Berlin 2023

The Beast in the Jungle review – euphoric and melancholic reimagining of Henry James

The writer's 1903 novella is transposed to a Paris nightclub in Patric Chiha’s lushly-drawn but somewhat emotionally bereft new film

The ache of inevitability, missed opportunities and the feeling of a life wasted are themes that are, unfortunately, universal and timeless – made evident in this third adaption of Henry James’ 1903 novella The Beast in the Jungle. Patric Chiha’s reimagining takes place not in a London house, but in a Parisian nightclub without a name, where patrons sway under the swirling lights, the world moves glacially around them, and John (Tom Mercier) and May (Anaïs Demoustier) wait for a moment that is going to change their lives.

They meet for the second time on the club’s opening night, granted access by La Physionomiste (Béatrice Dalle, vampiric in black hooded robes): May, a “starlet,” glamorous in heels; John, having gained access wearing a jumper he traded for moments earlier. They could not be more opposed, and yet the thread of a secret holds them together, creating a bond between May’s vivaciousness and John’s reservation that makes little sense to those observing from the outside. John, long convinced that he is destined for something incredible, draws May into his orbit and together they begin a decades-long wait as the world passes them by.

Time may pass throughout The Beast in the Jungle, but there are a few moments where Chiha allows us to locate ourselves in history. Mitterrand's election, the AIDs crisis, the fall of the Berlin Wall… all events that happen just out of sight, glimpsed in the hazy screen of an old TV. Yet they don't seem to matter – the interior worlds of John and May and the club itself are the only things of any importance.

While the film is so clearly centered around this couple, their actual relationship isn't one of all consuming attraction or desire. As May, Demoustier holds the most intrigue as a young woman at the start of her own journey – a starlet of the club scene, she dances without inhibition, smiling generously at strangers as she draws them into her orbit. Mercier takes almost the opposite approach: his John is a boy with a secret, whose passivity is etched into the hunch of his shoulders and his almost vacant expression. Over time, this attitude seeps into May's own outlook on the world, and by the third act she, too, is regarding former friends from this same guarded distance, her face a placid mask of studied indifference.

Eve Martin's production design and Claire Dubien's costumes chart the trajectory of the club, and the people that inhabit it. In 1979, the motley crew of dancers are resplendent in shining, decorated jackets, heels, moustaches drawn on with makeup. By the 2000s, the splendour has been replaced by the practical – space buns and no shirts and the pounding beat of techno. It happens slowly, this build up of incremental changes, the heady lighting changing from vibrant, luscious red, into stark white, and suddenly John and May are slumped on a worn sofa looking out from the balcony on a room, a scene, a community they no longer recognise.

For as much as The Beast in the Jungle is about unrealised dreams, it also feels like a considered warning about the potency of young love – the all encompassing feeling of being noticed and wholly understood by someone else for the first time – and the cold realisation months, or even years later, of being stuck in a moment that no longer exists.

The Beast in the Jungle was screened as part of the Berlin Film Festival 2023. A UK release date is yet to be announced.

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