They say all good things come to those who wait and we think you lot have waited long enough for this well overdue review. Finally creeping along to the end of our look into Arrow Video’s Camera Obscura: The Walerian Borowczyk Collection, we get to the mouth wateringly tasty cherry on top in all its uncut glory- The Beast (1975) aka La Bête. Originally envisioned from a short intended for Immoral Tales, Borowczyk expanded on the saucy concept to make a full length feature. The gloriously shameless original segment delivered an interesting twist on Prosper Merimee’s 1869 text Lokis– presented by Borowczyk in fairytale French period style with added prosthetic penis, bestial rape, ejaculating bodily fluids and a cheerful harpsichord musical backdrop. The piece concludes on a whole new meaning for the French term for orgasm le petit morte. With this extended version Borowczyk keeps the original content and its associated tongue in cheek styling using it as a dream sequence within a wider narrative that encompasses even more smut and a heavy dose of satire. The end result sees the director bringing forth from his loins a tour de force of free-spirited adult fantasy in grand burlesque style. I think it’s safe to say if there was ever a line, this was the moment Borowczyk somersaulted over it while sticking two fingers up to the moral majority.
Kicking off with a lengthy and graphic look at the mating rituals of horses The Beast sets out its stamp as uncompromising from the first frames; a theme that continues throughout. We discover that the equine lovers are residents of a stud farm run by the practically able, but socially inept, Mathurin de l’Esperance (Pierre Benedetti )- a creepy bearded man-child who shows a more than healthy interest in his animal charges. Mathurin has spent his lifetime shirking adult responsibility, but now the day has come for him to man up, with his impending arranged marriage to the wealthy heiress Lucy Broadhurst (Lisbeth Hummel )heading ever closer; marked by Lucy’s arrival at the l’Esperance estate. Lucy comes chaperoned by her Aunt Virginia (Elizabeth Kaza) and Mathurin’s father Pierre (Guy Tréjan) is keen to accommodate the two, knowing that this could be the last chance to secure the family’s financial future. Therefore it is a situation that requires delicate handling. However the uncouth Mathurin is not so inviting and neither is Uncle Duc Rammandelo De Balo (Marcel Dalio) who is vocally against the marriage and refusing to co-operate. As if things weren’t complicated enough Lucy’s father’s will stipulates the marriage cannot go ahead unless it is blessed by De Balo’s Cardinal brother; something that is impossible until Mathurin is baptised, but a shadowy family secret seems to be preventing this from happening. A strong and, for the female side, liberated cast ensure that Borowczyk’s vision plays out to perfection. The piece is stacked to the hilt with some unforgettable performances from all involved.
What ensues is a story packed with farcical dark comedy. Perfectly paced, matters move like a rolling stone gathering up moss until the fantastically debauched denouement; oozing with a sexual context throughout. Most of the more graphic content comes from the female characters; for example Pierre’s daughter Clarisse (Pascale Rivault) likes to entertain the servant Ifany (Hassane Fall) in her bedroom at every given opportunity and masturbate on her headboard when alone. Then the young Lucy might not be as innocent as she seems, igniting her carnal desires while reading about a descendant of the family, Romilda (Sirpa Lane), who is reported to have struggled with a beast in the local forest some 200 years before. Lucy pleasures herself and fantasises about the beast hunting then raping Romilda and Romilda’s revenge on the lustful creature; here the story spreads into the original ‘Beast’ sequence made for Immoral Tales as a basis to explore the erotic dreamlike musings of Lucy. Adding to this, if all this wasn’t enough to entertain, The Beast is also stacked with some glorious satire and pokes at religion. This takes the form of a pervy priest (Roland Armontel )who is accompanied by a pair of fresh faced choir boys he likes to keep by his side at all times, including while he sleeps.
To try and evoke the feelings in mere text The Beast conjures for me is no mean feat. Personally I would describe the film as a decadent romp, splendidly filthy for all the right reasons, provocative, captivating, delectable and as gorgeously profane as it is visually beautiful. Its power lies in its ability after all these years to still challenge, enthral and shock the uninitiated into submission. For a film that is nearly forty years old The Beast still has the power to disgust and revolt po-faced objectors who like to set out clear lines of good versus bad taste; as if everything is that black and white.
For me personally, as a consummate rebel and anarchist to the core, the thing I adore about Borowczyk is the fact that he really didn’t appear to give a flying fuck what anyone thought when it came to creating his visions. If one film demonstrates this aspect of his work in its purest form, it is The Beast. A true libertine his uncompromising approach ensured his art was pure of heart regardless of what any of the detractors may say on the matter. It amazes me the amount of people who can’t seem to lift their noses out of their own backsides to see past a bit of horse dick in order to soak in the bigger picture- after all aren’t we all grown-ups here? To deny the true artistic value of this piece on the basis that it is there to simply titillate on a sexual level does the work a great injustice. For anyone who mistakenly dismisses this as porn, well I would love to see some examples of what you get your rocks off to, because this certainly doesn’t do it for me, not on that level anyway. While The Beast might not light my fire in a literal way, what it does is call out to the free spirit inside me that is always looking for kindred souls that are screaming above the monotonous drone of the herd. This sentiment is something that I see shining brightly from the work of Borowczyk; a rare form of true freedom of expression and artistic liberation that denotes one who will not be muted by convention.
It’s not easy to keep a truly independent voice in the medium of entertainment, especially in cinema which is inextricably tied up in all sorts of financial politics. On this note with individuality becoming such a rare commodity in the cinematic universe, we as cult film fans owe a huge debt to companies like Arrow who continue to restore and unleash this rare brilliance for a digital home video audience. Without such dedication features like The Beast (and indeed all the pieces in the Camera Obscura Collection) could have been all but lost; a criminal situation that has befallen the work of many filmmakers that lie on the fringes of mainstream popularity, and a situation in the case of Borowczyk that doesn’t bear thinking about.
The disc comes with (in line with the other releases in the series) a tasty set of extras, all of which are likely to be consumed heartily by fans of the film. It also goes without saying this is a stunning transfer which reproduces a true cinematic representation for digital format.
The Full specs are as follows:
- New high definition digital transfers of the feature and the shorts
- Uncompressed Mono 2.0 PCM Audio
- Optional English subtitles
- Introduction by film critic Peter Bradshaw
- Venus on the Half-Shell (1975)
- The Making of ‘The Beast’: camera operator Noël Véry provides a commentary on footage shot during the film’s production
- Frenzy of Ecstasy, a new visual essay on the evolution of Borowczyk’s beast and the sequel that never was, Motherhood
- Theatrical trailer
- Reversible sleeve featuring original poster design
- Booklet featuring new writing on the film by Daniel Bird and archive pieces by David Thompson and Craig Lapper, illustrated with original stills
Heavily recommended by me, you can find out more details at the Arrow official page here.