Walerian Borowczyk’s The Beast (La Bête) is the most notorious film of a most notorious director. Borowczyk’s career started with animated films, and by the early 1970s he had moved into live-action features and was one of the darlings of the art-house set. That was before he made Immoral Tales. That film was shocking enough, but the response to The Beast in 1975 was nothing short of outright hysteria. The tabloid press in Britain went berserk, and the film was banned there for 26 years.
The reason for the ban was the infamous bestiality rape scene, which just shows how absurd film censorship really is, since there was no rape scene. What there is is a fantasy sequence, and I don’t think any reasonable person could interpret it even as a rape fantasy. You just have to look at the expression on the woman’s face when she sees the beast - her reaction is the reaction of a fairy tale heroine. The whole sequence is a dream inspired by fairy tales and by an overheated imagination.
Lucy Broadbent is the heiress to a fabulous fortune, but to get the fortune (according to the terms of her father’s rather eccentric will) she must marry Mathurin, son and heir of the Comte de l’Esperance. For Lucy it’s a romantic adventure, but for everyone else the marriage is about greed. This proud aristocratic family is penniless. Mathurin is quite unsuitable as a husband for anyone, and is not even baptised (a slight problem since the will stipulates that the marriage must be performed by the Cardinal de Balo, one of Mathurin’s uncles). The reason he has remained unbaptised is one of many shameful secrets concealed behind the splendid facade of the Chateau de l’Esperance. For Lucy’s mother, there’s the lure of marriage to a titled family. Both families are in effect selling their children, who have never met, to satisfy a greed for money or status.
As the wedding day draws near, Lucy becomes increasingly preoccupied with erotic fantasies, culminating in the scandalous and controversial fantasy of a woman and a beast-like creature. It is in fact Beauty and the Beast, and her fantasy is inspired by what she’s heard of strange family legends involving The Beast. And Beauty turns out to be far more powerful than the Beast, and the end result is unfortunate for both the Beast and for Mathurin, the fates of Beast and Mathurin being inextricably linked.
Mathurin gets on well with horses. He knows nothing of people. In that sense he is the beast, untouched by civilisation, and beasts rarely survive their first encounter with civilisation. The representatives of civilisation in this film are corrupt and vicious. Lucy is attracted by the non-civilised world of dream and fairy tale. The first time she runs into the forest, after her mother’s car breaks down, she feels the call of that other world, that knows nothing of civilisation.
Most reviewers can’t really get past the more startling imagery, especially the enormous phalluses, of which there are many, beginning with a very graphic scene of mating horses (which excites Lucy who enthusiastically photographs the event). What most people seem to miss with Borowczyk is his humour. These people are appalling, and Borowczyk is mocking them with outrageous glee. The desperate attempts of Mathurin’s father to present his family as being thoroughly respectable (while his daughter spends most of her time bedding the butler while the family priest amuses himself with ) and to maintain the pretend that everything is going fine are ludicrous and they’re funny. The whole situation is farcical and that’s how Borowczyk plays it. His earlier reputation as an art-house director seems to mislead many reviewers into taking him much too seriously, and much too literally.
In some ways he’s doing what writers like Angela Carter were doing at about the same time, restoring or rediscovering the erotic content to fairy tales and folk tales. Borowczyk takes it to an extreme, but that’s his nature, he obviously likes to provoke. This is a strange film, a mix of eroticism, satire, farce and fantasy. It’s sometimes an uneasy mix, but it’s still fascinating.