La bête (The Beast)

The Beast

When a film starts with a huge erect horse penis flailing around and close-ups of an engorged pulsating horse’s vagina, you kind of get an idea of you might expect in the following 90 or so minutes.

So it is with one of Borowczyk’s best known films – The Beast. Banned for many years by county councils across Great Britain’s green and pleasant land it is a riot of sexually explicit imagery, horror with sprinkles of unusual comedy.

The storyline, such as it is, centres on the impending marriage of beautiful Lucy Beaumont and crippled dimwit Mathurin de Balo deep in the French countryside – a matrimony stipulated by will which will join two families into a union of power and wealth. The will stipulates the marriage ceremony should be conducted by Mathurin’s father’s uncle – a Cardinal, whose office in the Vatican hangs up whenever the family name is mentioned. There are clearly deeply buried secrets afoot, not least the legend of a Beast who comes to visit every two hundred years. So far, so typical horror.

What makes this film slightly extraordinary is its gleeful fascination with animal copulation. Images of bestiality are discovered all around the house and the prolonged sequence of horses mating at the beginning is how we are introduced to Mathurin, who manages the family stable.

The set piece of the entire movie is an extended dream sequence in which Lucy imagines herself first ravaged, seemingly raped, and then enjoying sex with a kind of werewolf. A werewolf with an enormous ejaculate oozing penis. Over and over again the image of the beast’s spurting member is revisited with explicit and pornographic glee.

It is certainly a provocative movie. Any film which has a character being sexually assaulted by, and then enjoying sex with any form of attacker, human or animal, is treading through dubious moral waters. The fantasy element of both the movie and the sequence for the character means it is clear that she is okay with what she has imagined. She returns to the fantasy, masturbates over it.

Whether we as the audience should be okay with it though is less clear.Lucy’s waking dream as she experiences this kind of sexual awakening while wearing a diaphanous nightie, is a crudely drawn way of exploring animal passion, and no doubt there is a connection between the beast’s expiry from sexual exhaustion and the French phrase for the orgasm – le petit mort or little death.

Thankfully, and probably wisely, the introduction of the actual beast – a sort of shoddy werewolf costume, happens very late in the film and as such doesn’t appear quite as ridiculous as it would have done if introduced much earlier. By this point we’ve already seen people fucking in cupboards while children sleep on their beds, priests kissing boys on the mouth and a servant using the words “daddy-oh” with apparent seriousness. And snails. Lots of snails.

For a horror film it’s not particularly scary, more slightly unnerving – there is continuing mystery over why Mathurin has his arm in plaster, which is fabulously revealed at the end, probably the best moment in the entire plot. The sex is utterly over the top, and clearly intended to be so. The weird thing is, that it kind of works.

Taken separately all the elements of this film just wouldn’t function without being almost jaw-droppingly inappropriate. Combined they remain inappropriate but unnervingly so. The theme of sex with animals has a clear, supernatural reason behind it. Lucy remains fascinated and naïve. She ends naked, all but for a fur coat.

Visually the film is daring as hell. Pornographic, sumptuous, disgusting, ornate – all of these things. The pace is unusually good despite the paucity of plot or explanation. In many ways the reveal at the end is like the culmination of a shaggy dog story – you can kind of see it coming but it’s quite fun going on the journey to get there.

It’s quite an achievement for a movie made nearly 40 years ago to remain as bold-facedly shocking as it is, while at the same time remaining quite daft.

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