La Bete : France 1975 : Walerian Borowczyk : 92 mins
Now that British audiences can finally see it as its director intended, The Beast emerges as the bizarre missing link between respectable European arthouse movies and their disreputable ‘adults only’ cousins. Borrowing as much from the anti-establishment traditions of Luis Bunuel as it does from the Emmanuelle series (to which Borowczyk ended up contributing), it’s a real one-off: a bracingly enjoyable romp that manages to combine aspects of melodrama, horror, farce, satire, porn and broad humour. This isn’t a picture to be watched with a straight face – though clearly the work of a serious, skilled film-maker, Borowczyk has gone on record as saying it’s “really more of a comedy than an erotic film,” and there are plenty of moments when even the loftiest of audiences will have trouble containing their giggles. Most of these derive from the appearance of the eponymous beast, played by a man in a not-very-convincing bear-type outfit and equipped with a ‘member’ that would make even Dirk Diggler blush.
The beast appears in the weird sequences that are partly flashbacks, partly dream sequences, partly the product of a young woman’s over-active imagination – it’s never made clear which, just as the title could easily be translated as ‘The Fool,’ possibly a female fool. Lucy Broadhurst would fit such a description – she’s a slightly dizzy “English” girl (Lisbeth Hummel’s accent is a thing of wonder) who turns up with her straight-laced aunt at a sumptuous French chateau to meet her future husband, Mathurin (Pierre Benedetti). It’s a marriage arranged by Mathurin’s father Pierre (Guy Trejan), in accordance with instructions left in a rich relative’s will – Mathurin must marry a girl from Lucy’s family before a certain date, and the wedding must be blessed by Mathurin’s uncle, a Cardinal – though Pierre’s machinations meet resistance from his father, the elderly, wheelchair-bound but resourceful Duc de Balo (Marcel Dalio). As Lucy gets to know her bizarre future in-laws, she discovers a family legend involving Romilda (Sirpa Lane) a female antecedent from 200 years ago, who was supposedly attacked and raped by a mysterious beast from the forests, drawn out of his lair by the ‘proximity of Mercury’ in the heavens. But the beast got a lot more than he bargained for.
It’s completely crackpot stuff, of course, but there’s rarely a dull moment as the scandalous revelations pile up. The ‘notorious’ sex stuff does, it must be said, become somewhat repetitive – we keep getting very similar shots over and over, with diminishing results, but the anti-clerical, anti-aristocracy, anti-bourgeois satire remains as fresh and surprising as ever. It’s a classic farce framework, with everything hinging on the climactic arrival of a hyper-important visitor – the Cardinal – but Borowczyk breezily pushes the form into dazzlingly unexpected new areas, skating over the occasional over-complexities of the plot (presumably disentangled more thoroughly in the original Zeromski novel) and pushing back the boundaries of taste with a marvellously off-hand matter-of-factness, while simultaneously lampooning Cocteau’s poetic forties classic version of Beauty and the Beast.
There’s symbolism everywhere you look – or, more precisely, everywhere you’re allowed to see, as the camera constantly seems to be peering around slightly-closed doors and through windows. And there’s enough material here for endless analysis – the beast himself can represent just about whatever you want him to, from the oppressed working-class, to the unrestrained libido, to the degeneracy of the ruling class, to the blundering patriarchy, whatever. But it’s doubtful whether there’s really as much substance as such readings would seem to imply – as with the Pasolini’s roughly contemporary Salo, to which The Beast would make a fine compantion piece, the emphasis is on sensation, and just seeing how far the imagination can go. Unlike Salo, however, The Beast is a delight rather than a gruellingly cathartic ordeal, a delirious blast of shameless movie excess.
16th September, 2001 (seen Sep-7-01, Phoenix, Leicester)
by Neil Young
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