The fear of being too human and the trap of technological redemption

“The beast”

How do we want to live? And who do we want to become? The French filmmaker, Bertrand Bonello, invites you to watch and listen carefully to what happens in the film The Beast with the chimera of technically redeeming the human being from his vulnerable nature. Bonello’s moral parable immerses us in a close world in which fears of suffering, death, uncertainty, and loneliness disappear with a DNA intervention that suppresses emotions. The result, far from a happy world, leads us to a zombie life of cold and disconnected individuals in which there is no fear, but no opportunity for love either.

In The Beast, the French director, Bertrand Bonello, maintains his fidelity to a style of reflective cinema, with a deep political sense and is connected to current social issues that raise more questions than answers. Often, the French filmmaker builds his cinematographic proposals with references to other artistic expressions that are key to not getting lost in the labyrinths that he invites us to travel. For this reason, some previous considerations, such as those that follow, aspire to be a humble contribution to facilitate the understanding and bioethical analysis of the film, before delving into the plot and the characters’ searches.

Bonello references this film in the novel by the American writer, Henry James, The Beast in the Jungle (1903). Although there is more than a century between both fictions, the shared inquiry is extremely challenging: will the nearby world be guided by love or by selfish instinct? James sensed a catastrophe that was confirmed because, at the end of the 20th century, the horrors and barbarism that occurred made it impossible to trust in the moral law that Kant had spoken of, as one of the two things that filled his mind with admiration and veneration along with with the starry sky.[1]

In the film, Bonello’s scrutiny focuses on the signs that in the 21st century allow us to corroborate a growing dehumanization that contrasts with the hope of a rehumanization based on fraternity and new political, economic and social relations that are more just, supportive and respectful of life. The French director takes the current techno-scientific model as a paradigm of selfish values, nourished by a consumerist neoliberalism that is oriented towards the unlimited satisfaction of desires and that has turned human beings into a useful object of technological intervention.

This is inseparable from philosophies and ideologies that, like Nietzsche’s, have identified human vulnerability and the capacity to suffer and feel for others as a slave morality, a scourge or a disease to be eradicated. Bertrand Bonello incorporates in the construction of his film proposal the false transhumanist promises of happy worlds in perpetuity, after the technical redemption of a needy human being that the time has come to leave behind; the thriving artificial intelligence; fierce individualism; the weakening of human ties; the climate crisis and the fear of fear. The latter runs through the film from beginning to end and has to do with the ease that human beings have to be scared by the abstract, as a psychological spring to divert attention from that concrete thing that is at stake and urgently needs to be addressed.

The fear of the wound of love                                      

The Beast is set in three different periods: 1910, 2014 and 2044. In all these stages, Gabrielle (Léa Seydoux) and Louis (George MacKay) lead different lives that end up coming together, but in none of them can they commit themselves out of fear of both to love and be hurt. In the year 2044, under the reign of Artificial Intelligence, emotions have become a threat and are even an obstacle to occupying the most stable and best-paid jobs.

Gabrielle decides to undergo, with many doubts and fears, a DNA “purification” treatment. On the one hand, to leave a monotonous job and, on the other, to not feel the anguish caused by the premonition of fear of a catastrophe that she cannot specify and that never ends up happening. The intervention forces us to review the unconscious traces lodged in the brain about experiences in past lives. It is a novel artificial intelligence technique, programmed to modify memories and remove any emotional response that may affect a present in which feeling is scary and is experienced as an expression of weakness. The treatment involves reliving the stages in which the fear of loving is repeated and desolation invades everything.

“Artificial Intelligence is unfair. He considers us useless. Do I have to choose between work and my emotions? (…) I am afraid of not feeling anything again, of not having strong feelings,” says Gabrielle. The AI’s (voice of Xavier Dolan) reasons for Stoic Ataraxia do not completely reassure her.

The success of modifying memories and, therefore, identity with DNA manipulation is guaranteed beyond 99%. However, Gabrielle will end up in the statistic of a low percentage of failures that vanishes the promises of perpetual happiness and calm, whatever the vital contingency. “There is something that still refuses to disappear after the sessions,” says the voice of artificial intelligence. In fact, the program verifies that, in the different interventions, the protagonist cannot contain her tears when images are projected about some moments with Louis to which she should react without being moved. At this point, the director, Bertrand Bonello, illuminates the intensity and transcendence that the experience of love and communion with others has on human beings. As the phrase of the philosopher, Gabriel Marcel, says, “to love someone is to tell them: you will never die.”[2]

Gabrielle is trapped in a world without a trace of emotionality and dominated by virtual relationships. Indeed, the characters who populate the nearest stage and who have undergone the technological ritual to eradicate their emotions do not have any of the modern fears of suffering, death, uncertainty and loneliness. But, the result is far from the promises of perpetual calm and happiness. What Bonello shows is a zombie world of cold and disoriented individuals, deeply disengaged, in which there is no fear, but also no opportunity for love. Some of the scenes from futuristic fiction corresponding to the period of 2044 are shocking. The family is missing, there are no children on the streets and the climate crisis is palpable due to constant floods and earthquakes that, by dint of repetition, have become naturalized. There is no trace of concern for the other or even contact. The voice of virtual assistants or the presence of holograms and human-like robots is preferred to contact with human beings. These, mostly redeemed by the technique of all emotional manifestation, lead a completely predictable life and are subject to new forms of slavery. The loss of freedom is one of the themes that the French filmmaker explores in his films.

In The Beast, Bonello emphasizes the importance of emotions to facilitate judgments of similar possibilities regarding the harm, suffering or joy of others that allow us to guide life in an ethical and genuinely free way. However, once the vulnerability of our nature has been removed, only a cold reason resists that does not promote concern for others, but rather a self-centered self. Empathy and compassion are canceled and ethical deliberation about actions is unviable under the despotic dictate of the selfish instinct, defender of a distant and different model of what could be considered memorable works of free will.

Gabrielle, in all three stages of the film, verbalizes her feeling that “something is going to happen.” It is an abstract fear that can only be identified with the vulnerability of human nature and the fear of injury. Towards the end of the film, the protagonist will realize that what she fears, feeling for the other, is not going to cause any catastrophe. On the contrary, the calamity, the real beast that can mortally wound us as a civilization, is the growing dehumanization and cruelty that destroy ways of real, everyday and simple happiness. Gabrielle’s challenge is to embrace her vulnerable nature, even in the harsh conditions in which she lives. She hits the soul and, at the same time, freezes the blood of the viewer, the last meeting between Gabrielle and Louis in which the protagonist decides to show her true feelings.

The metaphor of porcelain dolls

On the other hand, in the first stage of the film, set in 1910, the director creates a metaphor full of meaning that he will endure until the end. Gabrielle, then, is a renowned pianist, immersed in an unhappy relationship with a porcelain doll manufacturer. When she meets Louis, they both have a conversation about the impassive and identical faces of the dolls and decide to meet at the family factory where a dramatic event occurs that will mark the plot.

Gabrielle says: “A neutral doll, without emotions, everyone likes. Do you want me to make that face for you?” Louis agrees to what, at first, seems like a game. But, she suddenly changes her countenance and erases from her physiognomy any expression of emotional vitality. The scene, which lasts just a few minutes, upsets viewers due to the uncomfortable and disturbing coldness of an empty human face.

From a personalist philosophy and bioethicist, having a face implies “being for someone” and “being before someone.” Hence, the faces of others are, as Lévinas emphasizes, an imperative that promotes openness and acceptance, in the face of temptations of dehumanization and indifference. Precisely, one of the dangers of postmodernity is to empty the human face, in favor of an appearance and a pretense that distort the being and essence of the person’s face.[3] An ethic of the face collides head-on with an indeterminate and changing self depending on the contexts that is hidden behind a range of incoherent and disparate personalities.

The chronological jump of the film to the most futuristic stage will once again draw attention to the human face due to the characters’ obsession with aesthetic interventions to offer an image of permanent youth. They are scenes that familiarize the viewer with the current obsession with transmitting impossible standards of beauty, similar to the filters on social networks that distort reality and threaten to create a society of equal faces.

Too human or more human?

In a promotional interview for The Beast, Bertrand Bonello assures that the fear of showing ourselves “too human” distances us from others and leads to existential emptiness. Human, Too Human is the title of a work by Nietzsche that abhors vulnerability, compassion for others and any trace of transcendence or spirituality in human nature.

Professor Josep María Esquirol, in tune with Bonello, challenges us to be “more human” and rescue the love for our neighbor, which is the most valuable thing found inside human beings and encourages a careful look at what they deserve. be respected. Especially because the technological potential capable of destroying humanity itself requires global growth and a commitment to perennial and profound values. As the film shows, “adherence to the machine as the only horizon only leads to turning the person into an automaton.”[4]

Esquirol appeals to hope that has a meaning-creating function, precisely when life seems to fade away, losing all meaning.[5] Bertrand Bonello also supports this option, even when he is aware that, imbued with rhetoric of progress, it is difficult for us to see that, in addition to biology, we are fragility and secrecy [6].

Amparo Aygües – Master’s Degree in Bioethics from the Catholic University of Valencia – Member of the Bioethics Observatory

[1] Kant, E. (2008). Critique of Practical Reason. Buenos Aires: Losada.

[2] Marcel, G. (1931). Le mort de demain. In G. Marcel, Trois Pièces: Le regard neuf; The death of demain;

La Chapelle ardente (pp. 105-185). Paris: Librairie Plon, p. 161.

[3] Altuna B. (2010). A moral history of the face. Pretexts.

[4] Sgreccia, E. Bioethics Manual I. BAC, p, 933.

[5] Esquirol, J.M. (2021). Human, more human. Cliff, p. 165.

[6] Esquirol, J. M. (2006). Respect or an attentive look. Gedisa, p. 10.

Amparo Aygües – Master’s Degree in Bioethics from the Catholic University of Valencia – Member of the Bioethics Observatory