The Beast, review: Léa Seydoux confronts her past in a strange, Lynchian sci-fi

George MacKay and Léa Seydoux in The Beast
George MacKay and Léa Seydoux in The Beast - Carole Bethuel

The new film from Bertrand Bonello is in love with Léa Seydoux’s face: frankly, one can relate. This spirallingly creepy science-fiction fable, playing in competition at Venice this year, is all about emotion – both the stemming and venting of it – and the French actress’s countenance, sometimes millpond-still, sometimes twisted in terror, is a fine-honed instrument when it comes to both.

Seydoux stars as Gabrielle, a young woman living in the AI-dominated 2040s, who finds herself spirited back – via a bath of biodynamic black gunge – into two of her previous lives. The object of the exercise is to purge herself of all feeling: a crucial process for any human in this coolly clinical future wishing to secure themselves a plum societal role. But in each of her previous existences, in Paris of the 1910s and Los Angeles of the 2010s, Gabrielle feels a gnawing horror that some dire, life-altering event – the “beast” of the title – is about to pounce from the shadows at any given moment.

In both of those periods, something suitably cataclysmic does occur: in the first, the Great Flood of Paris; the second, the La Habra earthquake. But for Gabrielle, it’s her recurring connection to a mysterious young man, George MacKay’s Louis – who, in 2044, is also completing a similar emotional cleanse – that proves by far the more dangerous. First he appears as a mysterious suitor who approaches her at a chic salon, then again as a brooding incel who films her on his iPhone from afar, while spluttering darkly about the women who never gave him a chance.

Bonello’s screenplay, written with Guillaume Bréaud and Benjamin Charbit, was loosely inspired by the Henry James novella The Beast in the Jungle, in which a man fritters away his life in a state of perpetual dread. But its self-fracturing structure and authentically dreamlike texture – by turns foggy and piercingly lucid – recalls David Lynch’s 2006 nightmare odyssey Inland Empire, albeit with the weirdness dialled down (a bit).

Each time period has a distinctive look and mood, from the narcotised hum of the 2040s to the unforgiving digital sheen of the 2010s and the grainy, tactile romance of the 1910s. Only the last of these could be described as conventionally beautiful – in one breath-catching sequence, Bonello stages a fire in a flooded doll factory, with Seydoux swimming through submerged offices and workshops in a linen slip.

But each throbs with its own addictively peculiar atmosphere. And that doll motif keeps coming back in alternate forms, first in the near-present-day casting parades Gabrielle takes part in as a French actress trying to find work in LA, and then in the future form of her AI-controlled android companion (Saint Omer’s Guslagie Malanda) who soothingly talks her through the emotion-draining process.

On a first viewing, I wasn’t quite convinced by some of the glitchy japes Bonello deploys here and there – at moments of high tension, for instance, the image on screen stutters, rewinds and sometimes even melts into itself, like a buggy .mov file. But perhaps he wants us to think of the film itself like its torn heroine: a strange machine whose ghost refuses to give up.

15 cert, 146 min. In cinemas from May 31