The Beast Review
Walerian Borowczyk (pronounced “Valerian Boroffchick”) is one of the cinema’s most compellingly individual and wayward talents. He began his career as a hugely influential graphic designer in his native Poland, then moved into animation in the late 1950s, where he earned himself at least a minor place in film history as one of the first animators to consciously break away from the medium’s child-friendly image with such masterpieces as Les Jeux des Anges (which follows the progress of angels through a concentration camp), throwing down a gauntlet that fellow Eastern European animators like Jan Svankmajer were only too happy to pick up. By the time he moved into live-action features, with Goto, Isle of Love and Blanche, he was frequently touted as the natural successor to such giants as Luis Buñuel and Robert Bresson, blending the former’s Surrealist preoccupations and the latter’s grave, understated style in films that were all but unclassifiable.
So how the hell did he end up directing Emmanuelle 5?
If you look at Borowczyk's career the way I first explored it, in reverse – i.e. starting with the porn, then the art movies and finally the animation – it’s a less peculiar progression than it seems at face value. Even his earliest shorts show a bizarrely erotic imagination at work, whether it’s the eerily animated hairpiece in Dom (1958), the more than mildly S&M relationship of the lead characters of Le Concert de M et Mme Kabal (1963) and his only animated feature Le Théâtre de M et Mme Kabal (1967) or his first live-action short Rosalie (1966), in which a teenage girl’s courtroom confession to murdering her illegitimate offspring is accompanied by an unsettlingly fetishistic focus on the various objects that make up the evidence.
And the first two live-action features, though no-one sane could possibly have marketed them to the kind of Soho sleaze emporia where his later films ended up, betray similar interests, the protagonists of both being young female victims of ritualistic, suffocatingly patriarchal societies. So while it’s a shame that his post-1973 output is almost exclusively erotic (if only because his previous work showed a much wider range), in retrospect it’s not that surprising, especially when commercial considerations are taken on board. And there’s plenty of genuinely striking work from this period of his career – my personal favourite is Docteur Jekyll et les Femmes (1981), but there’s little doubt that the best-known and most notorious is the 1975 opus The Beast.
“Banned for 25 years!”, entices the DVD box - somewhat disingenuously, since while it’s undoubtedly true that the BBFC turned it down flat when it was first submitted in 1978 (and the fact that it took a British distributor three years to even consider submitting it speaks volumes in itself), it has in fact been relatively easy to catch perfectly legal screenings in the UK. Although the initial theatrical release was severely cut by some six minutes by an over-cautious distributor (I saw this version by mistake once, and can confirm that the ending in particular is rendered virtually incomprehensible), a 16mm print of the full version was regularly screened by the more adventurous independent cinemas - I first saw it at the ICA in 1985, where the audience reaction was almost as entertaining as the film! And in the early 1990s, it appeared on 35mm, courtesy of the ultra-respectable British Film Institute, and played various regional film theatres – indeed, at one screening the print caught fire, leading to inevitable nudge-nudge tabloid headlines about the film’s inflammatory nature.
So the only real difference between what’s under review and what I’ve seen several times in British cinemas over the past couple of decades is that the BBFC have finally given it their blessing in the form of a regular 18 certificate. This isn’t too surprising, given the recent liberalisation of their guidelines – but it’s still something of an eyebrow-raiser, not just for the graphic bestiality (simulated, of course, but still…) but also because it appears to endorse the same claim about rape that has put Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs beyond the pale.
Much like John Waters with Pink Flamingos three years earlier, Borowczyk seems hell-bent on offending as many people as he possibly can. He has Buñuel’s favourite targets of the Church and the upper classes firmly in his sights throughout, ticking off the expected barking aristos and paedophile priests. Daily Mail readers won’t take too kindly to the running gag where the nanny disposes of her charges (locking them in the wardrobe, for instance) in order to fit in a quick shag with Ifany, the black manservant - and you don’t have to be a paid-up member of the politically correct brigade to find something disquieting about the way the preposterously well-endowed Ifany is none too subtly aligned with the horses and the beast as being the embodiment of (white) female sexual fantasy.
And even straightforward porn fans may be somewhat discomfited to discover that the opening sex scene, although shot in the style of a typical hardcore flick and featuring all the requisite close-ups of throbbing members, pouting labia, penetration, come shots and even post-coital cunnilingus, takes place between two horses (personally, I think this scene is hysterically funny, though the initial shock value means that this probably won’t be most people’s reaction first time round).
And then of course there’s the film’s overriding theme. True, bestiality is hardly unknown in the cinema – Nagisa Oshima’s Max Mon Amour and the Taviani brothers’ Padre Padrone have tackled it head-on, and it’s beneath the surface of countless other films, including outwardly innocent fairytales like Beauty and the Beast and of course the entire werewolf genre - but it’s hard to think of any other film (or at least not one made legally in 35mm with respectable names on the credits – indeed, producer Anatole Dauman has one of the most artistically impressive CVs of anyone in his profession) that depicts it quite this graphically. And by “graphically”, I mean… well, let’s just say that the film’s climactic dream/flashback sequence does for premature ejaculation what Monty Python’s Mr Creosote did for projectile vomiting, and leave it discreetly at that.
So how does this state of affairs come about? When American heiress Lucy Broadhurst (Lisbeth Hummel) travels with her aunt Virginia (Elisabeth Kaza) to the French chateau of the de l’Esperance family, she’s blithely innocent of the fact that the de l’Esperances regard her forthcoming marriage to their son Mathurin (Pierre Benedetti) as their last chance to gain a modicum of respectability after being brought down by rumours that have dogged (or, to be more accurate, beasted) them for two centuries, ever since Romilda de l’Esperance was ravished by a mysterious creature in the nearby forest.
But all is clearly not well with Mathurin – shaggy and unkempt, with a hand in a bandage that looks more like a boxing glove than anything medical, he seems far more interested in the conjugal activities of his beloved horses than in anything to do with Lucy, who is left to wander the chateau by herself. There, she discovers a variety of books, pictures and rough sketches, many of them hidden in nooks and crannies, which suggest that bestiality runs rather deeper in the de l’Esperance family than a one-off incident two hundred years ago might suggest. And then, driven half mad with sexual frustration, she has a horribly vivid dream about Romilda (Sirpa Lane), and we discover both what really happened to her and Mathurin's deep, dark secret...
To be honest, The Beast is the kind of film that pretty much defies the standard DVD Times rating system – it’s a complete one-off, so comparisons are fairly pointless, and I see that quite a few contributors to the Internet Movie Database have given it a 10, presumably just for the hell of it (in all fairness, I should mention that plenty have rated it 1 too...). But, originality aside, there are obvious flaws: the main plot is pretty much abandoned two-thirds of the way through (and was never that gripping to begin with), the closing lecture on bestiality is fascinating but seems to have been dropped in as an afterthought, and the English dialogue is dreadfully stilted (I suspect the Polish-French Borowczyk simply didn’t notice) – though, thankfully, there’s relatively little of it. Indeed, the acting in general varies from excellent (the veteran Marcel Dalio and saturnine Michel Piccoli clone Guy Tréjan as warring siblings) to… well, Sirpa Lane went on to star in Nazi Love Camp 27 and Papaya: Love Goddess of the Cannibals, which probably doesn’t need much elaboration.
The biggest problem, though – and I can’t for the life of me work out whether this was intentional or not – is that the beast itself is utterly ludicrous (or, as the critic Roy Armes more tactfully put it, “lacks the necessary Cocteauesque poetry”), reminding me more of the botched finale of Alien Resurrection than the primal force of nature that Borowczyk presumably had in mind. (This isn’t a totally throwaway comparison, incidentally – I’d be very surprised if Jean-Pierre Jeunet was ignorant of Borowczyk’s work, as both men have a near-identical animation/design background and a fondness for eroticising old and arcane objects). The biggest mistake is the close-up shot of the beast’s face – cruel though the Independent’s Anthony Quinn may have been to compare it with Harry Hill’s puppet cat Stouffer, I have to concede that he did have a point.
But however ridiculous and nonsensical the film may appear in the cold light of day, when actually watching it I have to admit that it conveys an inexplicably powerful erotic spell. Borowczyk is one of a very rare breed of film artist – David Lynch, Jan Svankmajer and the Brothers Quay spring to mind (all of them, probably not coincidentally, started out as visual artists and animators) – who can imbue inanimate objects with a mysterious inner life, and he’s constantly cutting away to strangely evocative images, such as the snail curling up in the heel of Romilda’s discarded slipper while she’s otherwise engaged, or exploring the erotic potential of discarded leaves or carved wooden bed-heads.
These moments suggest a rather more powerful and certainly more serious film than The Beast turned out to be, which is a pity – but it’s certainly well worth seeing for those with broad minds and cast-iron stomachs. It’s the best Borowczyk film currently out on DVD (the competition, admittedly, is not that great - Immoral Tales and Emmanuelle 5 are hardly must-sees), and fans of any of the directors I’ve mentioned above should lap it up. Incidentally, it’s based on the same French legend that inspired Brotherhood of the Wolf, though The Beast is very different!
I had pretty low expectations for the DVD transfer – I’ve seen some dreadful prints of The Beast over the years, and the fact that Nouveaux were responsible for the appalling UK disc of Suspiria made me even less optimistic. On the whole, though, this was a rather pleasant surprise.
For starters, it’s anamorphic, framed at the correct 1.66:1 aspect ratio with very thin black bars at the sides. The source print, while far from pristine (there are numerous white dust spots and occasionally more serious damage), is nonetheless in better physical condition than quite a few other films of this vintage that I could mention – there’s a hint that the colours are starting to fade, but on the whole they’re vibrant enough (the red rose petals – those who’ve seen the film will know which scene I’m talking about – are particularly striking).
On the debit side, shadow detail is often less than it could be, with noticeable artefacts in the darker shots, and while the faint picture grain is perfectly acceptable (indeed, I think it suits Borowczyk’s archaic visual style very well), the image was a little too soft for my taste, something accentuated by the subtitles. All in all, though, this isn’t a bad effort at all – it’s certainly the best version of The Beast I’ve seen to date, and the transfer is a very definite cut above, say, one of Tartan’s usual efforts, and wipes the floor with the British Film Institute’s Salo.
There’s very little to say about the soundtrack, which is in mono, and I suspect any shortcomings, such as the hollow post-synched feel and a somewhat harsh tone, particularly when the harpsichord strikes up, are squarely down to the original materials. The dialogue is mostly in French, with smatterings of English and Italian – the electronic subtitles, annoyingly, are compulsory, but they’re very clear, idiomatic and, as far as I could see, pretty accurate. There are twelve chapter stops.
With one exception, the extras are pretty basic – a very skimpy biography and a clearly IMDB-sourced filmography (or “filmograpghy”, as the sloppily proofread menus would have it) for Walerian Borowczyk, plus a small stills gallery that’s all but unusable thanks to some dreadful design – presumably intended to reproduce the effect of Lucy holding her Polaroids in her hand, which involves obscuring a fair chunk of the image with her fingers, the net result being somewhat reminiscent of one of those holiday snaps that everyone has where a thumb or finger accidentally get caught in shot.
The only really substantial extra is a complete twenty-minute Borowczyk short, 1974’s La Marée (The Tide). Actually, while it works perfectly well in its own right, it’s actually the first quarter of his portmanteau feature Immoral Tales, something you won’t find mentioned anywhere on the disc or the packaging. Based on a short story by the surrealist writer André Pieyre de Mandiargues (whose novel La Marge Borowczyk would film as The Streetwalker in 1976), it’s a surprisingly straightforward, almost clichéd story of erotic awakening as two teenage cousins of opposite sexes (one of them played by a disconcertingly young Fabrice Luchini) trapped by the tide and… well, you can probably guess how they choose to pass the time.
I suspect the sexual politics went down rather better at the time it was made – quite apart from the blatant sexism (no prizes for guessing who remains fully clothed and who gets the full-frontal treatment), there’s an unpleasantly coercive undertone from the opening title onwards, where André uses his superior age to justify his sexual dominance. I also suspect that the idea of timing orgasmic surges to the tidal pull worked rather better on the page than it does on screen. Most disappointingly of all, there are hardly any characteristic Borowczyk touches – I doubt I could have guessed who made it, and that’s certainly not something you could say of most of his films.
The print is in noticeably worse condition than The Beast, with some very obvious damage at the start. It’s presented in non-anamorphic 1.66:1 with compulsory subtitles, and widescreen TV owners won’t thank Nouveaux for the way they’re framed.
On the whole, though, this DVD has more plus than minus points overall, and it’s certainly a much more attractive proposition than the only current alternative, out in the US on the Cult Epics label. I haven’t seen it, but I can’t see how it provides any realistic competition: it’s non-anamorphic NTSC (and the source print is reputedly very poor), has no extras and is dubbed into English. And since I doubt anyone’s going to be doing a Criterion-style special edition of La Bête any time soon (why, incidentally, is it “La Bête” when its sex is all too clearly defined?), the Nouveaux disc looks like being your best option.