|'Crude, gratuitous, sensationalist and seedy cinema made for no other reason than to shock and titillate'.|
Famously a film which has courted controversy wherever it has gone since its initial release in 1975, The Beast sees Borowczyk move further into graphic, taboo-challenging cinema following the sexually explicit and largely disappointing Immoral Tales originally released a year earlier. However, what the director offers in The Beast makes his previous film seem relatively tame and chaste in comparison. One of the first images Borowczyk presents us with is a stallion's fully erect penis, going on to fill the opening minutes of his film with graphic scenes of the aforementioned aroused gee-gee getting it on quite vigorously with a mare. We are "treated" to close-ups of flared nostrils, steaming equine bodies and dribbling semen in a sequence which can only be described, rather disturbingly, as horse porn. What's even more troubling is that this is relatively restrained compared to what The Beast still has in store for us.
Seemingly wanting to bookend his film with shocking, bestial sex scenes, Borowczyk spends much of the final half an hour of his film presenting a dream sequence which depicts the titular creature pursuing and then raping a young woman, Romilda (Sirpa Lane), in a French woodland during the 18th Century. It's a sequence which starts with blunt animal metaphor - a problem found previously in Blanche - as Romilda innocently follows a stray lamb into the woods; before moving swiftly through the unintentionally ludicrous (the Beast's unconvincing latex member receives far too much screen time) to the downright horrid. Romilda's fear and resistance soon turns to pleasure and lust, giving the entire sequence, and thereby the film as a whole, a distinctly sordid and chauvinistic flavour. If Borowczyk's Beast is in fact intended to have a symbolic meaning, then its connotations can only be negative and backward.
I would suggest, however, that any symbolism found within The Beast has been fabricated by those looking for it and not crafted by Borowczyk himself. This is crude, gratuitous, sensationalist and seedy cinema made for no other reason than to shock and titillate. And yet Borowczyk takes his film so far into the extreme that he fails to achieve even these unsophisticated outcomes. The sex scenes on show are constantly so over-the-top that they provoke guffaws just as often as gasps; as for arousal, even the most depraved sexual mind couldn't find these grotesquely comedic displays at all stimulating.
Regrettably, through his obscene extended finale, Borowczyk throws away a first half which could be considered to intermittently hold some of his most pleasing cinema yet. Whilst not flawless, the director manages to build up a palpably tense atmosphere amongst the characters introduced, as well as constructing a modern gothic setting and plot which might have held some potential. His use of sound is also inventive, using audio effects here and there in original and unsettling ways. It's never enough, however, to counter Borowczyk's constant distraction with putting unsubtle sex acts on screen, including a priest's (Roland Armontel) improper relationship with two choirboys, servant Ifany (Hassane Fall) jumping into bed with his master's daughter Clarisse (Pascale Rivault) at every available opportunity, and prospective bride Lucy (Lisbeth Hummel) pleasuring herself in various unsettling ways.
Borowczyk may have wanted his audience to believe that The Beast has some deep and insightful message behind it, as evidenced by the closing speech about morality and religious sin he tacks on to the very end of his film. But it hasn't: this is a film with a capacious hollow centre, surrounded by some of the most abhorrent and reprehensible cinema you're ever likely to experience.
The Beast is available on UK dual format Blu-ray and DVD now.