Walerian Borowczyk’s satirical fairy tale remains one of the most outrageous films ever made.
La Bête – English title The Beast – began life as part of Walerian Borowczyk’s 1974 short story collection Immoral Tales, with the story The True Story of the Beast of Gévaudan being the third tale in the film. The segment played at the London Film Festival in 1973 as part of a ‘work in progress’ screening, and caused immediate outrage – how could a respected director like Borowczyk lower himself to such filth, critics asked, and his mainstream reputation would never recover from the blow dealt to it by this segment in particular and Immoral Tales in general.
By the time Immoral Tales was finally released, The True Story of the Beast of Gévaudan had been removed – not for censorship reasons, although it was certainly the most incendiary of the stories featured in the film, but because the finished film was considered too long and because Borowczyk was interested in expanding the sequence into a full-length feature. When the finished film, La Bête, finally emerged in 1975, it was a big hit across Europe, but did nothing to salvage Borowczyk’s dwindling reputation – it’s only in recent years that anyone outside the cult and erotic film fan circles has started to acknowledge the value of these films, and even now, you’ll find people who see movies such as this as creatively worthless. More fool them.
In the UK, the film was banned by the BBFC, even in a cut version, and a GLC-approved London release was threatened with prosecution under the Obscene Publications Act in 1978, even though the more outrageous material – and much of the softcore sex – had been cut to the point of being mere suggestion – that, it seems, was enough. This same version emerged later on VHS, which is when I first saw the film. Already a fan of Borowczyk’s work by this time, I was blown away by the movie, even though it was missing much of the controversial footage; it wasn’t until some years later, when I picked up a Dutch tape of the film in Amsterdam, that I would get to see what all the fuss was about. And yes, I could understand the shock and anger – La Bête is gleefully outrageous, crossing one of the last sexual taboos (albeit in a non-realistic manner) and having a graphic nature that went beyond the limits of most softcore. That this footage now came wrapped in a sumptuous, remarkably witty drama that wasn’t particularly sexy in its own right (by mid-Seventies standards, at least) somehow made everything seem all the more shocking.
Thankfully, times change, and so La Bête is now available, uncut. There’s a certain irony in this passing through the British censors in an age where actual bestiality videos are landing people in court and sometimes prison just for watching them, but there you go.
This expanded version of the story is based around the house of the Marquis Pierre de l’Esperance (Guy Tréjan), an aristocrat down on his luck, who hopes to revive the family fortune by marrying his misfit son Mathurin (Pierre Benedetti) to Lucy Broadhurst (Lisbeth Hummel), the daughter of an old friend. Unfortunately, for her to inherit the estate, certain things need to be in place, according to the will of Philip Broadhurst. Firstly, it must take place within six months of his death, and the clock is ticking, with only 48 hours left; secondly, they must be married by Cardinal Joseph do Balo, the brother of Pierre’s uncle Duc Rammaendelo de Balo (Marcel Dalio). This throws up several problems. Rammaendelo disapproves of the marriage and has to be blackmailed into calling his brother, and the Cardinal refuses to have anything to do with the family as Mathurin has not been baptised. So as Lucy and her sour-faced aunt Virginia (Elisabeth Kaza) travel to the chateau, it is arranged for the local priest (Rolan Armontel) – a man who seems to have an unhealthy interest in choirboys – to come and carry out the baptism on the dim-witted son, who is far more interested in horse breeding than marriage. Inevitably, things start to go dreadfully wrong, as Pierre’s carefully laid plans start to fall apart.
All this is played out like an especially stylish version of a French farce, with its cast of eccentric characters and Pierre’s increasing desperation leading to subterfuge and panic as he refuses to accept that the marriage might be doomed not to take place. The film is surprisingly funny in the telling of this story – Borowczyk’s films, perhaps because of the sexual content, are rarely seen as comedic, but La Bête certainly is, often hilariously. This is despite being played with a straight face by most of the cast, and being shot with the director’s usual attention to detail, a fetishisation of objects and long takes. Certainly, the film looks like a serious, straight-faced work, and every shot is remarkably well crafted and beautiful. But there’s sly humour at work here nevertheless, and at least one audience that I saw this with was chortling in all the right places. The satire that is behind this straight face, of course, extends to religion – the paederast priest who comes to carry the baptism is a nicely on-the-ball dig at the priesthood, and also an interesting prediction of the scandals that would beset the Catholic church decades later.
Interestingly, this is a contemporary tale, which comes as a bit of a surprise – it’s only when we see Pierre’s horny daughter Clarisse (Pascale Rivault) clad in jeans and boots -in the few scenes where she isn’t banging the much put-upon servant Ifany (Hassane Fall), the constant interruption of their carnal activity being a running joke – that we realise that this film isn’t a period piece, so old-fashioned are the locations, the clothing and even the attitudes – arranged marriages in non-royal European families in the mid-Seventies?
For a supposed soft porn film, La Bête certainly takes its time in showing any sex. If we discount the startlingly graphic opening scenes of horse copulation – and unless you have very specialised tastes, it’s unlikely that you’ll find this footage especially erotic – then we are some twenty minutes into the film before we have any nudity, and the only sexual activity in the first hour involves Clarisse and Ifany in short bursts that are briefly explicit (we see a semi-erect penis, for instance) but not exactly the traditional stuff of soft porn, being as much comic relief as erotica. However, we are being lulled into a false sense of security.
When Lucy takes to her bed, her passions have been inflamed enough for her to spend the night masturbating, while dreaming about Romilda de l’Esperance (Sirpa Lane), who according to legend met a beast in the woods and shagged him to death. It’s this dream that makes use of the original Immoral Tales footage, as it is intercut with shots of Lucy, clad in a tantalising see-through nightdress, rolls around on the bed, fingering herself, splashing water across her breasts and tearing off her clothes. These scenes alone are remarkably erotic – Lisbeth Hummel proves to be quite the sex kitten when given the chance, her exquisite body and brazen behaviour sure to turn on many a viewer. But it is the dream sequence that still has the power to startle.
This short story has Euro starlet Sirpa Lane (who went from high-end erotica like this and Roger Vadim’s Charlotte to rather more low-rent Eurotrash cinema such Nazi Love Camp 27 and Papaya: Love Goddess of the Cannibals) being chased through the woods by the titular beast, a hairy bear-like creature with a dog-face and a growing erection. She loses her clothes along the way and is finally captured, whereupon the beast rapes her (though not before engaging in a spot of cunnilingus). However, once her passions are inflamed, she proves too much of a match for the Beast, and her sexual rapaciousness eventually causes him to expire as she masturbates, sucks and screws the poor creature into deadly exhaustion.
This is astonishing stuff, even today. If we leave aside the BBFC-baiting issue of a rape victim coming to enjoy her abuse – and I assume the censors realised that this hardly constituted realism and so was unlikely to encourage such beliefs – then we are still left with scenes of a woman having vigorous sex with an animal, who continually ejaculates from his monster cock. Yes, it’s a man in a (surprisingly well-crafted) suit, not a real animal. But still, the mere implication is shocking enough – bestiality has not proved to be a subject that many respectable filmmakers have wanted to tackle – and the footage is so wonderfully outrageous and in such bad taste that it’s no wonder critics were appalled. Shot when hardcore porn was still a new thing for much of the world, you can imagine them wondering where the line might be drawn.
The film follows this dream sequence with an amusing and cynical coda that reveals just why this marriage was doomed to failure, though by this point I imagine the more delicate viewers would have long since stopped watching.
In many ways, La Bête feels like the archetypal Borowczyk film, despite the outrageous content of the Beast sequence. It’s the sort of film that would always confuse mainstream critics – a collision of high art and low taste, an unquestionably serious (if humorous) film that is masterfully crafted and yet which seems to be deliberately aiming at the lowest common denominator. How could anyone who drew a line in the sand between art and exploitation ever hope to understand a movie like this, so cheerfully crass and yet so obviously refined? It’s certainly the Borowczyk film I would suggest to someone exploring his (erotic) work for the first time, and it might well be his most popular film these days. I’m not sure it’s his best work, but it’s certainly his most unforgettable. And it’s also a film that rewards repeated viewing – the shock of the Beast scenes can be a bit overwhelming the first time around, but each time you watch it again, you’ll find some new little touches to entrance you. Those people who still think Boro pissed away his career with his erotic films should open their eyes and their minds – they’ll discover a filmmaker who found his niche and made some of the most impressive, startling, exciting and challenging films of the 1970s in any genre.
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