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Borowczyk's notorious film begins with an apt 'exclamation mark' - the erect penis of
Mathurin's stallion, the shape of which fills the screen as it goes to stud. The
Beast (aka: La Bête), described by one critic as the "most erotic
film ever made" is full of such fleshy exclamation points: those of horses, that
of the virile yet frustrated servant Pierre or, most memorably, of the eponymous beast.
Although an emasculated version appeared a few years back, on video, under the title
of Death's Ecstasy, this is a film whose explicit depiction of bestiality kept
it off British screens for a quarter of a century. Those who are used to Borowczyk's
hothouse mise-en-scene will know what to expect, as the director characteristically
combines matter of fact staging with lustful fantasy in a way that, it seems, only an
east European sensibility can carry off.
The Beast appeared approximately halfway in a career spanning art house successes such as Blanche (1971) to the creative nadir of Emmanuelle 5 (1987). Most of his films represent sensuality, especially the young, feminine kind - being discovered then explored in erotic, private rituals. Borowczyk's heroines, when apart from their lovers, typically pleasure themselves quietly in chambers, as in the 'cucumber' scene in Contes Immoraux (aka: Immoral Tales, 1974). (A film in which the content of the flashback in The Beast was originally to have appeared.) The urgency at which young females seek satisfaction can be either shocking or refreshing, according to one's viewpoint. But although they seek erotic fulfilment, and couplings are common, any accompanying fantasies are largely unexpressed. The Beast is unusual in the director's oeuvre in that it makes explicit this process of gratification, and then places the sexual dream before our eyes, noticeably in the jaw-dropping extended flashback sequence.
This of course is done after literary precedent (albeit from a tradition perhaps suppressed or hidden, as it is in the film itself). On one level of course, Borowczyk has made a variation on Beauty And The Beast. But his film has its roots firmly in the adult realm of the pre-Victorian fairy tale, as well as claiming an ancestry from the verse fables, which have enlivened French culture, most famously by La Fontaine.
To be honest, much of the plot of The Beast is forgettable, a dramatic concoction that serves as a set-up for the director's impending erotic tour-de-force. The modern story is a comedy of sexual manners, one that effectively contrasts the elegance of life in the chateau with the moral squalor and hypocrisy of its inhabitants. Pierre's repeated, frustrated dalliances merely anticipate the grand inter-species coupling to come, an echo of the brute the Countess encounters. The Marquis' plans, his shabby chateau and brutish son, the forced wedding - these provide so much window dressing, as stereotypical as the tales that inspired them, although Mathurin (played by a suitably glum Pierre Benedetti) comes across as sensitive as well as animal. His final demise is less tragic than nicely poetic. The director's real interests stand out without apology, like the phallic column-stump, which is so palely prominent in the chateau grounds. The images that remain with the viewer after the film is finished are exactly those intended: the irrational and sexual, the imaginative and the free.
Although nominally set in the 20th century, the action of the film could with little difficulty be transposed to earlier times - the middle ages for instance, where the director has found effective inspiration before. For apart from the telephone and car, very little intrudes from the modern era. The old chateau, full of sharp sounds and hushed servants, has an almost institutional air. The presence of the clergy in the house recalls a religious-like environment, one where correctness and arousal go hand in hand - a scenario familiar from such other Borowczyk films as Interno di un convento (aka: Behind Convent Walls, 1977). The heated harpsichord music of Scarlatti, with its strong rhythmic pattern and runs of impassioned semi-quavers, adds to the impression of sexuality scuttling free beneath the surface. Outside, the overgrown, rambling grounds have a timeless quality about them; indeed one can almost imagine Little Red Riding Hood skipping through the trees on an errand.
Apart from the baldness of its sexual images, the reason why The Beast provoked such uproar when first released is because it is an honest, adult work. It deals with human sexuality, real or imagined, with complete open handedness, admitting the pretend life of adults without hesitation. The fantastic elements of Lucy's masturbatory daydreams, seen at length and so vividly after she reads the diary, and so clearly differentiated from 'reality' should alert the viewer to that. Mathurin is more than just the other half of the Beauty And The Beast equation. He is symbol-made-concrete of the sexual fantasies she enjoys. Seen like this, the 200-year cycle of the Beast's reappearance marks 'the return of the repressed', and Lucy's flashback the liberation of desire. In other words, her enjoyment of fantasy, and the director's picturing of the same, implies how much we should become the honest brokers of our own imaginations. The original view of the BBFC not withstanding, the result is that, in lieu of recognising our true natures, any notion of pornography fades away.
Unfortunately, as Borowczyk retreated into more commercial projects, this straightforwardness disappeared in later work to be replaced by exploitation. As a result, The Beast remains as his most memorable piece of filmmaking, and after 25 years after it was made it still creates a memorable impression.
DVD extras: the director's short film, La Maree (aka: The Tide), filmography, a stills gallery, main feature in French with English subtitles.