Monday, July 10, 2017

#2,381. The Beast (1975)

Directed By: Walerian Borowczyk

Starring: Sirpa Lane, Lisbeth Hummel, Elisabeth Kaza

Tagline: "Just About The Most Outrageous Erotic Fantasy Ever Committed To Film"

Trivia: Actor Dylan Pringle once took a date to a screening of The Beast in London. She was reportedly "appalled" by his taste in films

“Eroticism… sex… is one of the most moral parts of life” 
                                                              – Walerian Borowczyk 

Born in Poland in 1923, Walerian Borowczyk displayed a penchant for the fine arts early in life, studying painting in Krakow and eventually moving into Lithography. As a young man, he designed a series of award-winning movie posters before dabbling in the cinematic arts himself, turning out animated films in Poland and France (he emigrated to Paris in 1959, where he would spend the remainder of his days). 

In the late 1960s, Borowczyk made the leap into live-action, and many of his subsequent films, which centered on sexuality, could have played simultaneously in the arthouse cinemas and adult movie theaters of the day. Lauded by some critics as a genius and denounced by others as a smut-peddler, Borowczyk’s output never failed to stir up controversy, and 1975’s The Beast proved to be one of the most controversial of his entire career.

Inspired by a short film that Borowczyk himself directed in 1972 (which is shown in its entirety - as a dream sequence - over the course of this movie), The Beast is set in the picturesque French countryside, and concerns the efforts of Marquis Pierre de l'Esperance (Guy Tréjan) to marry off his only son Mathurin (Pierre Benedetti) to heiress Lucy Broadhurst (Lisbeth Hummel). 

Upon his death, Lucy’s father, who had amassed a small fortune in the business world, left his entire estate to his daughter on the condition that she marry Mathurin within 6 months of his passing, and that the ceremony be officiated by the well-respected Cardinal Joseph do Balo, Pierre’s uncle.

A once-proud family, the l'Esperances have fallen on hard times as of late, and need this marriage to keep them afloat financially. So Pierre does everything he can to ensure the wedding goes off without a hitch. With Lucy and her Aunt Virginia (Elisabeth Kasa) already on their way, Pierre forces his other uncle
 Duc Rammaendelo De Balo (Marcel Dalio) to call Cardinal De Balo in Rome, despite the fact the two brothers had a falling out years earlier, and are refusing to talk to one another. 

Cardinal De Balo, it seems, is convinced that Rammaendelo and the rest of the l’Esperances are heathens, in part because Mathurin has never been baptized. Hoping it will lure the Cardinal to his house, Pierre sends for the village Priest (Roland Armontel), asking him to baptize Mathurin as soon as possible.

But the rumors that the l’Esperance family was cursed 200 years earlier - when their ancestor, Romilda, was raped by a wild beast - are more than idle gossip, and should the true nature of this curse be revealed, it would surely destroy any chance of a marriage between Mathurin and the lovely Lucy Broadhurst.

Borowczyk’s affinity for merging art and pornography is on full display in the opening scene of The Beast; immediately after a title card featuring a quote by Voltaire (“Troubled dreams are, in fact, a passing moment of madness”), we’re treated to a close-up of an erect horse penis, and watch as two equines (with Mathurin looking on) engage in sexual intercourse. 

Though shocking, this scene is but a prelude to the promiscuity to come, and there are times when Borowczyk even presents the couplings in a humorous light. Throughout the movie, the secret trysts between the l’Esperance’s butler Ifany (Hassane Fall) and Pierre’s daughter Clarisse (Pascale Rivault) are constantly (and inadvertently) being thwarted by Pierre himself, who calls for Ifany time and again to assist with whatever crisis he’s dealing with at the moment.

There is humor as well in the story of Mathurin’s and Lucy’s proposed marriage. Seeing as the two have never met, the dim-witted Mathurin is afraid that Lucy might reject him, a fear that is fueled by the conniving Rammaendelo, whose sole aim is to prevent the wedding from taking place (Mathurin is Rammaendelo’s caretaker, and the old man is convinced he’ll be tossed to the side moments after the wedding). 

As for Lucy (who is treated as if she was a delicate flower by both her Aunt and Pierre l’Esperance), her passions are ignited soon after her arrival at the l’Esperance estate when she finds pictures depicting acts of bestiality (which were hidden in a drawer). Whenever she’s alone, Lucy masturbates to them.

The most scandalous moments in The Beast, however, are the dreams that Lucy experiences several times during her stay in the country. As mentioned above, the scenes that make up these sequences were lifted from Borowczyk’s 1972 short film, also titled The Beast, in which a maiden (presumably, in this case, Pierre’s ancestor Romilda, played by Sirpa Lane) is chased through a forest by a wild beast, whose erect penis spews semen with every step it takes. The beast catches the maiden and has his way with her, an eventuality that, by all appearances, is as pleasing to the victim as it is her attacker. 

It was due to explicit imagery such as this that The Beast, even in a heavily edited form, was refused classification in the UK by the BBFC (after it was shown at London’s independently-run Prince Charles theatre, the Director of Public Prosecutions tried to get the film banned outright under the Obscene Publications Act).

Yet as startling as The Beast can be, it is also quite beautiful, with Borowczyk making great use of the picturesque landscapes (the movie was shot entirely on-location). In addition, The Beast serves as an effective critique of the French aristocracy, whose outward sophistication masks inner desires every bit as licentious as those of the lower classes.

To my surprise, The Beast is not the first Borowczyk picture I’ve seen during this challenge of mine; back in June of 2012, I reviewed his 1978 film Behind Convent Walls, which I described as “a rare blend of European Art-House cinema and exploitation sleaze”, calling it ” a shining example of both”. 

This sentiment is equally as fitting for The Beast, a gorgeous, evocative motion picture that has now piqued my curiosity: from here on out, I want to watch as many of Borowczyk’s movies as I can lay my hands on!

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