The Beast ~ La Bête
Walarian Borowczyk, 1975, France
It’s the typical poster of some beauty in the infernal clutches of a monster/alien/robot. But even with ‘King Kong’, I was thinking, “So he fancies Fay Wray… and…?” But with King Kong, the monster’s infatuation could be attributed to a plutonic obsession with aesthetic beauty (she’s so small, delicate and pretty…). So what’s The Creature from the Black Lagoon’s excuse, with all that simulated underwater sex? Monster films typically have an “other” inexplicably lusting for a human that it surely wouldn’t be wired to lust after? I mean, wouldn’t that be a form of bestiality? And yes, I know interspecies sex is a thing, but nevertheless... Are these monsters/aliens/robots merely conceptions of male lust that dominates the fantasy and science-fiction universes, and are women just to be in peril? Is this some kind of rape fantasy?
And that’s where we come in with Borowczyk’s ‘The Beast’. It’s as if Benny Hill had directed a Hammer horror. Originally conceived as a part of the anthology ‘Immoral Tales’ and then expanded to feature length, ‘The Beast’ is the tale of a woman into bestial fantasises that a monster in the woods chases her and… lusts after her - she likes it really - until she seemingly fucks it to death. The film sets out its agenda from the outset, starting with a prolonged and explicit sequence of horses breeding. It’s this that turns her on, because any hint of sex seems too. Lucy (Lisbeth Hummel) comes to a big old estate to be married to a business-man’s son, who is being scrubbed up to be presentable as the issue of his being baptised seems to be a sore point of domestic politics.
Glenn Kenny is surely wrong when he says that Borowczyk is “neither decorative not decorous”: the set design is lush, if filmed without exaggeration; and when he says that “His lighting is generally flat” one can only imagine Kenny has not seen a decent print of ‘The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Miss Osbourne’. But yes, there is a straightforward rendering that might be seen as the opposite of the aesthetic of, say, Kubrick’s ‘Barry Lyndon’. But he is right when he writes that Browczysk is an artist “whose ability to appal and exhilarate and to make one fall sideways laughing at erotic absurdity will certainly find appreciation from anyone whose taste for the Psychotronic runs to extremes.” The tone is of farce, bizarre pornography, surrealism, of perversion, of a wrongness pummelled down by the ludicrous. There is a whole roster of details to be offended by along with the bestiality: light-hearted rape; a black servant associated with rampant lust; small children stuffed into a closet so that the adults can romp; a pederastic priest – but an assault on good taste is surely the agenda. All of this is filtered through farce, accompanied by incongruous jaunty music to accentuate the comedic. Even the gargoyles rudely and suggestively have their tongues out. But when Borowczyk has Lucy masturbate with a red rose, the film reaches for a merging of the explicit, pleasure and the romantic and arguably achieves a moment beyond just shock into something more complex in effect. When a snail slimes over a deserted slipper, it can be read a metaphor for how the ickiness of nature always overwhelms tokens of civility.
It’s not a film to look for great performances or characterisation and, as with porn, personalities are mostly condensed to sexual appetites; but there is an underlying precision to Borowczyk’s use of the ridiculous and the explicit that mostly hits its mark. It’s certainly unique. As Scott Nye notes, it draws together “eroticism, sin, horror, repression, vulnerability, and humiliation.” As well as a somewhat ratty monster costume that evidently fell off a back of a lorry that is another indication that this melange of erotica and the b-movie is mostly comic, if not for many. It surely scores as a logical result of the sexual subtext that underlies so many monster-movies.