How to describe The Beast? Horror? Fantasy? Arthouse? Erotic film? Pornography? The film has been described using each of these terms over the decades, no doubt confusing some and frustrating others. The film is also typically summed up with a rather dismissive—and inaccurate—description of “a retelling of the Beauty and the Beast story.” And while I can understand how some reviewers would see the beauty/beast fable in the film, this is NOT that story.
The de l’Esperance family comes from old money. They live in an ancient French villa and, while aristocratic, they are also out of money. The saving grace for the de l’Esperence family is when Lucy Broadhurst (Lisbeth Hummel), the rich, young daughter of a successful and rich family, agrees to marry Mathurin de l’Esperance (Pierre Benedetti). The only problem is the centuries-old legend that haunts the de l’Esperance estate—the legend of a beast who has lived for centuries on the grounds, taking the life of each de l’Esperance male who marries. The family patriarch, Pierre de l’Esperance (Guy Trejan), is desperate for the infusion of cash that will come with the marriage and dismisses the legend out of hand. However, both his son Mathurin as well as others in the household, aren’t as quick to dismiss the legend. They believe that with the marriage, the curse will be renewed and the beast will take poor Mathurin.
The story begins with the arrival of Lucy and the Broadhurst matriarch to the de l’Esperance villa where they are witness to the studding activities of Mathurin’s favored stallion. The women are escorted into the villa and into their respective boudoirs. Here Lucy is tortured by phantasmagorical dreams of a woman from an earlier time period who is stalked and ultimately taken by the legendary beast. Periodically she awakes from her dream to peek in on her fiancée who is also sleeping. Plagued—and extremely turned on—by her fantasies, she returns to her bed and her dreams. It isn’t until the culmination of her dream that she realizes the legend just may be true.
Of all the adjectives used above, The Beast is less a horror film than anything else. There is nothing remotely scary about the film and, other than the titular beast eating a lamb, there is no overt violence in the film. The film concentrates more on the erotic than the horrible. In fact, the genesis of The Beast can be traced back a couple of years earlier to Walerian Borowcyzk’s previous film, Immoral Tales, an anthology film focusing on various sexual themes. Originally titled The Beast of Gevaudan, the original short film was to be included as a section of Immoral Tales before being excised from that project. Borowcyzk then expanded the original treatment to a full-length feature and used the footage already filmed as the basis for Lucy’s dream in the finished product.
As previously mentioned, the film opens with the Broadhurst women witnessing the mating of two horses. These opening scenes are quite graphic in their presentation of actual copulation, with explicit close-ups of the act itself. While these scenes serve to foreshadow Lucy’s growing awareness of her sexuality, it also provided the first scenes of controversy for the film, as the arthouse crowd were likely unprepared for this kind of frankness in a film of the time. But aside from these opening scenes not much else happens for the first hour of the film. We are introduced to several characters and Mathurin undergoes baptism to hopefully undo the family curse. There is some drama as the de l’Esperance partriarch tries to keep everything on track even as those around him try to derail his plans. Meanwhile, the manservant is diddling Mathurin’s younger sister every chance he gets. This provides some light comedy as it seems the servant is interrupted by the family’s demands every time he hits the sack with the poor, sexually frustrated young lady. She is left to rub her genitals on the footboard of the bed to fain satisfaction.
But once the household falls asleep and Lucy begins to dream things really start to pick up. The beast stalks the beautiful Romilda de l’Esperance, whose original corset, which was found floating in the pond many decades before, is still prominently preserved in a glass case in the family smoking room. The Finnish starlet Sirpa Lane starred in the original film short, made for Immoral Tales. And while she still receives star billing here, she isn’t on screen nearly as much as one might imagine since her scenes have been intercut into the story by means of a dream sequence. Still, this is the film that perhaps made Sirpa Lane a household name for a decade or so in the late 70’s and early 80’s and really jump-started her career is European sexploitation films such as the very hard to find Nazi Love Camp 27, The Secret Nights of Lecrezia Borgia, Joe D’Amato’s sleaze epic Papaya: Love Goddess of the Cannibals, and the XXX-rated and legendary Beast in Space. Unfortunately, Lane died in her late forties in 1999 of complications due to AIDS. Nevertheless, her performance here, while severely limited in time, was notorious and controversial enough to vault her to stardom for a decade or so. The beast stalks her through the woods as she runs, her clothes slowly ripped away from her by tree branches as well as the claws of the beast. Eventually, turned on by the nubile Lane, who is nearly nude at this point, the beast captures her and begins to rape her. She passes out but awakens a short time later only to realize she is thoroughly enjoying the ravishing she is receiving. She becomes an active participant, fondling and sucking the beast’s horse-sized member, bringing him to very messy climaxes over and over again, until the beast succumbs to the pleasure and dies. With an end to the dream, Lucy awakens, rather graphically masturbates with a rose and, unsatisfied, goes to peek in at her soon-to-be lover only to find him dead as well! Lucy’s mother, overcome with frustration, rips Mathurin’s clothes off only to discover he has a tail. He has turned into the cursed beast. With that revelation, the two ladies run screaming from the villa while the de l’Esperance patriarch witnesses all his plans unraveling and the film comes to an end.
Director Borowcyzk is himself a controversial character. Starting out with acclaimed film shorts, he made a handful of sexually-charged arthouse films tinged with surrealism before falling out of favor with that circle. He had a disastrous turn when he was tapped to direct Emmanuelle 5 in 1987, and subsequently made one last feature film before retiring altogether. He is perhaps best known for this film as well as a handful of others, including his nunsploitation epic, Interno di un convento (Behind Convent Walls).
So…how to answer my opening question? While many times categorized as horror, I think that is the least accurate category for this film. Certainly it has many fantasy tropes as well. I find it difficult to classify this film as pornography though it certainly is sexually explicit. But with no actual hardcore scenes between two people (do horses and monsters count?), this isn’t what would be considered standard pornography. In fact, I think most people would be hard-pressed to even describe the film as erotic, unless you have very specific turn-ons. So, in the end, perhaps arthouse is the way to go. Regardless of how a particular viewer would categorize this film, to say it’s different than anything else you’ve probably seen may be the most accurate statement one can make about the film.
Some viewers will be infuriated by the lack of action of any kind throughout most of the film. Others will simply be bored. Still others will be offended by the sexual frankness. But there are those cinephiles out there who are able to appreciate filmic beauty without a great deal of action and aren’t easily offended who will enjoy this film very much. I count myself as one of these viewers. The film itself proceeds languidly (some will say “slow”) and is filled with beautiful scenery of the French countryside as well as luxurious interiors, punctuated by Borowcyzk’s typical stylistic use of his favorite color, red. Arrow Video, who has released this latest version of the film, has included a plethora of extras, perhaps the most important of which is an hour-long segment of silent 16-mm footage of Borowcyzk directing various scenes or preparing to direct scenes, punctuated by commentary from his longtime camera operator and close friend Noel Very. Again, most passing fans who might be interested in the more prurient aspects of this film, probably won’t make it through this segment. But for those interested in how films are made, this is an invaluable tool to understanding Borowcyzk’s work method. He was a true auteur—a word that is thrown around too freely, in my estimation—and a consummate artist as well as a master at creating mis-in-scene. Even if you don’t appreciate his films, those interested in filmmaking should be fascinated by this special feature. There are tons of other special features as well, though they are not necessarily typical special features one has come to expect. But one has to expect that the typical “making of” documentaries weren’t made for Borowcyzk’s work, so Arrow has really dug into the vault to find some archival features as well as putting together some newer material. There is a short introduction to the film by film critic and Borowcyzk fan Peter Bradshaw as well as some footage of some of Borowcyzk’s aging film collaborators at a reunion luncheon from 2014. Then there are three commercials that Borowcyzk shot as a means to keep him afloat between film projects as well as a 10-minute anti-hunting documentary Borowcyzk worked on with filmmaker Peter Graham, along with an interview with Graham. These are all real ephemera and are best-suited for the Borowcyzk super-fan. The real gems include the aforementioned hour-long segment with Noel Very as well as a visual essay on the evolution of The Beast, tracing the roots of the film from Immoral Tales and its development into a full-length feature as well as some discussion on the never-made sequel planned for the early nineties. One last short feature exposes the true artist that was Borowcyzk and his “sound sculptures,” proving again that there was more to this filmmaker than mere pornography. Along with an original trailer and an illustrated booklet with both archival and new writing on the film, this is a deluxe package released by Arrow Films.
What I most appreciate about Arrow Films is that, along with more prestigious and exploitive titles such as What Have You Done to Solange, The Mutilator, and Mark of the Devil, they are releasing more obscure, arthouse titles—titles that likely won’t sell nearly as well as the more well-known or exploitive films—such as The Beast. This shows that the good folks at Arrow are concerned with more than just turning a buck, and this reviewer appreciates it.
In fact, Arrow has not only released other Borowcyzk titles already but have announced the release of some major arthouse titles in March 2017 to include Borowcyzk’s Story of Sin, and other films by the likes of Elio Petri, Jasper Sharp, Luchino Visconti’s fabulous Ludwig, and the absolute must-own Cinema Paradiso by Guiseppe Tornotore. For more information about The Beast or any of these upcoming releases you may go to http://www.arrowfilms.co.uk/category/usa/ or, to purchase titles already released, you can check out Amazon.