Walerian Borowczyk, 1975
Starring: Sirpa Lane, Lisbeth Hummel, Marcel Dalio
The young Lucy Broadhurst has recently inherited her father’s fortune — as long as she goes through with a planned marriage to Mathurin, the son of her father’s friend, the Marquis Pierre de l’Esperance. Mathurin’s dysfunctional family has an aristocratic heritage but they are very short on funds and desperate for the match with Lucy. Unfortunately Mathurin is slovenly and awkward, obsessed with mating his prized horses and little else. His father's attempts to clean him up fail, but Lucy is determined to go through with the marriage if only for a degree of personal freedom. She becomes fascinated by the tale of Mathurin's ancestor Romilda, a headstrong woman who dallied with a strange beast in the forest 200 years ago…
Borowczyk’s best known and most infamous film is something of a fairytale — though it is not a retelling of Beauty and the Beast — and is a surreal, darkly comic examination of sexual mores. This mixture of elegant visual style and biting humor was intended to be a chapter in Borowczyk’s previous film, the erotic anthology Immoral Tales, and it was inspired by Prosper Mérimée’s novel Lokis, itself an adaptation of a popular French werewolf legend about the Beast of Gévaudan. The genesis of the film was Lucy’s dream sequence, where she imagines Romilda de l’Esperance running after a lamb into the woods. There she encounters a wolf/ape-like beast with an enormous erection. It chases her through the forest, where she loses her clothes, and rapes her — though the assault turns into pleasure for Romilda, who engages in such passionate sex with the Beast that he orgasms to death.
The Beast has more explicit sexual content than Immoral Tales, which is really saying something as the latter included underage fellatio, masturbation with a cucumber, bloodlust, orgies, and incest. Here there is implied bestiality, equestrian sex (I’ve never recovered from seeing that sudden shot of giant horse dick for the first time as a teenager), a priest who is likely a pedophile, a nymphomaniac whose continual lack of fulfillment causes her to hump the bed frame, and plenty of the Beast’s oozing semen, apparently a recipe of Borowczyk’s making. These graphic sexual elements ensured a mixed reception, though it’s obviously survived as one of the great cult films of the ‘70s.
What sets Borowczyk’s work — and The Beast in particular — apart from average exploitation fare or some of the more stylish erotica available during the decade is that this film is both smart and funny. It borrows heavily from surrealist traditions and is perhaps the ultimate blend of art house and exploitation. Borowczyk skewers aristocratic (and as a result, bourgeois) morality and openly mocks the religious and social repression of sexuality, female desire in particular. Controversially, this is not the last time that Borowczyk would depict a rape scene that turns into an act of consensual pleasure — but this isn’t as misogynistic as it seems and is actually not at all if you take Borowczyk’s career as a whole. His running theme seems to be that sexuality is irrepressible and its restriction will only lead to violence. Of course, the sudden release of pent up female sexuality also results in chaos, which here takes the form of humor.
The specter of Romilda as the symbol of constricted sexuality looms large over the proceedings and this becomes sort of a parlor room comedy of errors. For the wedding (and its consummation) to come to fruition, Mathurin has to be baptized, attempts are made to hide his deformed arm, and the couple must be married by the Cardinal di Balo, though no one can get him on the phone — he is estranged from the family presumably because of their immoral behavior. This foreshadows one of Borowczyk’s later masterpieces, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne, in the sense that sexuality leaks out all over the aristocratic manse — Lucy even finds hidden pornographic drawings on the backs of paintings around the house — and ultimately dissolves the social and familial structures. Despite the aggressive sexuality, this is a beautiful film (like all of Borowczyk’s work) and it does have some more slowly paced moments. Lucy’s frenetic dreams and fantasies are offset by the family melodrama, a measured harpsichord-based score from 17th/18th century Baroque composer Domenico Scarlatti, and many shots of the lush forest. Even some of the sexual moments are softer and more painterly, like a famous scene where Lucy masturbates with a rose.
The Beast comes with the highest possible recommendation. It was my first Borowczyk film and remains one of my favorites. Though the Cult Epics 3-disc set has been one of my treasured possessions, the Arrow Films restoration blows it out of the water like a wad of Beast come shooting through the forest. It comes with an orgasm-inducing amount of special features, including an introduction from esteemed critic Peter Bradshaw, Borowczyk’s short film Venus on the Half-Shell, documentary The Making of The Beast with cameraman Noel Véry, another documentary Frenzy of Ecstasy, and so on. Finnish actress and exploitation star Sirpa Lane has certainly never looked as glowing or lovely as she does here — Arrow should feel immensely proud. Though their Borowczyk collection is region B, they will be releasing this title later this year for US audiences — but the entire collection is worth picking up a region-free player, if you haven’t already.