221. THE BEAST (1975)

La Bête

“There was nothing in his previous output—a respectable career that stretched back to the late 1940s—to prepare the viewer for this terrible outrage. Or perhaps, if you looked hard enough, there was. For the exotic and the erotic—and the downright weird—had always been part of Borowczyk’s cinematic universe.”–Cathal Tohill & Pete Tombs, “Immoral Tales: European Sex & Horror Movies, 1956-1984

DIRECTED BY: Walerian Borowczyk

FEATURING: Guy Tréjan, Lisbeth Hummel, Pierre Benedetti, Sirpa Lane

PLOT: Lucy, an impressionable young heiress, comes to France for an arranged marriage with Mathurin de l’Esperance, the socially awkward scion of an aristocratic family. The de l’Esperance family harbors many secrets, including the story of an ancestor from centuries ago who went missing and whose corset was discovered covered in claw marks. The first night she stays in the de l’Esperance chateau, Lucy has a erotic dream about a Victorian lady ravished in the forest by a beast.

Still from The Beast [La bete] (1975)

BACKGROUND:

  • Walerian Borowczyk began his career making highly regarded surreal animated short films. He moved on to live action art house features like Goto, Island of Love (1969) and Blanche (1972), which  were respectable and well-received.
  • After 1972 Borowczyk’s career took a turn towards the explicitly erotic/pornographic when he began work on Immoral Tales, a portmanteau of erotic shorts based on literary sources or historical personages (Erzsebet Bathory and Lucrezia Borgia).
  • The Beast was originally intended as a segment of Immoral Tales, but Borowczyk decided to expand it to feature length. The “original” Beast is the segment that now appears as Lucy’s dream. Screened as an 18-minute short entitled “La Véritable Histoire de la bête du Gévaudan,” it understandably caused quite a scandal at the 1973 London Film Festival.
  • The Beast in Space (1980) was a totally unauthorized Italian “sequel” that also starred sex siren Sirpa Lane.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The Beast‘s indelible image is too obscene to be mentioned in polite company. Being as circumspect and polite as possible, we’ll simply say that it has to do with the titular creature’s, ahem, “equipment.” Scrub your eyes though you may, you can’t unsee these things, so beware. If you can make it through the equine porn scene that opens the film, you should be fine. (Not surprisingly, most of The Beast‘s promotional material has focused on Sirpa Lane’s stunned face, framed by a powdered wig, as she gazes in shock at the same images that will be indelibly stained in your memory).

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Horse porn cold open; eternally spurting beast; clerical bestiality lecture

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Some movies are designed to be weird. Some movies become weird because of certain confluences of incompetencies. And then there are movies like The Beast—a nugget of explicit (if simulated) bestiality porn wrapped in a nuptial drawing room drama, made by a director on the cusp of art house stardom who seems intent on throwing it all away as dramatically as possible—that are weird simply because, if not for the evidence of your own eyes, you could not believe that they exist.


Re-release trailer for The Beast

COMMENTS: No one can accuse Walerian Borowcyzk of sandbagging. After a quote from Voltaire (“worried dreams are but a passing folly”) accompanied by the sounds of clomping hooves and anxious whinnying, we are treated to a shot of a massive, erect stallion phallus, soon followed by a closeup of a twitching mare vagina. Then, in a four minute stretch with only horseshoes on cobblestones and the snorting of flared steed nostrils for a soundtrack, we absorb the particulars of equine lovemaking (foreplay and all) in more graphic detail than most of us outside the racehorse breeding industry would ever care to know.

Watching animals do it is uncomfortable, and uncanny. Their equipment, and their mechanics, are so close to our own; yet we are instinctively repulsed, while at the same time forced to concede that the entire procedure is wholly natural. Nature, we conclude, is pretty damn disgusting. The horse-humping scene prepares us for an upcoming exploration of eroticism that is, to say the least, a little bit askew. The Beast‘s central plot involves marriage, which is an invention designed to cheat nature and divert the sexual impulse into a safe and controlled channel. Marriage is also, according to Pierre de l’Esperance, an estate planning tool; he wants to wed his oddball son Mathurin to the wealthiest match he can find to help preserve the aristocratic family’s dwindling fortune. Civilization puts arbitrary barriers, enforced by the Church in its role as monopoly provider of matrimony, in his way. Mathurin must be baptized, a task his father has neglected since the boy’s birth, and a will specifies that the marriage must be performed by a particular prelate with whom the family has had a falling out. Meanwhile, for reasons he doesn’t explain, his uncle is convinced that marriage will be the death of Mathurin.

Mating is much easier for the horses in the stable. Inside the chateau, society seems to be set up to prevent people from getting laid. Mathurin’s sister, Clarisse, tries to sate her lust with the black servant, Ifany—a taboo relationship on grounds of both class and race, though not species. He is continually called away in medias coitus, leaving her to satisfy herself on the bed rail. Lucy Broadhurst, the bride to be, finds her virginal imagination constantly titillated by the sight of copulating horses, and by the bestiality sketches she finds stashed in various places around the home; but she’s stuck masturbating with a rose, and only finds consummation in her dreams. The only person in the chateau who may actually be getting any regularly is the local priest, who has brought two altar boys along with him for companionship on his trip.

There is a droll, farcical element to these proceedings. Lucy, with her wide-eyed eagerness to take in anything sexual, to the humiliation of her prim aunt, makes for an odd sort of comic heroine. But the subdued humor rises to another level when the Beast himself pops up in a dream, with his absurdly enormous oozing phallus (that seems carefully modeled on the horsehood of the steed we saw earlier). He is obviously a man in a suit, but what is he meant to be—bear? Gorilla? Bigfoot? He chases the Victorian lady who discovers him dining on an innocent lamb, and as she flees her petticoats and underthings drop away, layer by layer. When he catches her, he will… well, delicacy and the desire to preserve some kind of mystery prevents us from describing the activities in detail, but let’s just hint that they are very kinky, and very wet. Jean Marias’ Beast was a noble gentleman in a fur suit, but this anonymous Beast is a beclawed burlesque rapist. To add a layer of irony, the entire dream/violation is scored to a dainty repeating harpsichord fugue by Scarlatti. It is uncertain whether Borowcyzk intended the Beast’s scenes to be erotic—I’d hate to meet the guy or gal who is turned on by them—or horrific. I suspect, however, that since shock slowly transitioning into disbelieving amusement is the emotion the sequence naturally elicits, that is the reaction he was going for. Sex is bestial and ridiculous, the author seems to be saying, and even if we try to deny the animal messiness of the procreative act, the truth will come out in our dreams and fantasies.

The Beast isn’t a Surrealist movie, but it is informed by the tenets of the movement, including dogmatic anticlericalism and reverence for the irrational. Borowczyk takes his cheap shots at the Catholic Church here, in the character of the lustful priest who dabs his forehead with holy water when he gets hot. But the Church is emblematic of a wider corrupt society, which opposes nature and natural urges, and can’t even understand them. The priest scarcely tries to hide his perverse relationship with the two boys he keeps by his side; his hypocrisy is officially sanctioned and protected. The scheming patriarch praises human reason, which he says allows us to overcome our animal instincts, yet he uses his own intelligence only to advance his financial condition, not caring whom he tramples in the process. The movie’s overall vision is an inversion of the old Catholic order which says nature is corrupt and reason helps us to overcome it. We are naturally beasts, the movie says, and we’re in a state of neurotic denial about that fact; culture at large is a con game meant to foster the delusion that we are different than the horses copulating in the courtyard.

A fine message, perhaps, but it’s delivered with such hysterical outrageousness that it’s bound to be drowned out. Overall, Borowcyzk’s project is more than a little bit mad. Still, I’m glad someone made this movie—once. Even given advances in CGI—think of what they could do with Andy Serkis portraying the Beast in a motion capture suit, with a digitally enhanced dingus—this is not a film that’s crying out for a remake.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

a sleazy blend of fairy tale, Freudian foolishness and Eighth Avenue peep show.”–Guy Flatley, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

“…for all its many faults… the film does exert a bizarre fascination and contain moments of genuine eroticism. A distinctly surreal, unsettling viewing experience and certainly unlike anything else to currently be found in cinemas.”–David Wood, BBC (2001 British revival)

“This is the most purely absurd film you will ever see in your life, and yet there is something magnificent in its absurdity: it is weirdly serious, and yet has an enigmatic playfulness.”–Peter Bradford, The Guardian (2001 British revival)

IMDB LINK: The Beast (1975)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

La Bete: The Beast | British Board of Film Classification – Case study of The Beast‘s distributor’s attempts to cut the film to pass British censors

The Cinema Snob – Snarky video review of (the badly dubbed version) of The Beast from Brad Jones, the Cinema Snob (NSFW)

DVD INFO: For obvious reasons, The Beast has had trouble finding a firm place on home video. It’s far too gross for most art house movie fans, and too slow, arty, and gross for those looking for late night titillation. VHS copies were often heavily cut to meet the objections of censors, and poorly dubbed for English-speaking audiences. Cult Epics put out a short run 3-DVD set that quickly went out of print. But Arrow Video came to the rescue, with a DVD/Blu-ray combo pack (buy) that treats The Beast with the reverence due a Criterion Collection title. Besides a new transfer and improved subtitles, the discs include an introduction by film critic Peter Bradshaw, a couple of “making of” featurettes, and a booklet. It also includes the standalone short film version of the dream sequence (“La Véritable Histoire de la bête du Gévaudan”), Borowczyk’s 1975 short “Venus on the Half-Shell” (a portrait of Surrealist painter Bona Tibertelli de Pisis), a trailer, and some of the director’s commercials.

3 thoughts on “221. THE BEAST (1975)”

  1. I found this movie very entertaining in a gritty Euro-trash kinda way. I enjoyed the depiction of holy life by the men of the cloth. I’m sure it sent those God fearing Catholics making a beeline to the confessionals after seeing this baby. The monster is a hoot and I actually got my wife to sit through it.

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