The early years of Walerian ‘Boro’ Borowczyk’s career seemed filled with promise: An award-winning director of short films who demanded to be involved in every stage of the production process from actor-coaching to set-painting, he stepped up to feature-length live action films with two of the most singular and eye-catching works of late-60s and early-70s. Goto, Island of Love gave us the world in a nutshell and showed how jealousy, desire and vengeance can destroy even the most carefully constructed institutions. Even more impressively, Blanche approached the historical drama with an entirely new aesthetic approach, an approach that has sadly never been revisited. Despite riding a tide of critical adulation, Boro’s next film, an erotic film entitled Immoral Tales divided critics with some accusing him of having decided to cash in on the cinematic success of films like Emmanuelle. While the version of Immoral Tales included as part of Arrow Films’ excellent Camera Obscura: The Walerian Borowczyk Collection tackles such taboo subjects as incest, death and religion, the film originally included a section devoted to bestiality. Rather than including that section in the final cut of the film, Boro decided to develop those ideas into a full-length film, which bring us to The Beast.
The Beast opens with close-up footage of aroused horse genitalia dripping and twitching. Having astonished and disgusted the audience, the film promptly moves on to what appears to be a far more traditional French drama: The De L’Esperance family are one of the great remnants of French nobility but a lack of talent and vision has seen their fortune dissolve leaving them with a vast, crumbling chateau and no way of restoring it. Thankfully the best friend of Pierre de l’Esperance (Guy Trejan) promises to leave his entire fortune to his daughter Lucy (Lisbeth Hummel) on the condition that she be married to Pierre’s son Mathurin (Pierre Benedetti) by a Cardinal with ties to the de l’Esperance family. However, Mathurin is a rather odd chap who is more interested in horses than people and has absolutely no interest in becoming Catholic.
The Beast provides us with a mystery: Given that it is in everyone’s interest for Lucy and Mathurin to marry, why is the Cardinal refusing to answer the family’s phone calls? The mystery unravels slowly and with great attention paid to character. This is in itself quite significant as while Boro’s earlier films are full of style, they seldom treat their characters as anything more than vehicles for the films’ wider themes. The Beast locks all of its characters in a French chateau and lets them bounce off each other until their hidden truths become apparent.
While this type of set-up might evoke your typical French drama in which people tumble into bed and then smoke cigarettes in an effort to ward-off the unbearable miseries of money and beauty, The Beast satirises these tropes by exaggerating them to the point where they become erotic, camp and surreal. Thus, the misogynistic older man becomes a scenery-chewing pantomime villain while the young ingénue is so sexually voracious that she’s practically climbing the walls. This exaggeration also yields some real moments of comedic joy such as the bit where the idiot man-child proudly proclaims that he no longer smokes but admits that he only managed to give up smoking by continuously chewing tobacco.
Given the lightness of tone and the amount of sexual energy flowing through the piece, it would have been easy for Boro to let his film descend into the straightforwardly erotic. However, while the film does contain some well-shot but quite traditionally erotic sequences the meat of its debauchery comes in the form of Lucy’s fantasies about one of Mathurin’s ancestors who was reportedly raped by a great furry beast. Definitely one for the Furries, these sequences are eye-wateringly explicit and surprisingly erotic despite their surreal and transgressive nature.
This investigation of Lucy’s deepest sexual desires neatly mirrors the mystery that drives the plot and so creates a rather neat thematic whole: Who knows what lurks beneath the surface of these old refined families?
The Beast is about as entertaining as any film you care to mention; Sexy, shocking, camp and incredibly funny, it shows a director in full possession of his faculties and completely unafraid of what anyone might think of him. Released as part of the Camera Obscura box set, The Beast comes with an introduction by Peter Bradshaw, a featurette in which a camera operator from the film talks us through the production process and another featurette exploring how the ideas of The Beast developed and nearly produced a sequel.