Few more controversial figures have enlivened cinema than the Polish polymath Walerian Borowczyk; far fewer still experienced so massive a fall from critical grace.1 At the epicentre of this fall lay La Bête (The Beast, 1975), long sniffily deemed to have harbinged the slide of a filmmaker of oft-proclaimed genius into a peddler of tawdry soft-core pornography.
Certainly, The Beast was massively scandalous, incurring the wrath of censors in many territories. It still startles even now, after 40 years, with its graphic – while Rabelaisian and altogether absurd – depictions of bestiality and rape, amidst abundant other explicit sexual goings-on between horses first, and later, human beings. Most famously, it features a dream sequence which comes, in fits and starts, to impose itself upon a present-day master narrative, concerning a young 18th century society woman (Sirpa Lane) who, abandoning her harpsichord practice in a quaint French garden pavilion to rescue a little lost lamb, piecemeal loses all her lavish feminine trappings – scarf, dress, petticoats, slippers, wig and corset – when unexpectedly becoming the quarry of a monstrously priapic, ursine creature in an extended, slapsticky, and brilliantly edited parkland chase sequence. When she’s eventually caught, the creature ravishes her, and then she it – at length – and utilising a varied repertoire of pleasuring techniques, in effusive cum shot after cum shot.
The film containing this preposterous zoophilic sexual assault fantasia is interpenetrated by it in every respect. Not just its overripe narrative – a satirical, Buñuelian comedy of manners brimming over with pre-nuptial intrigue, wherein sinful family secrets compromise both a deformed noble simpleton’s wedding prospects and a corrupt Catholic church – but also its very fabric. The Beast‘s elegant, chateau-set mise en scène, its soundtrack, and even the very impetus for its production are all deeply beholden to this bizarre dream sequence’s profound irrepressibility.
Some backstory is called for. Anatole Dauman, who produced Borowczyk’s first French film, the superb short animation Les Astronautes (Astronauts, 1959, co-signed by Chris Marker), put it to him that, given the 1970s’ relaxation of censorship laws (and with an eye to better box-office returns), he might like to try his hand at erotic cinema. Borowczyk promptly made several short films, each addressing a different sexual taboo. In November 1973 Borowczyk previewed three of them, to be anthologised in his forthcoming Contes immoraux (Immoral Tales, 1974), during the London Film Festival. One, La Véritable Histoire de la bête du Gévaudan (The True Story of the Beast of Gévaudan), drew upon an 18th century French legend as well as Prosper Mérimée’s novella Lokis (1869), a loose inversion of Beauty and the Beast. This 18-minute short film would later become the dream sequence in The Beast. Meantime, this public airing, amid great expectations, nigh-on created a moral panic – “what on Earth does the British Film Institute think it is up to?” thundered an editorial in The New Statesman.2 Notwithstanding that a completed version of Immoral Tales – inclusive of The True Story of the Beast – won the prestigious Belgian Prix de l’Âge d’or in 1974, Borowczyk dropped it from that film before its commercial release.
That his later feature-length Beast brought upon its maker a massive critical backlash and even greater outrage is surprising, as Borowczyk’s erotic preoccupations had been telegraphed across his extensively garlanded prior works in animation and live-action. Immoral Tales and The Beast, for all the nubile female bodies on display – variously in repose, or sexually engaged with other humans, or alone with fauna, flora or a bedknob – were never operating at that great a remove from the mass-bathing scene in his celebrated Goto, l’île d’amour (Goto, Island of Love, 1969). Borowczyk had even brought clear attention to his scopophilia in the multiple live-action inserts of bikini-clad lovelies observed through phallically protuberant binoculars in his anarchic animated feature debut Le Théâtre de monsieur et madame Kabal (Mr. and Mrs. Kabal’s Theatre, 1967).
If Borowczyk can be accused of sexually objectifying members of his casts, he also routinely achieved the converse, of sexually casting his objects. Not only are his films riddled with sensuous curios and doodads (often crafted by the filmmaker) and offered for voyeuristic scrutiny – the better to transmit their tactile, erotically charged qualities – his tableau vivant compositions of interiors are vitrine-like and fetishistic too.
The Beast‘s mise en scène is in thrall accordingly to its short precursor. Diegetically – the eye is drawn early on to a sitting room portrait of a certain bewigged woman, near a cabinet containing a worn-and-torn corset – and thematically: Władysław Podkowiński’s sexually charged painting “Szał uniesień” (“Frenzy of Exultations”), featuring a naked woman astride a horse, hangs on a corridor wall. Countless other decorous elements, inclusive of artworks, animals, costuming and cuisine, hint at the bestial nature of the carnal, venal, and corruptly regulated urges the dramatis personae are all succumbing to, seeping uncontainably out of the short ur-film into its godless feature-length progeny. Likewise, the short’s jaunty harpsichord soundtrack. Domenico Scarlatti’s music infects the diegesis in the chateau when an altar boy performs at a harpsichord, as if summoning the spirit and the mark of the beast destined to break the surface of the film a little further in.
In 2016, The Beast is freer of repressive censorship controls than ever before and Borowczyk’s reputation is once more in the ascendant, after the tireless advocacy of his greatest champion, Daniel Bird, and by Arrow Films’ connected issue of superb digital restorations of The Beast and other major works. There remains only one aspect of The Beast likely to remain repressible, and that is its late director’s plans to produce a sequel, Motherhood, for which he prepared a treatment concerning the abominable spawn of the union of a woman and a seal…3
La Bête (The Beast, 1975 France 104 mins)
Prod Co: Argos Films Prod: Anatole Dauman Dir: Walerian Borowczyk Scr: Walerian Borowczyk Phot: Bernard Daillencourt, Marcel Grignon Ed: Walerian Borowczyk Mus: Domenico Scarlatti
Cast: Sirpa Lane, Lisbeth Hummel, Elisabeth Kaza, Pierre Benedetti, Guy Tréjan, Roland Armontel, Marcel Dalio, Robert Capia, Pascale Rivault, Hassan Falle
- Here I’m plagiarising my own writing of the Melbourne Cinémathèque’s season notes for “In and out of Grace: Poetry and Pornography in the Cinema of Walerian Borowczyk”. ↩
- New Statesman editorial, 30 November 1973, reproduced in the booklet for Arrow Film’s Blu-Ray release of Immoral Tales. ↩
- Revealed in Frenzy of Ecstasy, Daniel Bird’s visual essay packaged with Arrow Film’s Blu-Ray edition of The Beast. ↩