By the mid 1970s, the ease in censorship over large swaths of Europe lead to cinema pushing boundaries and taboo like the medium had never done before. The decade was awash with cinematic controversy and intelligent but often disturbing treatises on sexuality, drug culture, language, and violence. 1975 seems to be the pinnacle of the boundary pushing that started with films such as Ken Russell’s The Devils (1971), Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971), Alejandro Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain (1973) and numerous others. This wasn’t simply because it saw the release of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom but because of another taboo-pushing and, until recently, banned release; Walerian Borowczyk’s La Bête (or The Beast).
Perhaps more so than violence, sexuality seemed to be something that greatly disconcerted more conservative viewers, whether they were censors or the general public. The sense that sexuality of any sort had been largely denied to cinema as a topic meant that the when it did begin to be dissected by the art-house, it jumped straight in at the deep end; The Beast is that deep end. With hindsight, it’s easy to dismiss Borowczyk’s more sexually intense films because of his work in soft-core pornography later on his career. Reading The Beast as simply an extension of this aspect undermines the sheer creativity behind what is a very intelligent and bizarre film.
The Beast was made during a period when studios were putting money into quick erotic flicks that could make their cash back on the sheer demand for sex. Fittingly, anyone expecting an Emmanuelle (1974) type skin-flick would have no doubt been shocked and probably unhappy at the academic dissection of sexuality presented in The Beast; the expectation of cobbled together sex scenes being quashed pretty early on. Behind even the most explicit of scenes, the film is awash with philosophy, with taboo, and with academia; not the usual mixture of things needed to sell such a picture to the sleazy cinemas of Soho and the like.
The film follows a French bourgeoisie women who, on learning of an ancestor’s past fantasies of beastiality, relives them herself through dreams before entering the realms of the fantastical completely, almost incorporating forms of lycanthropy. Really, Borowczyk is dealing with the animalistic nature of sexuality whilst also commenting on the very clear links between upper class sexual desire and power (emphasised further by the persistent presence of a Scarlatti sonata on the soundtrack). The main sex sequence, which involves a giant rat-like creature (a man in an animal suit with a huge phallus) chasing the ancestor through the woods and initially assaulting her before she turns the tables on it and kills it through taking sexual charge of their encounter, was initially conceived and filmed as a short segment of Borowczyk’s Immoral Tales (1974). In the film it stands out stylistically as it seems rather crass, sometimes verging on being darkly humorous.
For the most part though, The Beast actually presents a philosophical argument about where desire initially evolves from. It opens with a quote from Voltaire and proceeds to reference his work several times, even going so far as to suggest that the more erotic visualisations of sex are actually ideas directly taken from his work (specifically his epic poem, Henriade (1723)). Aside from the entire scenario in the woods, The Beast is far tamer on a visual level than perhaps its reputation belies; its alignment with Voltaire being an obvious give-away that this not a particularly straight-forward piece of soft-core, which Borowczyk would eventually descend into.
Aside from a handful of scenes (including several involving the frankly bizarre use of a bed-post for masturbation), The Beast is more interested in arguing that sexuality can be distorted by the prism of cinema and that the relationship between sexuality’s artistic interpretation and the actual reality of it is a more dualistic relationship than is probably often believed. This is never more obvious than in the film’s opening scene. In probably the most disturbing of sequences, Borowczyk films two horses mating. Instead of shooting it in a documentary way, he frames and edits the shots in the same way a pornographer would do for people. It’s a deeply unsettling vision, highlighting that idea of dualism and hinting that our own sexual practices may actually be inherited as a cultural practice rather than simply a biological one.
Like so much provocative 1970s cinema, The Beast is representative of both the visual and aesthetic freedom allowed by the decade’s ease in censorship. Ironically though, having imbued its narrative with so much heavy thematic material, it was refused classification by the BBFC (though perhaps it was more to do with the continuous presence of giant, endlessly excited stallion). The combination of extreme sexual imagery and Borowczyk’s usual sense of powerful art-house ideas is still a shock today though one that is perhaps even more relevant in times of easy access misogyny and unquestioning desires of will at the click of a button.
The Beast is a film that requires serious reading and the extras on the release provide this admirably. The first extra of note is an introduction by Peter Bradshaw; a surprisingly high-ranking welcome for such a far-out film. Bradshaw is overwhelmingly excited about The Beast and does a good job of selling it in small sound-bites, an achievement itself for such a complex film. The main featured extra on the disc is an hour long featurette made up of original behind-the-scenes footage, tied together by a commentary from the film’s camera operator, Noël Véry. It’s an enlightening extra but most importantly shows the detailed process and thinking behind the filmmaking. This wasn’t simply to be a film cobbled together with some added sex but a genuine artistic work. Other extras include a short video essay on some of the design aspects of The Beast, the original trailer for the film, and the short film Venus on the Half-Shell, made in the same year by Borowczyk.