Bonello, the time traveller

France’s maverick on sci-fi, loneliness, music and working with Léa Seydoux

by Richard Mowe

Bertrand Bonello on Henry James' The Beast:  'The novella is a masterpiece of melodrama and James is a master of looking at the human soul'
Bertrand Bonello on Henry James' The Beast: 'The novella is a masterpiece of melodrama and James is a master of looking at the human soul' Photo: UniFrance
There was no easy route for Bertrand Bonello to make what must be his most ambitious and convoluted film to date: The Beast. It unfurls over three time periods: 1910, 1914 and 2044. And the production was delayed twice: first by the tragic death in a ski-ing accident of actor Gaspard Ulliel, who was replaced by British actor George MacKay, and then for a year by scheduling conflicts with one of his favoured collaborators Léa Seydoux.

In the interim his producer suggested he might want to make a short: instead Bonello, never one to shirk a challenge, decided to film another feature Coma, which dealt with a teenage girl in lockdown amid a global health crisis and was the last film Ulliel worked on before the accident. He shot it in less than two weeks in late 2021 and was the last part of a trilogy on youth preceded by 2016’s Nocturama and Zombi Child in 2019.

Bertrand Bonello:  'When I was 12 or 13, I was living in a small town. I was so bored, and the arrival of VHS tapes really saved my life'
Bertrand Bonello: 'When I was 12 or 13, I was living in a small town. I was so bored, and the arrival of VHS tapes really saved my life' Photo: Marie Rouge/UniFrance
Bonello, 55, suggests that although both films are distinctly different, they share reflections on “fear and love, life and death, real and unreal, moving from one world to another and mixing different types of images.” Another theme, says Bonello, is loneliness. “It’s a huge problem these days partly because you have social media telling you how to think. You may think you are connected but, in fact, you are more alone.”

He admits The Beast was one of the most problematic projects with which to come to grips. “I think I did at least 15 drafts of the script because of its structure. It is more complex than complicated. So I worked a lot with coloured Posits, positioning them on a wall because I like to have a visual way of working.

“In terms of the writing I would say that the future in 2044 was the most awkward because inventing the future is difficult. The Beast is the first time I’ve used science fiction. When I started writing four or five years ago I included artificial intelligence but at that point it seemed like at least 20 years ahead. But now it seems ominously close,” he said. “When you invent and create concepts of the future, it’s also a way of talking about your fear of the present.”

After Ulliel’s death as they were about to start the shoot Bonello said that they did not know what to with the film. “We had thought of replacing him with another French actor. I started doing basic casting including British and American actors - and the last one I talked to was George [MacKay]. I went to London to see him and within five minutes I knew I had found my talent. He is not French, of course, but I did not have to do any rewrites. I discovered that he and Gaspard [Ulliel] had similar ways of working. They like to prepare a lot and want to arrive on set totally ready which is the opposite of Léa, who prefers to arrive not knowing a lot and to discover the film while she is shooting it.”

Seydoux and Bonello have known each other for a long time. “In On War I gave her a small part. In Saint Laurent, she had a supporting role. For many years, we had said we should do something bigger together. I didn’t have an idea, but we had this conversation. When I started to write The Beast, she came to mind, not because she was a friend but because I knew that there would be three periods. I knew that she was the only French actress who could be in all three periods, because I believed Léa in both the past and the future. She’s modern and ageless; she crosses time, and there’s something mysterious within her that I needed for the writing and the film. It became natural. I wrote thinking of her.”

Bertrand Bonello on Léa Seydoux: 'She’s modern and ageless; she crosses time, and there’s something mysterious within her that I needed for the writing and the film. It became natural. I wrote thinking of her'
Bertrand Bonello on Léa Seydoux: 'She’s modern and ageless; she crosses time, and there’s something mysterious within her that I needed for the writing and the film. It became natural. I wrote thinking of her' Photo: UniFrance
Bonello, one of France’s most maverick and idiosyncratic directors, relishes working with different time periods. “It started in 2011 with House Of Tolerance (L’Apollonide - Souvenirs de la maison close) where I was playing with time and distorting it, to use it in such a way that I could quit reality without quitting reality. Time and space are the main tools of direction and I used time also across Saint Laurent as well as Nocturama. In The Beast I decided to make this the subject of the film: distorting time and exploring how you can use time in a narrative way. It’s very obvious in this film. In the others, it’s more insidious.”

With a frugal yet original body of work he remains energised by the possibilities of cinema. “It is still a place where you can mix something artistic with thought. In today’s world which is full of images, it is challenging to find something different and original. It may be more difficult, but it is also more interesting,” he said.

He tries not to watch too many films before he starts a shoot. “I would rather look at paintings for inspiration. But I did watch two films before beginning The Beast. They were Martin Scorsese’s The Age Of Innocence, from the novel by Edith Wharton, and an American B film When The Stranger Calls, by Fred Walton, which is a psychological horror,” he recalled.

He ascribes his modest output (The Beast is his tenth feature) to the length of time it takes to produce a film from start to finish. “Basically one film takes three years - with one year each of financing, shooting and promotion. When I’m filming I listen to music a lot and recently have just composed a score for the film of a friend. I also try to do short films because I like the format. And I’ve just finished a huge musical show for the Paris Philharmonia around the composer Schönberg which was staged in Paris at the start of the year.”

George MacKay and Léa Seydoux in The Beast. Bertrand Bonello: 'In today’s world which is full of images, it is challenging to find something different and original. It may be more difficult, but it is also more interesting'
George MacKay and Léa Seydoux in The Beast. Bertrand Bonello: 'In today’s world which is full of images, it is challenging to find something different and original. It may be more difficult, but it is also more interesting' Photo: UniFrance
During his childhood in Nice Bonello was submerged in classical music because his mother worked for the city’s opera company. His father was a lawyer but their large house was often full of passing artists and creatives. As an adolescent he took piano lessons and reached a level where he could have pursued a career as a classical pianist and idolised such icons as Italian pianists Michelangeli, and Pollini and Canadian classicist Glenn Gould.

He had thought of a career as an orchestra conductor but his creativity drifted more towards pop and rock as a studio musician - and eventually towards cinema. He has confided: “I started to play the piano when I was five years old, and I had an arrangement where I would just go to school in the morning and do piano in the afternoon. Up to the age of ten or 11, I was playing a lot of classical music. Then I had a band, and I discovered punk and rock and switched from classical to pop music. So music was always very present in my life.

“As for cinema, it came in different stages. When I was 12 or 13, I was living in a small town. I was so bored, and the arrival of VHS tapes really saved my life. Every Saturday I went to the video club with a couple friends and we would rent four or five films, which were mainly horror films.

He has maintained his love of music by composing the scores for all his own films and also for those of friends. “I compose the music at the same time as I write the script. It is a big help being a musician because the creative process goes with the writing. I would be sad not to be able to compose my own music, and I have a studio at home.”

Part of the atmosphere of the narrative is inspired by a novella (The Beast in the Jungle) by Henry James. “The feeling that something is going to happen, is an amazing argument from Henry James, that something can happen and so everyone is in fear, like animals, looking at what’s going to happen. And that makes you very alive. And, of course, the ending is sad because the beast is the fear of love. And when they realise this, it's too late. But that's the essence of a melodrama: it's too late. The idea that we might wait for something to happen until it’s too late is very tragic. The novella is a masterpiece of melodrama and James is a master of looking at the human soul.”

When Bonello is not sitting in front of his computer screen he is an avid people watcher and discreet observer. “I have to get a way from my computer to let my mind wander,” he concluded with a defiant flourish.

The Beast is released on May 31 in the UK through Vertigo Releasing and currently is on selected release in the US through Sideshow and Janus Films

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