The Beast (La bête) Review

If you go down to the woods today, you’re sure of a big surprise…

Lucy Broadhurst, an American heiress (Lisbeth Hummel, actually Danish), travels to France, to marry Mathurin (Pierre Benedetti), the son of aristocrat Pierre de l’Esperance (Guy Tréjan). However there is a curse on the family, due to a story of their ancestor Romilda (Sirpa Lane) coupling with a beast, as Lucy soon finds out…

The Beast (La bête) began life as a short film, The True Story of the Beast of Gévaudan (though onscreen it’s just La bête), originally intended to be one of the segments of Immoral Tales. Twenty-two minutes long, it was shown at the 1973 London Film Festival as a work in progress, along with A Private Collection and “The Tide”, and the results scandalised the audience. This short version of The Beast was still included as the third segment of Immoral Tales when that feature won the Prix de l’Age d’Or, though for commercial release Borowczyk removed the short and Immoral Tales became the four-part film it is today. Meanwhile, Borowczyk used the short film as the basis for a full-length feature, as an erotic dream of Lucy’s, which the film’s plot more or less gives way to, just under an hour in.

I first saw The Beast at the National Film Theatre in London in the early 1990s, as part of a retrospective dedicated to its producer, Anatole Dauman. I’d seen Immoral Tales the previous week, and those two films, plus In the Realm of the Senses, had an “explicit content” warning in the programme brochure. The ideal way to see The Beast is with an audience who were I suspect, like me, not entirely aware of what they were letting themselves in for. The relatively discreet Immoral Tales had not prepared me, although I had been aware that The Beast had been a censorship cause célèbre which, like Immoral Tales had gone on release with a Greater London Council X certificate after being rejected by the BBFC and had not at that point been passed by the latter organisation. Seeing The Beast for the first time in these conditions, you could leave the cinema punch-drunk, not quite believing what you had just seen. And while the film is certainly still of interest, second time round it doesn’t have the same impact. Borowczyk described it as a comedy, and it’s so excessive it is funny, if you’re not too gobsmacked to laugh. And if you’re easily offended, you should stay well clear: the opening scene showing hardcore equine action in close-up may well finish you off in any case.

That impact must have been even more so in 1973, as the sight of a massively-endowed beast ravishing our leading lady and spurting gouts of semen everywhere (made from flour and water by the director himself, in case you wanted to know), followed by her taking the lead and the beast expiring in transports of sexual ecstasy, all to a Scarlatti harpsichord sonata – was certainly not what you expected to see on your cinema screen. While other countries had abolished censorship for adults, starting with Denmark in 1969, here in Britain, thanks to a combination of the law and the activities of Mary Whitehouse, it was certainly still in force. Unsimulated sex had made it to the screen, for arthouse audiences, with W.R. – Mysteries of the Organism in 1971, but the hardcore pornography making its way into mainstream cinemas at the time overseas was wholly denied to the British, at least legally. And The Beast didn’t just touch upon a particular taboo, it trampled it into the ground: namely, that of bestiality. While it was clearly simulated bestiality in a fantasy context, this was not something the BBFC were used to dealing with, much less graphic precedents such as End of the Road and Futz having had limited British releases without having been submitted to the Board. Add to that those mating horses, an erect human penis in one scene and close-up female masturbation with rose petals, and the BBFC threw up their hands and rejected The Beast outright. James Ferman, who by then had become the Secretary of the BBFC, appreciated the film’s intent and artistry but could not find a way of passing the film, even with heavy cuts likely to damage it.

The distributor did however cut the film of its more extreme moments and this version opened in September 1978 at the Prince Charles cinema, then as now just off Leicester Square in London, with a GLC X certificate allowing the film to play to over-eighteens in the capital. The BBFC at the time used London and the GLC as a testing ground for the acceptability of films they found themselves unable to pass for a national certificate. However, in this case they had problems. Even in a cut form, The Beast provoked complaints and threats of prosecution, with one man writing to the heir to the throne to inform him of the depravities taking place in a cinema named after him. The film was not passed by the BBFC in any form until 1988, when it was submitted on video in a version cut by some eight minutes and retitled Death’s Ecstasy. It was not until 2001, with the change of BBFC guidelines (allowing adults to watch what they wish, if the film contains nothing illegal or harmful) that the full version was passed for cinema reissue and then DVD,

In my review of Immoral Tales, I suggest that eroticism, like horror, often works best in short forms. The shorter version of The Beast is a twenty-two-minute assault on our sensibilities. Included as part of a 98-minute feature, plot machinations become a little wearing, with Borowczyk throwing in a subplot of daughter of the house Clarisse (Pascale Rivault) and black manservant Ifany (Hassane Fall) shagging at every opportunity, as if to remind us that this is an erotic film we’re meant to be watching. The film is certainly handsomely made, with exemplary work from new regular DP Bernard Daillencourt. (Marcel Grignon photographed the original short.) The cast, including the distinguished older French actor Marcel Dalio (who did not get on with the director) do their best, but they don’t have a great deal to work with. The Beast is certainly Borowczyk’s most notorious film, but it’s not his best. However, after Immoral Tales and this, Borowczyk gained a reputation as a pornographer, one who had “sold out” to commerce after his earlier films. His later films, with the partial exception of the Polish-made Story of Sin (available on DVD from Nouveaux) are often sexual-themed and were problematic to the BBFC, and by 1985 he was the credited director of Emmanuelle 5, though he didn’t in fact direct most of it. He ended his filmmaking career in 1991 with episodes of the French TV series Série rose and died in 2006 at the age of eighty-two.

The Disc

The Beast is the fifth and last of Arrow Academy’s Borowczyk releases. It is available as both a dual-format edition (encoded for Regions B and 2) and as part of the box set Camera Obscura, though the latter is limited to a thousand copies and is, as of this writing, sold out.

The feature and the short film on this disc, both shot in 35mm, are transferred in the correct ratio of 1.66:1. While The Beast was filmed in two parts, with different cinematographers, the result is seamless: richly coloured, with natural and filmlike grain (quite a lot of it on the re-edited short film), strong blacks and good shadow detail.

The soundtrack is the original mono, presented as with all the other films in this set, in LPCM 1.0. In this case, the dialogue – mostly French with some English – is clearly postsynched, but it’s clear enough. The dream sequence contains no dialogue, and little diegetic sound other than the beast’s roars, which would be subwoofer moments in a modern soundtrack, but the Scarlatti on the soundtrack sounds fine. English subtitles are optionally available for the French dialogue in the feature and the extras.

Guardian film critic Peter Bradshaw provides a brief introduction (1:45): clearly the film had a major impact on him for reasons I suggest above. Also on the disc is the film’s very scratchy and faded trailer (3:54). A caption unsurprisingly informs us that the film is banned to the under-eighteens in France and there then follows nearly four minutes from the dream sequence, with press quotes appearing on screen in French (followed by subtitle translations). Some sensibilities are spared: clearly the sight of Sirpa Lane’s bare buttocks is allowed, but black boxes prevent us from being depraved and corrupted by views of her pubic hair, or of beastly tumescence.

Noël Véry, the film’s camera operator who worked with Borowczyk nine times in all, is our host for “The Making of The Beast” (57:53). He provides an ebullient commentary (mostly in English) for this assemblage of silent 16mm footage shot on set, put together in the order of the scenes of the film. Interstingly we see footage of Jeane Hanson, who was originally cast as Lucy. She disappeared suddenly and was found a week later in hospital, by which time she had been replaced by Lisbeth Hummel and her scenes reshot.

“Frenzy of Ecstasy” (4:20) is a short item detailing Borowczyk’s memo and sketches to Anatole Dauman as to how he would bring the beast to life, and extracts from a treatment for a proposed sequel, Motherhood. This however was never made.

As he had done with A Private Collection before Immoral Tales, Borowczyk made a short film to act as a curtain-raiser for the feature. This is Venus on the Half Shell (Escargot de Vénus, 4:40), mostly colour line drawings with some live action footage, a brief portrait of the artist Bona Tibertelli di Pisis, who provides the voiceover and appears in person, as in her artworks snails copulate with humans and each other.

The booklet for The Beast begins, after a listing of the film credits, with “Lucy’s Love”, the last of Daniel Bird’s introductory essays. This is followed by a one-pager on “Venus on the Half Shell” by Michael Brooke, and extracts from contemporary British reviews, beginning with the apoplectic piece from the New Statesman following the London Film Festival showing of the short film, which is also quoted in the booklet for Immoral Tales, and later ones from the 1978 release of the cut GLC-certified version. These do show that while many thought that Borowczyk’s talent was in decline, the film still had its critical champions.

“That Hairy Monster” is a piece on The Beast and Borowczyk’s other mid-1970s films by David Thompson, for Sight & Sound in 2001, intended as a reappraisal of a filmmaker who was by then retired with his previous reputation in disarray. BBFC Senior Examiner Craig Lapper then gives a detailed account of The Beast’s UK censorship history, which I have drawn on above. Finally, there are the usual restoration notes, disc and book credits and acknowledgements.

But that isn’t all. For reasons of practicality (not least because my five reviews in total exceed 10,000 words) I have reviewed the five individual releases separately. Inevitably I’ve rated each release on its own. However, they all form part of a box set, Camera Obscura: The Walerian Borowczyk collection, and if I had been rating that set as a whole, the score for extras would be a 10, and so would the box set.

The five individual releases – five Blu-rays, six DVDs – are the same. The difference is that the separate booklets are replaced by one large book, over 340 pages long. In fact it’s two books, printed and bound dos-à-dos: Camera Obscura and Anatomy of the Devil.

Camera Obscura comprises the contents of the booklets, rearranged in sections. Some of the booklet items aren’t brought over: Michael Brooke’s short pieces on A Private Collection and Venus on the Half Shell, the Latin words (with English translation) of “Sic mea fata” as sung in Blanche, and the extracts from contemporary, mostly British, reviews for each feature. However, much of the contents of the book are exclusive to it, and the box set, though some of it is available online.

The book begins with a chronological listing of the films included in the set, with credits, plus a list of other films (earlier and later) which are not included but are referred to. Part 1, “Camera Obscura” collects all Daniel Bird’s introductory essays for the short films and the five features. Part 2, “The Archives”, assembles all the reprinted articles, full-length reviews and essays included in the booklets and adds another two. First is “The Fangs of the Dolly-Man” by Robert Benayoun, written for an exhibition catalogue in 1964, when Borowczyk had still only made short films. Also included is the much longer “Borowczyk and the Cartoon Renaissance” by Raymond Durgnat, written for Film Comment in 1976. It’s a typically dense piece, dealing with sociopolitical aspects of East European art in general and Borowczyk’s work in particular, and includes detailed, all but shot by shot, analyses of three of his short films: Renaissance, Home (Dom, co-directed with Jan Lenica and not included in this set) and Angels’ Games.

Part 3 is “Boro’s Dictionary” a series of short articles by Daniel Bird and Michael Brooke, which starts with A for Animation, naturally, ending up with Z for Zoophilia. Section 4 is “The Restorations”, comprising a long article, “Restoring Borowczyk” by Michael Brooke, on the inception of this box set and its particular restoration challenges, including on the way an account of the Kickstarter campaign to restore Goto Isle of Love to high definition. This is followed by “Restoring Goto” by James White, specifically about that restoration and on what the Kickstarter funders money was spent on. The book ends with a compilation of the restoration notes, disc and book credits and acknowledgements from the separate booklets.

Now turn the book over, and you have the first English-language publication of Anatomy of the Devil, a collection of short stories first published in a limited edition in French in 1992 and up to now only translated into Polish. This English translation is by Michael Levy and the book features illustrations, many in colour, by Borowczyk himself. There are nine mostly quite short and gnomic stories, and having read them I’m not convinced his abilities with words match those of his with visuals, but this will be essential to Borowczyk aficionados, of which this set may have created quite a few. The rightsholders only licensed Arrow to print a thousand copies of this collection, hence the size of the limited edition boxset, which this is exclusive to. However, renewed interest in Borowczyk and his work may allow further editions of this book. The stories are somewhat of a checklist of Borowczyk’s particular themes and preoccupations, including an interest in eroticism, with one particularly explicit paragraph printed mirror-reversed. One, “Ralph Krutmann”, presents itself as a libretto for an opera called “Scherzo Infernale”, which will be familiar to those who have watched Borowczyk’s short film of almost the same title (minus the final E) on the Short Films and Animations disc.

This boxset sets out to reclaim Borowczyk’s reputation and to make his earlier work, up to now harder to see, even harder to see in good-quality copies, available for us to reassess his work. In that it has triumphantly succeeded. This is one of the releases of the year without a doubt.


Updated: Sep 15, 2014

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