irony, and so much invention all the time. He’s like an old kid.

Almereyda: I felt that some of The Beast has a Marienbad quality. The way the man and woman circle each other, how their memories aren’t aligned; they’re emotionally compelled to connect and disconnect. And there’s also Je t’aime, je t’aime, with the more explicit sci-fi treatment of brains being emptied and recharged.

Bonello: Je t’aime, je t’aime for me is my favorite of Alain Resnais. It’s so emotional, and the idea of going back to the past and having this puzzle—I love films that are made like a puzzle, and little by little you have like a big picture. Not all of it sometimes, but…

Almereyda: Your Beast is a big puzzle with three different timelines. I see you are credited with two other writers. How did the collaboration work?

Bonello: The synopsis and story I wrote myself. It’s a film that took a long time to find its final story. There was a first script with three periods—1910, 1936 and 2014—then I added 2044. It became a miniseries. Then, I could not finance it, so I decided to do two films, one with 1936—only I could not finance it—and then I did The Beast with the other three periods. The film found its form, but it took 30 drafts. And it did some shapeshifting.

Almereyda: It’s a film that exalts in shapeshifting. There’s a cunningness in how it’s constructed, and I don’t know how much of it was changed in the editing, but I’m particularly impressed by the way the timeframes melt or overlap, often with voiceover and music. There’s one great moment early on when Gabrielle is parting with Louis. They’re walking outside, separating, and the music comes on strong and then carries into the future. That’s Schoenberg’s Transfigured Night?

Bonello: Yes, it is.

Almereyda: Can you talk about the selection of Schoenberg in the film?

Bonello: He’s someone I know quite well because, when I was a kid, I played a lot of piano and studied him. But I really wanted to show that Gabrielle is very modern, and studying Schoenberg in 1910 is being very, very modern. But also, it brings emotion because there’s so much talk about suppressing or eliminating emotion, and Schoenberg is expressing things they can’t express.

Almereyda: There’s also the shadow of a sense of death, and of trying to define life in relation to death. Gabrielle says, “I don’t want to be a Buddhist or a robot.” Do you have that feeling yourself?

Bonello: Becoming a robot is a fear, of course—much more than becoming a Buddhist—because we are going to a world that allows fewer and fewer personal thoughts, less and less time. So, yes, that’s a fear. But when I wrote the film in 2019—I mean, I was aware of AI and the danger, but for me, it was, like, in a long time. And the fact that the year the film is shown, AI is a huge subject, makes the film quite contemporary in a weird way because, of course, it’s a wonderful tool and a very dangerous tool. It’s a tool that depends on what you do with it. Here, we might have a tool that is stronger than us. And when I was presenting the film in Venice and New York, there was the strike in the [United States], and AI was at the heart of the negotiation. But, for example, [I’ve tried to] play with it and say, “Write me a script like Bertrand Bonello.” And it takes five seconds, and you have a story and five pages.

Almereyda: How did you like the result?

Bonello: It’s not absurd, you know? It’s not the film I want to make, but it’s not absurd. But if you want to have ChatGPT doing like episode four of something, it’s perfect.

Almereyda: I’ve mainly seen the films you’ve made after Nocturama, and I’m impressed by the range and variety, and by how many different genres and situations you embrace. One thing that seems to connect these films is that almost all your lead characters are in danger of losing themselves, or they do lose themselves. There’s a sense of unstable identity, and then the loss of self. It’s sometimes as literal as zombies, in Zombi Child, or sex and drugs and fame, as in Saint Laurent. And sometimes, it’s more subtle—the politics that drive young people to terrorism in Nocturama—but it links all the films. So, I can imagine how ChatGPT could catch that and go wild. At the same time, in The Beast, you’re tracking a very interior story told by Henry James. I mean, we’re not philosophers, but do you think about love in terms of selflessness? Losing yourself to love—is that a fear for you? 

Bonello: I think fear and love really go well together because you can have the fear of love—two really strong feelings that make you feel alive. Not always pleasant, but they’re very related. And I really wanted to push the relationship quite far in the film.

Almereyda: So, when you decided to put it in Los Angeles in 2014, did you spend time in Los Angeles? Or was it kind of a dream of David Lynch’s Los Angeles?

Bonello: No, in fact, this character [Louis] is inspired by Elliot Rodger, who was in LA. I’ve had these videos in mind, and I’ve seen Los Angeles and really wanted to reproduce this. But of course, we only shot two days in Los Angeles. Of course, when you arrive and you make a film and you’re in LA, you have all these fantasies that come back and you feel like a kid.

Almereyda: Where was that spectacular house?

Bonello: The south of France.

Almereyda: When you arrived at the balance between the three locations and timelines, how did you come to 2044?

Bonello: Because it’s the future, but it’s tomorrow. So, I wanted something very close that we can feel. I could have been closer, like 2032, but 20 years felt good because it’s concrete.

Almereyda: For me, the future part of the film, it’s the most ironic, and it’s comical how unpopulated it is: There’s no color, the world is drained, there’s a kind of false serenity. There’s something comical about being stuck in that life. Also, from a practical point of view, if people are cogs in this heartless grinding wheel, I don’t know that they’d be living as nicely as Léa Seydoux does. She’s not poor, but she’s oppressed. She’s suffering, and you summon, in her performance, a sense of loss and despair because what’s possible in love and in life have been smothered. But you give her room for transfiguration within the blankness. At one point, she’s bored and she’s given options of things to do, and she preemptively says, “Let’s dance.” Your dance sequences are great. Can you talk about how that works for you?

Bonello: It’s one of the things I really love shooting the most. I think it says a lot about a character, more than many words. You give something very personal when you’re an actor and you dance. I try to put these dancing scenes at [a] moment when I want to say something about a character, and I’m sure that the body will say it better than my words.

Almereyda: So, you don’t choreograph, you just trust the actors to let loose?

Bonello: I let them go because they give a lot of themselves. And I do closed sets, like for sex scenes. For me, it’s more difficult for an actor to dance than doing a fake sex scene. You give something more intimate.

Almereyda: You write your own music often, and you’re playing the music during the scenes while you’re shooting, I assume?

Bonello: Yes. But for the dance scenes, it’s mostly songs that I buy. You have a 1972 song [The Pointer Sisters’ “Send Him Back”], and the character says, “Why 1972?” I really wanted in the three scenes something very hot [for] the ’70s, something very cold [for] the ’80s [Visage’s “Fade to Grey”]. And I really wanted to finish in 1963 because of the song [Roy Orbison’s “Evergreen”].

Almereyda: And Schoenberg—we might as well touch on your new project.

Bonello: I’m preparing a show, an hour and a half of Schoenberg’s music, in which there will be some images.

Almereyda: What kind of images?

Bonello: Schoenberg was a painter, so some of his paintings. A few images I shot in the forest. Some images of found footage, and also there will be an actress and a dancer on stage. It’s a huge show. There are like 200 people on stage, basically. January in Paris.

Almereyda: Why 200 people?

Bonello: Well, I have 120 musicians, 75 people singing, plus a pianist, plus a soprano, plus an actress. The idea is to go inside of his mind. It’s chronological. So, we start with the beginning, which is post-romantic, post-Mahler—Transfigured Night, Pelleas und Melisande. So, we start in 1898 and finish in 1943. Between 1933 and 1943, the show talks a lot about the rise of Nazism and the Third Reich.

Almereyda: You probably know the story about Schoenberg and the studio executive—Thalberg, I think. They were negotiating for him to do a score, and Schoenberg wanted a lot of money. He also wanted complete control of the music, and he insisted he had to work with the actors to ensure they’d speak in the same key and pitch as the music. And the studio boss said, “Bye-bye.”

Bonello: I cannot imagine Schoenberg in a studio of Hollywood now.

Almereyda: He was living in Hollywood, of course.

Bonello: I know, I know.

Almereyda: This is a passion project, in a way. How many performances?

Bonello: Three.

Almereyda: That’s all?

Bonello: Yeah, and it’s a lot for them. Usually, it’s like one or two. Then, it’s gonna tour, but in Paris.

Almereyda: Any chance that it will come to New York?

Bonello: I think so.

Almereyda: Two hundred should make for a very exciting sound.

Bonello: Yeah, it’s classical orchestration. You have to have it.

Almereyda: So, how do you direct them?

Bonello: I’m not the conductor, right? I don’t know. We start on Monday. I hope it’s going to be fine because I know they’re obsessed [in advance] by the music, they’re going to be very concentrated. But I want them to be part of the show.

Almereyda: Did you ever think you would be a concert musician?

Bonello: When I was a young teenager, my dream was to be a conductor.

Almereyda: And what threw you off course?

Bonello: It was a lot of work; then, I moved to rock and pop and forgot about the classical music. I was too lazy, I think.

Almereyda: Well, it seems to me you’re very not lazy. You seem extremely disciplined and busy. Can you talk about your relationship with your cinematographer, Josée Deshaies?

Bonello: Yes, we started together at the same age. We did our first short movies together, and our first feature together. We did seven features. Actually, she’s the mother of my daughter. When we broke up, it was a little difficult to work together. Time has to pass. But it’s great that we can work together again because I don’t have to talk to her. She knows exactly what I like. She knows exactly the frames, exactly the speed of the movement. Of course, we talk in prep because we exchange a lot of pictures, mood boards and ideas and stuff like that—though on the set, things always change.

Almereyda: It’s an amazing relationship. I don’t think I know of another husband-wife director-DP relationship like that. Even though you’ve broken up, it indicates a remarkably strong connection. I saw she’s the cinematographer on Ira Sachs’s Passages. That makes me excited to imagine her working on American English-language pictures.

Bonello: After The Beast, a big agent took her on in Los Angeles. She’s Canadian and bilingual.

Almereyda: There’s fortune telling in the film, and voodoo is taken seriously in Zombi Child. I wondered if you have any experience with clairvoyance.

Bonello: Yes, I do. I don’t believe totally in that, but what’s interesting is, they say sentences, and what do you do with that? It’s how you interpret it. I think it’s a great character for film because they’re talking about something that is not happening now. She gives you information, you can play with that in the script. I like this idea that I have one fortune teller in 1910 that sees 2014, and one in 2014 that sees 2044, but no one knows.

Almereyda: It’s a great idea, the converging, cross-generational fortune. I’ve made three movies with Elina Löwensohn, by the way. She’s great. [Löwensohn plays the 1910 fortune teller.] Have you ever had your fortune read?

Bonello: I have someone in Croatia.

Almereyda: You Zoom with them?

Bonello: No, I write her emails with questions. A week after, you have a document of 10 pages, and you pay her by PayPal.

Almereyda: How did you find her?

Bonello: A friend of mine, an actress.

Almereyda: You go back to her?

Bonello: Every six months.

Almereyda: That’s a lot! So, you’re not being cavalier about it—it’s a true feature in your life. It’s not once every 12 years. Can you talk about your experience as an actor and how it affects your directing?

Bonello: There is one film in which I have the lead role, which is called Le dos Rouge [Antoine Barraud’s Portrait of the Artist]. And then sometimes for friends—I like it because I love being on a set. And being an actor is being on a set without having the pressure of the decision to say it’s good or not. If the director tells me, “It’s good, next shot,” OK. If it’s not good, we will do it again. I don’t like to watch myself after that. But also it helps me as a director. I understand a lot of things when you take the place of the actors.

Almereyda: Anything in particular you can talk about?

Bonello: Some words that you don’t want to hear, some words that you need to hear. It helps for direction, I think. An actor cannot always understand the entirety of the challenges of a scene, and psychological explanations can paralyze. Three words are better than 30.

Almereyda: The idea of the director informs The Beast—the unseen controlling hand, the director as God or Fate. When did you have the idea to frame the film with the greenscreen shot?

Bonello: The first scene I wrote was the greenscreen shot. For me, it has two meanings. Everyone is used to greenscreen, and they know what that means. It says that there’s going to be stuff that’s virtual, so you have something about that very clearly at the beginning. Second, it’s three or four minutes with Léa Seydoux alone. It means my subject will be her.

Almereyda: How did the doll factory come into your mind?

Bonello: There are a lot of dolls in my films, in at least five films. I think a doll is fascinating because it’s something for kids, childish, but at the same time very scary. If you look at a doll, you do not know what’s in its mind. This is, for me, very cinematic. One of my favorite scenes, for example, is when Léa is imitating a doll, because when she’s doing this, the camera is very close to her, the shot is quite long, but you do not know what’s in her mind, and this is very mysterious.

Almereyda: And it makes him look away.

Bonello: Exactly. He’s too shy because it’s a lot of pressure. You know, you’re in 1910. A woman looking in the eyes of a man, and she’s not your wife, it’s quite…

Almereyda: I think it might be a lot of pressure in any year.

Bonello: Yes.

Almereyda: But yes, it’s very powerful, and she does it so well, taking on a doll’s face. It’s like she slides into it. A blankness that invites you to fill the blank.

Bonello: It’s the first shot we did on this shoot. One take.

Almereyda: And you preferred it that way? You purposely wanted it to be the first shot?

Bonello: Yes.

Almereyda: Excellent. Do you do many takes usually?

Bonello: Around four.

Almereyda: Have you ever visited sets when you’re not the actor?

Bonello: Not too many. I don’t know where to put myself. I’m always jealous because I love sets.

Almereyda: The Paris flood—how did that enter The Beast’s story?

Bonello: I really wanted the film’s first time period to be between 1900 and just before the war. And, of course, for French people, this flood is very famous. And it’s crazy images. I was trying to mix intimate catastrophe with collective catastrophe. It was not the easiest to do.

Almereyda: What was the biggest challenge?

Bonello: Fire and water.

Almereyda: How long did that take to shoot?

Bonello: Four days. Two days with the fire and two days underwater.

Almereyda: Have you been happy with the reaction to the film? Are you oblivious to critical response? Do you care?

Bonello: No, I’m very happy. All the reaction I had abroad. France, I don’t know yet. We started the press screenings. But I’ve never had that before, in the States, in Korea, in Venice, it’s very…

Almereyda: Feels like a breakthrough.

Bonello: Yes, and what I really like is the journalists take time to write the text. And they’re very personal. They’re making very personal articles. It’s very touching for me. I felt very connected to it.

Almereyda: Lastly, we might talk about your relationship with Léa Seydoux. You’ve done three films with her now. She’s so versatile and intense in The Beast. How has your relationship changed as you’ve gotten to know her?

Bonello: Well, I’ve known her for a long, long time. And after Saint Laurent, we had the desire to make one big film together. But it took time. Maybe we’re going to work together again, but not now.

Almereyda: Do you have a plan for a film beyond the Schoenberg concert?

Bonello: I’m starting to think about it. I’d like to work with foreign actors. I had great pleasure working with George MacKay. It’s my tenth film. I’ve been doing films with a lot of French actors, and British or American actors offer another range, another way of working. So, I guess I’ll do a few in English for the pleasure of meeting actors. But it’s not clear yet. 

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