SXSW '12 Review: 'Beast' A Lean & Surreal Portrait Of An Extreme Relationship That Doesn't Quite Go Far Enough

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by Alison Willmore
March 12, 2012 6:29 PM
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"Beast" is a lean, surreal portrait of a marriage in its extremes from Danish director Christoffer Boe, who's probably still best known for his 2003 feature debut "Reconstruction." The film's focus keeps almost exclusively to Bruno (Nicolas Bro) and Maxine (Marijana Jankovic), a couple whose relationship vacillates between love and hate and a meeting place between the two that approaches the feral. When we first see them, the pair are looking at a beautiful apartment they're considering buying. "Let's take this home and be a family," Bruno proposes. The hope and sweetness of the moment then goes slightly dissonant with unease when Maxine cuts her finger and Bruno sucks at the cut and talks, with all romanticism, about having a part of her inside him.

The next time we see the pair, an unclear amount of time has passed and their marriage is on the rocks. They walk in the snow -- always the snow, "Beast" makes Copenhagen look like a city inside a snow globe -- while Bruno tells his wife, "You never give anything. You can't. You're a beast. I love you because you're a beast." But who the real monster is remains to be determined. The idea of romance in "Beast" is impossible to untangle from obsession, and love and destruction exist uncomfortably close to one another. Maxine is slowly trying to extricate herself from her marriage and has started an affair with Valdemar (Nikolaj Lie Kaas), who's also got a spouse -- the two make plans to tell their significant others soon so that they can be together openly.

But Bruno's not going to be able to simply let Maxine go. His transformation into the creature of the title isn't quite literal, though it isn't all a metaphor either -- late in the film there's the disturbing image of a horrified Maxine washing black liquid from between her legs after questionably consenting sex with her husband. The film is peppered with shots of drops of blood dreamily expanding in a solution, as if Maxine is working on him from within, so that he collapses from the pain. Love, for Bruno, is a kind of illness, something that threatens to kill him, something from which he won't be able to recover. His love is a smothering, draining thing, a quality that's appealing until it becomes intolerable, and it's emphasized by the physical difference between the two actors. Jankovic is delicate and pale and often wears a coat with an oversized hood that makes her look like a fairytale heroine, while Bruno is strapping and physical, his animalistic qualities emerging in how he talks and eats as his mental instability grows. A sex scene early on showcases the ferocious undertone of Bruno and Maxine's relationship, when he cuts the side of her breast with a knife and burrows into the wound to her evident enjoyment. Afterwards, he roars at himself in the mirror.

Something is happening to Bruno, something beyond just a breakdown, though "Beast" leaves that opaque in a way that doesn't seem so much mystery as indecision. "I want to get inside Maxine," he tells Valdemar after maneuvering him into having a beer after work. "I must get inside her so that she can feel the same as me." Her lover takes this in with obvious discomfort, as he should -- Bruno's about to start consuming raw meat and maiming himself. Sophia Olsson's intimate cinematography enhances the feverish nature of this story, but it's finally a fairly narrow portrait of love as a ravenous hunger that never pushes as far into madness as you hope it will. [B-]

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