Friday, April 30, 2010

The Beast

The Beast
Original Title: La Bête
Directed by: Walerian Borowczyk
France, 1975
Drama/Erotic/Horror, 95min
Distributed by: Studio S. Entertainment

One of the most notorious Art house / Exploitation flicks of all time has to be Walerian Borowczyk’s The Beast. With it’s surreal narrative and provocative content it’s one of those movies that walks a very thin line between art and trash. You know what my take on that whole debate is, and it is indeed up to each and everyone to come to their own insight of Walerian Borowczyk work – is it art or is it trash?

Personally that’s an easy one; Borowczyk’s films will always tend to be art in my eyes. Perhaps even the really trashy ones at the end of his career. Because Borowczyk’s films are heavy on symbolism, especially artistic symbolism, frequently you will see referents to pieces of art that are relevant to the plot or narrative. He also uses a strong set of themes through his works – greed, sexuality and surrealism – much like his earlier animation. There’s also a constant pessimism in his works, which also is an important theme for Borowczyk. There’s rarely an upbeat happy ending to his movies, instead characters all fail due to their own demands, insatiability and lust.

The Beast is a grand movie indeed. It’s not the horrifying piece of smut that its reputation claims it to be. Instead it’s in many ways a hilarious movie and also a sad melancholic tale of love, lust and secrets best left undisclosed. Quick fix coming your way: At a desolate château in France the de l’Esperance family are on their last legs. They have reached financial rock bottom and as a last resort to solve them patriarch Pierre [Guy Tréjan] has encouraged his son Mathurin [Pierre Benedetti] to get engaged to a wealthy foreigners daughter. The two have never met, and have only ever communicated through letters written to each other. Pierre’s Uncle, Rammedelo De Balo [Marcel Dalio – who starred in Jean Renoir’s magnificent Grand Illusion 1937] objects to the wedlock, as he is convinced that it’s wrong and that it will reveal their terrible family secret that they have been hiding for centuries. Mathurin’s bride to be Lucy Broadhurst [Danish former fashion model Lisbeth Hummel] and her aunt Virginia [Elisabeth Kaza] arrive at the chateau after a brief stint of getting lost allowing Lucy to run around the tight forest shooting Polaroid’s of nature and the surrounding location. Finally they arrive at the stables, where Mathurin with an arm in a plaster cast and a grand beard is supervising the mating process of the family horses. Lucy is fascinated by the scene she see’s and shoot’s several photographs of the activities making up her own Polaroid gallery of natural erotica. This is significant as it also represents the withheld sexual frustration that Lucy carries with her through out the movie. As they all gather at the chateau, Pierre takes it upon himself to clean up and shave the bestial looking Mathurin and has the local priest attend to baptise Mathurin as to wash away all his original sins and possibly lift the secret curse that Rammedelo keeps on ranting about. At the same time Rammedello starts telling the story of Romilda de l’Eserance [Finnish former model Sirpa Lane who stared in a handful of European Sexploitation films] to Lucy and her Aunt, and as Lucy fascinated by the tale starts investigating the house she finds several pieces of erotic art portraying bestiality.

One of the conditions posed by Lucy’s deceased father is that Cardinal Joseph De Balo perform the ceremony, but there’s grit in the machinery as the Cardinal obviously has a problem with the rest of his family and refuses to answer his brother Rammendelo’s calls. But Pierre’s greed and lust for fortune once again stops at nothing and after forcing Rammendelo to call repetitively he finally sends a telegram requesting the Cardinal to attend. It’s the same greed that later makes him conduct terrible acts against his family – remember I said that among common Borowczyk themes you’ll find greed and it will bring downfall, well it all happens in The Beast.

After a very Buñuellian dinner party where Virginia reads out the demands – not only the request of cardinal De Balo, but also that the wedding take place no later than the 1st of May – today in reality and in the movie – Pierre’s insatiable greed ends up with Mathurin completely loosing it and being sent to bed. Which the others also find a grand idea and all go for an afternoon nap. Lucy fascinated by her the books she’s found, and her private collection of kinky Polaroid’s, starts to slumber and dreams of the passages in Romilda de l’Esperance’s journals that she read earlier on. The passage with illustrations of the beast she supposedly met out there in the woods, and the sentence “I met it, and I beat it” and ironically my translation also lets you in on what eventually will happen as the erotic dream of Lucy’s comes to a climax. In the dream she see’s Romilda following a small lamb into the woods, only to discover that it’s been butchered by the beast. The beast then starts to chase Romilda and the deeper into the forest they get, the more of her clothing is torn off, and for each garment, the beast becomes further aroused. You can guess where this is going to go can’t you! This sequence, possibly the most iconic and discussed scene of Borowczyk’s works is then cross cut with the closing climax of the main narrative – Pierre’s greed for wealth, and Lucy’s restrained sexual lust. Coming to a climax on several levels at once, the terrible secret of the de l’Esperance family is revealed and the Broadhurst's leave France shocked and disgusted beyond belief, but certainly an experience richer.

It’s been years since I last saw The Beast, and it was nothing like I recalled it at all. I remembered it as a quite tacky, slow and dull. But instead I find a rather entertaining and amusing little piece that is a fascinating film indeed. It plays out almost like a sort of weird combination of art house abstracts and exploitation traits coming together in a satirical farce. It’s understandable that Borowczyk films are compared to earlier works of Buñuel. The above-mentioned themes are all there – greed, sexuality, surrealism and the pessimistic cynicism. I see a lot of parallels between the works that Peter Greenaway would start exploring in the mid eighties and the early movies of Borowczyk, which once again stings like salt in the wounds of the Borowczyk saga, as by then the shock of insight that porn was a bad thing and not a chic art happening had washed over and strong adult themes could be explored more freely within the art house world once again. I’m glad that there’s finally a renaissance of sorts for Borowczyk work as there have been several releases of his pieces on DVD over the last few years.

Now they let’s cast our selves back to the early seventies and check out the genesis of The Beast. In 1972, producer Anatole Dauman, no not some sleazy smut peddler, but a producer of high end art pieces – Alan Resnais Hiroshima mon amour 1959, Chris Marker’s stunning La jetée 1962, Jean-Luc Godard’s Masculin feminine: 15 faits précis 1966, Nagisa Ôshima’s Ai no corrida (In the Realm of the Senses) 1976 and Ai no borei (In the Realm of Passion) 1978, Volker Schlöndorff’s Die Blechtrommel (The Tin Drum) 1979, and Wim Wender’s Paris, Texas 1984 and the magnificent Der Himmel über Berlin (Wings of Desire) 1989 – to name a hand full of his eminent movies, was producing a movie that he wasn’t quite satisfied with and asked Borowczyk to come up with some ideas. Borowczyk then directed a possible new ending for the film based on French dramatist Prosper Mérimée’s text Lokis and added some adult themes to the story of man/bear in the shape of a young maiden in distress… The director of the original movie refused to have anything to do with an erotic climax added to his movie and took Dauman and Argos Films to court to prohibit them from tampering with his vision. So as a result Dauman took his name off the movie and it disappeared into the vaults of absence from that day. Bad career move for a first time director in my opinion, but at least he got to direct a documentary on Jean-Luc Godard some thirty years later.
So instead Dauman suggested that they use the short and make a movie exploring sexuality through various time periods. The material was reedited and named La véritable historie de la bête du Gévaudan (The True Story of the Beast of Gévaudan) a play on the legend of the Beast of Gévaudan, a man eating wolf kind of creatures that supposedly roamed the mid-southern parts of France in the 17th century. A beast and legend that Christophe Gans based his 2001 flick Le Pacte des loups (Brotherhood of the Wolf) on, but that time they kept their costumes on.
The True Story of the Beast of Gévaudan was at one time was supposed to be one sixth of Borowczyk’s Contes immoraux (Immoral Tales) 1974. But for reasons still not disclosed it obviously wasn’t part of Immoral Tales, and instead Borowczyk, just like Jean Rollin with Perdues dans New York (Lost in New York) 1989 and Les trottoirs de Bangkok (Sidewalks of Bangkok) 1984, came up with a story in which he could use the short as an erotic fantasy instead. Said and done, a wrap around narrative was shot and the footage finally had a place to unleash all it’s bestial lust, the infamous La Bête!

Yes, The Beast is a pretty lusty movie, lusty in the same sense a large majority of those mid-seventies EuroArt flicks can be. Arty provocation, mocking, teasing, suggestive and some outstanding cinematography, here by Marcel Gingon and Bernard Daillencourt – who shot several of Borowczyk’s films. But one thing I can’t really understand is how anyone can, or could be offended by the dream sequences, because in all honesty that footage is more comical than of some stirring taboo laden sexual nature. There’s no way you can watch that sequence and not be amused by it. It’s definitely not an arousing scene, but definitely a cheeky comedic one. I definitely hold it amongst stunning visuals like the Devil pooping out clergymen in Pasolini’s Il Decameron 1971 or Shirô’s [Shigeru Amachi] decent to Hell in Nobou Nakagawa’s Jigoku (The Sinners of Hell) 1960, it’s the reveal of the Bourgeoisie seated on toilet bowls during their banquet in Buñuel’s Le fantome de la liberté (The Phantom of Liberty) 1974 or the sudden appearance of Jayne Eyre in flames in Godard’s Week End 1967. It’s the kind of stuff that art house cinema is made of. It’s shocking, surreal and something mind expanding that will stick with you for life.

It would be easy to read The Beast as a male rape fantasy if your into that kind of pseudo psychological stuff, but before you go any further, I’ll tell you that there’s even a way of interpreting the daydream as a metaphor for Female liberation. As the scene evolves Romilda turns the tables on the beast and after emancipating herself of her time period chains – gowns, tight corset, wig – she becomes the insistent one and dominates the beast into death through her insatiability. We all know from Freudian analysis that many great artists are terrified of female power, and in some way there’s an irony that the movies frequently accused of being demeaning towards women are the ones that contain the strongest examples of women. Women, who hold the power to give and take life. Which kind of brings The Beast full circle, it starts with life being created, and ends with a life being lost. Life and Death, isn’t that what all the great stories are about when you narrow it down to the core?

It’s rather tragic that the movie caused such an outcry and was banned in several countries, for decades even in the UK. Because it’s a great movie that you can’t take too seriously, it’s not there to be takes seriously either. It’s merely proving that art doesn’t have to be intellectual, complex, serious and deep, it can be fun, evocative, light hearted and preposterous - which is exactly how you should view Walerian Borowczyk’s sensuous farce The Beast.

Widescreen: Anamorphic 1.66:1

Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0, Italian, French and English Dialogue, Swedish, Norwegian, Danish and Finnish Subtitles optional.

There’s a short document, Borowczyk’s Folly, produced by Cashiers du Cinema that tells the genesis of the beast and gives a great insight and explanation to why Borowczyk shot the short, why it never appeared as part of Immoral Tales and yet further ways to read the movie. The Theatrical Trailer, Borowczyk bio and filmography, photo gallery and trailers for other Studio S releases.

Here's Jarvis Cocker of Pulp sharing his impression of The Beast.

Walerian Borowczyk's La Bête is due for Scandinavian release through the good people at Studio S Entertainment on the 12th of May 2010, and can easily be picked up from Sub DVD.


Alex B. said...

Oh god, these grabs remind me why I didn't enjoy La Bete

-lots of horse genitals in the beginning,

-the dead guy turns out to have head a tail

-The whole snail thing

-the unlikely bedpost masturbation scene

-the "comical" soundtrack when the girl is being chased and later fucking the beast to death

It all felt weird and fairly yucky.
I know this makes me sound like a square but let it be so.
Sorry, Walerian:p

CiNEZiLLA said...

LOL Didn't see that one comming from you Alex. Perhaps it's time to check it out again! :D

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