The Beast (1975)

Also known as: La Bete
The Beast in Heat
Death's Ecstacy

I find it difficult to review a film from an intellectual point of view. While I did study film theory years ago, and have umpteen books exploring the symbolism inherent in all sorts of films, I tend to just react on a emotional, simplistic level and write from there. So if you've seen Walerian Borowczyk's La Bete and were able to read the various symbols and interior meanings that Borowczyk was able to put in, you may be a bit dissapointed with my humble little take on it. Hopefully we share an enjoyment of the film though, I feel it's a considerable piece of work and probably quite significant as a piece of classic cinema.

I gather this French production caused quite a negative storm when it was released, especially in the United Kingdom. I suppose even in the permissive seventies some of the scenes were fairly provocative and confronting. It's an oddly structured film, with a dream sequence containing most of the more extreme material. Let's take a look at the story and try to make some sense of it. In the present (of 1975) in France, the awkward Mathurin de l'Esperance (Pierre Benedetti) is putting a stallion into it's usual service. We see graphic footage of the horses copulating, with a particular focus on the giant penis of the stallion. Later, in the manor of the de l'Esperances we find out the sorry state the family is in. With a clan struggling with it's finances, Mathurin is about to be married - they were engaged by correspondence - to Lucy Broadhurst, an American girl whose family is wealthy. His cranky, wheelchair-bound Uncle objects for some reason, and his father Pierre (Guy Tréjan) wants Mathurin baptized by the local priest (Roland Armontel) and the Cardinal, who is actually the Uncle's brother. The Cardinal has had no contact for years and hates his brother. The priest turns up with two young male assistants, and we later see that they are his lovers, as he kisses them in secret whenever given the chance.

Lucy Broadhurst (Lisbeth Hummel) and her aunt Virginia (Elisabeth Kaza) arrive, and Lucy takes a photo of the horses doing their business. She's welcomes by the family but doesn't see the nervous Mathurin, who has a plaster on his hand after breaking it, until a dinner much later. Mathurin's doting father cleans him up, shaves his unruly beard off and cuts his hair - for some reason the younger man can't do this for himself. He turns up to dinner and after a few pleasantries are exchanged between them, Mathurin starts rambling, loses control and has to be restrained and removed. Later, the perplexed Lucy reads some notebooks and illustrations that the family's ancestor, Romilda de l'Esperance, kept. In addition to some pressed leaves, there are pictures and descriptions of sex with some kind of monster that roams the nearby forest.

Pierre is desperate to get Mathurin's baptism happening to make the marriage complete, however the crazy Uncle (whose name I'm not sure of) is the fly in the ointment. After he trys to interfere with a phone call to the Cardinal, the enraged Pierre kills him off-screen with a straight razor and covers up the murder. Meanwhile, Lucy is becoming influenced by the sexuality being given off by the writings of Romilda. She masturates in bed with a rose - then becomes enveloped in a fever-dream about Romilda (Sirpa Lane). We see Romilda playing a harpsichord in some sort of Gazebo on the family property, and looking after a tethered sheep and its lamb. The lamb escapes and wanders into the forest, with Romilda giving chase. She finds it's bloodied, half-eaten remains and encounters the Beast that dwells in the forest. Emerging from behind a phallic sculpture, it's a strange-looking creature, kind of half-rat and half-bear - see the picture above - with an enormous and permanently erect penis. Screaming in horror, she flees but the Beast is hot on her heels, ripping off bits of clothing, until only her bodice remains. Finally after much chasing through the forest and harpsichord music on the soundtrack, the Beast catches up to Romilda and has his way with her. He rapes the unconscious girl, but she soon begins to awaken and becomes aware that she's enjoying the experience. Throwing off her remaining clothes, she ravishes the Beast with her hands and mouth, rubbing his never-ending stream of sperm all over her body. As this happens, we see a naturalistic image of a snail crawling slowly her discarded shoe. Finally, the Beast dies of over-exertion and Romilda leaves, confused but exhilarated by the experience.

Lucy awakens from the dream, and seeks out Mathurin after being aroused by it. To her horror, she finds him dead, and the nude girl flees in shock to Aunt Virginia. Romilda's portrait falls off a wall and smashes to bits. The grieving Pierre, the priest and his 'friends' solemnly place Mathurin on a table for the doctor to come and confirm the death. Later, the frustrated and frenzied Virginia rips the clothes off the corpse of Mathurin to finds a hairy, clawed hand just like the Beast in the dream, and a long tail as well! The Cardinal turns up with his entourage, just as a howling wind begins to blow multitudes of leaves around outside, and Lucy and Virginia flee the mansion forever.

Most of this film is plainly about repressed sexuality and it's consequences. Romilda is repressed by her society of her time, but once her sexuality is unleashed, it kills her rapist/seducer/lover, the simple animal, with it's full and long-unexpressed force. This force channels itself through (the seemingly virginal, but I'm not sure) Lucy's dream and kills the Beast's descendant, Mathurin, in his sleep. There is a sub-plot about Mathurin's sister, Clarisse (Pascale Rivault) who visits at the same time, and is having a sexual liaison with the family's black servant. Their sex is constantly interrupted by the whims of father Pierre, and Clarisse often has to pleasure herself with a bed-rail or bed-post. In this manner, the de l'Esperance family itself represses sexuality, cutting the hair off Mathurin and trying to marry him off for money. In the end, sexual repression kills him, as his true animal nature required a natural expression of desire. This film is brimming with sexual imagery, most of it seemingly phallic, and sensual imagery such as the greens of the forest and the ever-present snail sliding over the shoe of Romilda. It's noted that the de l'Esperance family eats a plate of snails at their banquet, further underlining their destruction of the natural order.

I've heard this film described as containing scenes of "bestiality", but it's hard to see it that way. For a start, "The Beast" isn't a real creature, so there's no actual footage of bestiality. Still, even if it was a real creature in some parallel universe, it's depicted as a more-than-willing participant with some sense of intelligence and awareness of what it's doing. It's probably the wanton depiction of sexuality enacted by Sirpa Lane as Romilda, taken to quite an extreme with much fake ejaculate rubbed all over her naked body, that shocked curious audiences thinking they were going to see a sexy European art movie, but nothing much more. The Beast is considerably more than just pornography, being to this reviewer quite a meditation on denied erotic expression. It leaves you with quite a bit to think about, well after it's over. Admittedly the film does have it's slow spots, but the sum of the piece is well worth a view. The quality of the photography, acting and direction from Borowczyk is high, enough so that any art-film lover with an open mind will get something out of this one.

© Boris "Bodice-Ripper" Lugosi 2005.


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Review written: 11/28/2005 21:19:21