Starring: Guy Trejan, Lisbeth Hummel, Sirpa Lane
Director: Walerian Borowczyk
Walerian Borowczyk’s most infamous film is a curious combination of country house farce, sex comedy and creature feature, all set to the jaunty tinkling of a Scarlatti sonata. It seems to creak into motion almost arthritically, as the Duke de l’Esperance (Guy Trejan), scion of an ancient line crumbling into ruin, plots to marry off his only son, Mathurin (Pierre Benedetti), to a wealthy American heiress, Lucy Broadhurst (Lisbeth Hummel). Lucy duly arrives, bouncing out of her Rolls, all wide-eyed with excitement. But would she feel the same if she knew that there’s a hairy monster in the de l’Esperance family tree and that Mathurin shows signs of being a chip off the old block?
If the family truly is cursed or whether it simply suffers from some infirmity in the bloodline and the rest is mere fear and superstition – all this is still a matter of debate by the end of the film, but it’s enough to ensure The Beast‘s enduring shock value, because bestiality is a taboo that shows no signs of going away any time soon. For the most part, though, the movie’s attacks on good taste are teasing rather than visceral, playing on the mind rather than the nerve-endings. Just as some of the characters have their way with each other on screen, so Borowczyk gives the viewer’s fondly held notions about heredity, noblesse oblige, innocence and virtue a good seeing to, but in a light-hearted, genteel way which leaves you respecting yourself in the morning. There’s even a certain cultural cache to it; The Beast belongs to a tradition of intellectual provocation, of serious frivolity, that goes back in France to Voltaire (who supplies the film’s epigraph).
Borowczyk is easily the equal of Bunuel in his ability to spring traps on the unwary, but the surfaces of his movies remain far fresher than Bunuel’s, which now (at least the ones in colour) seem a little stale and stagy. The Duke’s chateau is a character in itself, musty, distressed, shabby-chic, and Borowczyk’s set-dressing is brilliant and replete with symbolism – note the vitrine parked in a corner of the drawing room, which contains, like a religious relic, the torn and tattered corset of the Countess Romilda (the one reputed to have had congress with the hairy monster). Against this mouldering backdrop, riddled with secrets and forgotten codes, the three lusty young girls who feature in the story feel like a force for life, and that’s why their nude antics still give such satisfaction, even today when the internet is awash with naked ladies.
Lucy pleasuring herself with a rose and Countess Romilda (Sirpa Lane) shedding her clothes and her inhibitions in the woods are The Beast‘s two most scandalous set-pieces, but one shouldn’t overlook the role of Clarisse (Pascale Rivault), the Duke’s hippy chick daughter. The way in which she and Ifany (Hassane Fall), the well-endowed footman, are constantly interrupted in their sex games is presented as a throwaway running gag, but their eventual happy coupling makes a reassuring statement in a movie where relations between the sexes are on the whole strained. Oddly enough, these scenes also contain what are arguably the film’s most controversial moments, at least for modern tastes, the one example where Borowczyk really does seem to go too far. Without cutting, the camera tracks Clarisse from her bed, which she’s just shared with Ifany, to her wardrobe, which she opens, revealing two young children who have been hiding there the whole time (and later there’s a reversal where Clarisse and Ifany are now in the wardrobe and they creep out, naked, past the sleeping boy and girl). It’s a set-up that, these days, would earn the producers a furious phone call from children’s services.
That aside, this is one of those rare movies where every element is just right, the costumes, the decor, the casting. Guy Trejan, reptilian as the Duke, the force of repression who is trying to keep the chateau’s dirty secret under wraps; the great character actor Marcel Dalio (best known for La Regle du Jeu) as Rammendelo, the Duke’s rebellious yet decrepit uncle; and Lisbeth Hummel, who immerses herself in the more intimate moments of her role but also shows a fine flair for physical comedy as she stumbles and skids around the chateau in nothing but her fur coat in the film’s frantic conclusion.
The Scarlatti harpsichord sonata which tinkles away during the dream sequences is in a way a perfect analogy for the film’s waspish humour – insistent, potentially annoying, like a gnat in the ear. But The Beast also cheers and refreshes, exposing the primitive fears and superstitions about our own nature that lurk in men’s hearts while at the same time detaching you from them with its crispness of touch, its cool, classical rationality. Because the beast stands not so much for our base natures as for our terror of them, and that’s why what the lovely countess does to it out there in the woods is a service to us all.
The 2K transfer from the original 35mm camera negative is very good. There’s just a tiny flicker of grain across some of the faces on occasion, but the Duke’s chateau, the red walls, the dusky ormolu and old leather bindings all come up with a new vividness of hue and fidelity of texture. The exteriors have a lovely sense of depth; the forest scenes have a lively play of light, and the establishing shot of the chateau, when Lucy drives up to it, could have come out of Downton Abbey. The audio, too, has clarity and presence.
One person’s shocking art porn is another person’s object of nostalgia: in a 57-minute “making of”, Noel Very, camera operator, talks fondly about The Beast to the accompaniment of a whole mass of silent 16mm footage of Borowczyk at work on the film on location at the Chateau de Nandy. We get to see the Panaflex camera that Borowczyk favoured, and the way he would direct scenes, with the eye of a designer, looking through the viewfinder and then telling the actors exactly where to stand within the frame. Borowczyk’s mouth never stops moving. It’s a shame we can’t hear what he’s saying, but this footage gives an extraordinarily vivid sense of what it was like to be on set with him. He’s here, there and everywhere, adjusting hair and makeup, coaching his actors through the smallest of gestures (which must have driven some of them mad). There are also shots of the young Very, the camera mounted on his shoulder, in the manner of a Steadicam. Oh, and we also learn that Borowczyk prepared the beast’s sperm himself, at home, and brought it into work in a lunchbox. For anyone who assumes that The Beast is just a piece of soft-core porn cynically knocked off with little thought or care, this documentary tells a different story.
Also included on the disc is the short film Venus on the Half-Shell, a montage of erotic drawings which reveals Borowczyk’s peculiar obsession with snails.
Following on from their limited edition box set, Arrow have released five Walerian Borowczyk titles on Blu-ray: The Beast, Immoral Tales, Blanche, Goto Isle of Love and The Short Films & Theatre of Mr and Mrs Kabal.