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by Patric Chiha

grade: 8

The Beast in the Jungle is an extremely refined work, where almost blurred images of bygone times contrast well with the now soft, now psychedelic lighting and the extravagant costumes of the protagonists. Images and music meet and almost never separate. At the Berlinale 2023.

Burning secret

Fear. Selfishness. The disturbing feeling that something terrible awaits us. Waiting rather than acting. The famous writer Henry James managed to examine all this to perfection in his short story The Beast in the Jungle, written in 1903. A timeless story, this one. A story that could take place in the last century, as well as just a few decades ago or even in the present day. With this in mind, Austrian director Patric Chiha thought of adapting James’ famous story by setting it between the late 1970s and the early 2000s. Thus was born the feature film The Beast in the Jungle, which had its world premiere at the Berlinale 2023 – in the Panorama section – and is also the opening film of the Diagonale 2023.

The Beast in the Jungle, therefore, is the result of a co-production between France, Belgium and Austria and finds its ideal location in a small nightclub. Here, then, the two protagonists, May (played by Anaïs Demoustier) and John (Tom Mercier), meet again by chance ten years after their first encounter. Initially, May seems to want to start a relationship with him. John, however, tells her that he has an important secret, as well as the feeling that he is destined for something surprising. In order to “stand by and watch” and wait together for the big breakthrough that life seems to have in store for them, the two will meet every Saturday in the same nightclub for about twenty-five years. What really awaits them?

The Beast in the Jungle is the story of two initially antithetical lives. May is resourceful, outgoing, loves to dance and “could never live alone”. John is practically the opposite of May: introverted, shy, lonely and extremely mysterious. When May is with John she feels like she has never felt before and almost cannot live without him anymore. Even when they both spend the evening without speaking or when the constant music makes it difficult to understand the words. John, at the same time, is “stealing” her life, driving her away from her friends and her boyfriend (later husband) Pierre and making those club nights almost her sole reason for living. Witnessing their encounters, as omniscient narrator, is the club’s cloakroom attendant (played by Béatrice Dalle).

It is interesting to observe, in this regard, May’s progressive change. As the years go by, she becomes more and more like John, loses vitality, almost “dies out”. And in The Beast in the Jungle, Patric Chiha has rendered this progressive change very well thanks to a skilful combination of music, light and looks. The years pass, shadows seem to get the better of lights, young people now seem to prefer techno music, history moves on, Mitterrand is elected, AIDS kills many young people, the Berlin Wall falls, and the 9/11 attack changes everything forever. May and John’s story, at the same time, seems to travel on a parallel track, in a timeless dimension, in a kind of non-place.

And so, the aforementioned nightclub – “La Bête dans la Jungle”, this is its name – is treated as a further protagonist, a silent spectator of a love story that never seems to find its own fulfilment. The Beast in the Jungle thus turned out to be an extremely refined work, where almost blurred images of bygone times (shot in super8 and following a precise elliptical structure) contrast well with the now soft, now psychedelic lights and the extravagant costumes of the protagonists. Images and music meet, they hardly separate and, together, they give life to a courageous feature film, which stands out above all for its marked personality. Chiha has successfully rendered alive and vibrant on screen a timeless story that skilfully investigates the human soul and the complexity of interpersonal relationships. All rhetoric is avoided, the desire to experiment is great, the dialogues are few and essential. May and John are certainly two protagonists we will not forget.

Original title: La Bête dans la Jungle
Directed by: Patric Chiha
Country/year: France, Belgium, Austria / 2023
Running time: 103’
Genre: drama, musical, romance
Cast: Anaïs Demoustier, Tom Mercier, Béatrice Dalle, Martin Vischer, Sophie Demeyer, Pedro Cabanas, Mara Taquin, Bachir Tlili
Screenplay: Patric Chiha, Axelle Ropert, Jihane Chouaib
Cinematography: Céline Bozon
Produced by: Aurora Films, Frakas Productions, WILDart Film

Info: the page of The Beast in the Jungle on the website of the Berlinale; the page of The Beast in the Jungle on iMDb; the page of The Beast in the Jungle on the website of the Austrian Film Commission