The Beast in the Jungle (2023) Berlinale 2023

February 17th, 2023
Author: Meredith Taylor

Dir.: Patric Chiha; Cast: Anais Demoustier, Tom Mercier, Beatrice Dalle, Martin Vischer, Sophie Demeyer; France/Austria/Belgium 2023, 103 min.

A doomed love story is given a twentieth century spin into the future in this dizzying drama, set against the chronicles of club music – from disco to techno – between 1979 and 2004.

The Beast in the Jungle was published exactly 120 years ago and is generally considered Henry James’ finest novella. Transporting the action from an English country mansion to a nightclub in Belgium, Patric Chiha’s fifth feature imagines a couple who meet on the dance floor at a beach rave in 1971.

John (Tom Mercier from Golden Bear 2019 Winner Synonymes) confesses to May (Demoustier) that he is destined to do something extraordinary with his life. When they meet again in a Paris club five years later, May reminds him of his bold claim, and John invites her to join him for the big event. May is already involved with Alice (Demeyer), a graphic designer, but is increasingly drawn to Pierre (Vischer) who loves her unconditionally.

In the background, but somehow taking centre stage, is the “physionomiste” (Dalle) who controls admissions to the club. There is a running commentary on topical news items such as the election of Francois Mitterand, first socialist president of the V. Republic in 1981 – but May and John are oblivious as they wander around absorbed in each other. A man in a car shouts “this is a night for fucking, not walking” – hitting on a raw nerve in the couple’s relationship: they have not yet – nor ever will  – make love, and they only touch each other just before the end when they attempt to dance for the first time.

The “Berlin Wall” falls in 1989 and by now May is married to Pierre, but she still meets John regularly, both waiting for the event that will change everything, to happen. The Aids epidemic impacts on the club’s attendance records but, unlike Alice, May and John seem unaffected by the tragedy – apart from the time when the club has to close. 

Finally all is revealed and, this being a Henry James novella, we know the ending will be a cruel one for those disaffected by love. Demoustier and Mercer are an ideal couple both being in love with the notion of their uniqueness. Mercier’s John is indifference personified, he hardly talks but gazes sullenly into the far away distance where he believes his promised land will materialise. Demoustier gives May enough enigmatic power to convince us that she believes in John’s prophecy. She rebuffs Pierre and Alice, who really care for her, and follows John on his path of vanity and self-glorification.

DoP Celine Bozon takes us on full throttle joyride through 25 years of music and dance, leaving the audience breathless. Beatrice Dalle is a perfect club impresario . dominating proceedings with her glowering presence, Chiha always ensuring that the focus is on the leading couple and not on the excitement of the all-consuming rave. Melancholic, like Mia Hansen-Love’s take on the same period of counter-culture music in Eden, The Beast in the Jungle is full of bizarre events, held together by James’ spirit of sadistic emotional obsession. AS




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