Interview: Bertrand Bonello

    Sprouted from a Henry James novella, Bertrand Bonello’s The Beast is a melodrama set at the end of human feeling. Told with vague sci-fi mechanics, the film unveils a technofascist AI-run future. Its world is depopulated and barren. Architecture and interior design are minimalist and sterile. It’s a Mark Fisher incarnation of the year 2044, where nightclubs blast throwback hits from 1972. Exhausted by this world without affect, Gabrielle (Léa Seydoux) undergoes an operation to purge her emotions via submerging her body in a black liquid goo that broadcasts memories from her past lives. Intercutting stories from three of her lives (2044, 2014, and 1910), Bonello reconfigures narrative as a sprawling tapestry uncontained by a single lifespan. Desires persist into next lives, culminating in a vast, history-spanning arc.

    Like a cumulative moment in Bonello’s filmography, The Beast is a hybrid film, swinging across vines of genre pastiches and moving from costume drama romance into disaster movie into surrealist L.A. stalker thriller into dystopian sci-fi. Bonello’s movies are always haunted by the weight of history. Unresolved pasts plague the future: a maxim maximized in The Beast’s narrative, where past lives bleed seamlessly into their successive lives. The movie’s the ambitious work of a master operating without restraint across a sprawling canvas. A liberated film.

    I spoke with Bertrand Bonello about The Beast, growing up as a child of May ‘68, how we’re headed towards a future that neutralizes dreams, Elliot Rodger, dolls, David Lynch, and much more.

    I know you were born in the immediate aftermath of May ‘68. I was wondering if you could talk about your early memories of political discourse and generational hopes for revolutionary futures.

    I made a couple films about that: The Pornographer and On War. It’s true that being a kid of ‘68 puts you in a difficult situation because your parents have done so much. How do you find your own place? The weight of being a kid of ‘68 was quite heavy for my generation. It was very difficult for my generation to find their political position. It took a long time. Being a kid in ‘68 means you’re raised in the 70s, which was a period of freedom. But then the 80s arrived, which was a big tournament. Then, problems start… [Laughs.] So you always have this kind of nostalgia for something you’ve not really known. It’s a little tough. It’s been a frustration.

    How would you contrast that experience with people who’ve grown up in the 21st century? I know you have a daughter who’s in her twenties.

    She’s twenty, yah. When I was a kid, I was raised with the idea that tomorrow will be better than today. And for someone like my kid, they know that tomorrow will be worse than today. It’s a huge difference for your desires. When I turned fifteen or eighteen, I had so many desires and dreams; anything seemed possible. Some of them I achieved, some of them I failed. But you’re full of that hope. For younger generations now, it’s difficult to find desires because they’ve been raised with unemployment, ecological problems, terrorism, pandemia. Every day there’s something worse. I did a kind-of trilogy about youth: Nocturama, Zombie Child, and Coma. I was very interested in how youth will enter the world and how the world will enter them.

    On the one hand, The Beast is a movie about a time where desire and human emotion is considered obsolete. At the same time, the storytelling leans into melodrama, the genre/mode of exaggerated emotion. What compelled you to explore melodrama?

    Very simply, it’s because it’s something I’d never done before. Melodrama drove me to Henry James’ The Beast in the Jungle, which is one of my favourite books. It’s beautiful and heartbreaking. In Henry James, love and fear are always related. This drove me to the “fear movie” for the 2014 slasher part. Then, I took it further into science-fiction, which is another type of horror movie because, in a way, it’s quite terrifying.

    You said your interest in melodrama came from the fact that you hadn’t done it before. Is that often how you approach a new movie? You find things you haven’t delved into?

    A little, yes. Like many directors, I have obsessions. Which is not a problem. But you don’t want to repeat yourself. So you have to find ways to move and explore. If you want to surprise people, you have to surprise yourself first.

    A lot of your movies are inspired by pre-existing texts. House of Tolerance came from research into 20th century brothels and some Victor Hugo writing. Was it different making a (loose) adaptation of Henry James compared to using pre-existing texts as just influences?

    Well, there’s still plenty of research in The Beast. For example, George MacKay’s character in 2014 is very inspired by Elliot Rodger, who was an incel who killed people in 2014. All the messages he records on his iPhone are not mine; they’re his words. I like to use real material as starting points. It helps me move into fiction. There’s a lot of things that aren’t from me in the film. Sometimes, big stuff like Henry James or Elliot Rodger. But sometimes small stuff.

    Do you remember watching those Elliot Rodger videos when they first came out?

    Yes. I have a notebook where I write a lot of things, ideas and stuff. In 2014, I just wrote “Elliot Rodger”. It’s not the character that interested me. It’s not what he did. It’s not the fact that he killed girls. It’s really the videos: the way he expresses himself—so calm, so gentle, so sweet in a way—while saying these horrible things. If I’d written those dialogues myself, they’d have been more crazy. It’s much scarier the way he does it because he seems very normal.

    When I saw it at TIFF last month, there was a lot of laughter at first, and then gradually people realized how terrifying it was.

    That’s what I heard! TIFF is quite special because people always laugh at weird moments…

    I’m very interested in the self-referentiality and intertextuality in The Beast. Am I mistaken or is there a shot from [your short film] Cindy: The Doll Is Mine on Léa Seydoux’s computer?

    You’re… you’re good. [Laughs.] To tell the truth, it’s just because it was free of rights. And because there was a doll, which is one of the motifs running through the film.

    Dolls appear in your movies pretty often…

    I know, I know… I was just talking about obsessions; this is my obsession. There’s dolls in Cindy: The Doll is Mine, House of Tolerance, and Coma too. I think they’re very cinematic. There’s a mix between something very childish and very terrifying. I just have this reflex to put dolls, masks, stuff like that, in my work because they’re things you shoot and don’t know what’s behind them. What thoughts can be behind a doll’s face? One of my favourite shots in the film is when Léa Seydoux is [impersonating] the doll because, on one hand, she’s very beautiful, but you also can’t figure out what she’s thinking. That kind of mystery is always good for the camera.

    I went to see Something Organic last night, your first feature. Something that struck me is how the opening shot is very similar to the opener of The Beast: both begin in media res on the protagonists standing in front of a green backdrop. In your head, are you making conscious connections between your movies?

    Oh yes, I remember that shot… But no, no. In fact, it’s the contrary. When I see an obvious connection, I try to escape it. Since I work a lot with the same DP, she’s often like “Bert… we’ve done this already. Let’s do something else.”

    Another reference in the movie that struck me is Harmony Korine’s Trash Humpers. What’s your relationship to that movie and how’d you come to include it?

    [Laughs.] I had this question a lot in New York [at NYFF]. I really like Harmony’s work, and that film is very impressive. I’m not doing an homage though. It shows up as a pop-up on the screen. Pop-ups are these very sudden images that show really insane things. I needed some quick stuff and any frame from Trash Humpers works for that.

    Have you had the chance to see Korine’s latest [Aggro Dr1ft] yet?

    No, I missed it! Have you seen it yet? Did you like it?

    Yes… though I think it’s less a question of like/dislike and more about whether its confrontations move you or provoke you. And it succeeded for me there.

    I tried to see it but the scheduling didn’t work, and I’m really afraid that it won’t be released…

    I’m sure it’ll end up on the internet somewhere. It’s also the rare movie that might play better on the small screen.

    Oh, I really want to see it!

    On another note, the eclecticism of The Beast—its disparate strands and genres—reminded me of Coma and its hybrid form. Did you find your approach to filmmaking changed while working on Coma?

    The Beast was ready to shoot before Coma. However, we had to postpone the film for many months because of Léa’s schedule. So me and the producer [Justin Taurand] decided to do Coma as a very low-budget, self-produced film shot in three weeks. It was a way to test some stuff for The Beast. Even if the subject is different, I wanted to try to push the hybrid elements further. In a way, the movies respond to each other. But yes, something’s changed for me with these two films. But I think The Beast is the end of a period for me. I put so much in it, so many obsessions. I don’t know if I can go further. I need to go somewhere else.

    I also noticed Patricia Coma was listed in the end credits…

    [Laughs.] Patricia Coma was the [spectral Youtuber] character in Coma played by Julia Faure. Julia was really helpful for this movie. She was reading over early versions of the script, seeing the dailies, the editing versions. I thought it’d be fun to credit her as Patricia Coma.

    The Beast is a very distinct movie and presumably one that’s difficult to market. Was it hard to find financing?

    Yes. The film is really expensive. In France, the more expensive the movie is, the more they want it to be very straight. Getting $8 million to do something like that is very difficult and took very long. It’s a co-production with Canada, about 10% of the funding came from here.

    This is the first time you shot in the U.S. How’d you find it was different from shooting in France or even Canada?

    To be honest, I only did like two nights in Los Angeles: when she drives the car, stuff like that. The rest, including the house, was in the South of France. The clubs are in Paris since the U.S. is so expensive, especially with SAG and stuff. But when I arrived in L.A., there’s something very exciting about shooting there because we’re, of course, so full of all these American films.

    A lot of people have pointed out that your L.A. resembles David Lynch’s incarnation of a very dark, nocturnal California. I know you put Twin Peaks: The Return on your Sight and Sound list. Was he very consciously in your mind?

    Not that much. But that’s because there are some directors you don’t have to think about. They’re inside you. If I think about Twin Peaks: The Return, there is something that David Lynch—and Jean-Luc Godard, I’d say—allowed us: to search for freedom. When I think about Lynch, I think much more about his freedom than his style.

    Have you thought about what kinds of things you want to explore further?

    Not at all. To be honest, I feel a little empty. I put a lot into this film. But not empty in a bad way. I need to fill myself again: reading, walking, traveling.

    This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

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