Arguably Walerian Borowczyk’s best-known film, certainly his most immediately notorious, The Beast (La bête, 1975) was nurtured by several creative and historical wellsprings.
|French author Prosper Mérimée (1803-1870)|
In 1869, Prosper Mérimée’s novella Lokis described a young man believed to be half-bear, who duly tore out his bride’s throat on their wedding night and fled into the forest. (Mérimée is best known for the 1845 novella Carmen, in which a strong-minded and sexually liberated woman favours a man who tames bulls over her staid husband Don José.)
Lokis (first filmed in Poland in 1970 by Janusz Majewski) has been interpreted as an inversion of the classic fairytale ‘Beauty and the Beast’.
The most famous version, by Jeanne-Marie Le Prince de Beaumont, was published in 1756, a decade before rural France was terrorised by a creature described as a grotesquely oversized wolf.
|Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894)|
Robert Louis Stevenson, later the source of Borowczyk’s Docteur Jekyll et les femmes (1981), vividly depicted what he called “the ever-memorable Beast, the Napoleon Bonaparte of wolves”:
“What a career was his! He lived ten months at free quarters in Gévaudan and Vivrais; he ate women and children and shepherdesses celebrated for their beauty; he pursued armed horsemen; he has been seen at broad noonday chasing a post-chaise and outrider along the king’s high-road, and chaise and outrider fleeing before him at the gallop. He was placarded like a political offender, and ten thousand francs were offered for his head.”
|Contemporary engraving of the legendary|
Beast of Gévaudan
These all fuelled Borowczyk’s film, as did Władysław Podkowiński’s painting Frenzy of Exultations (Szał uniesień), which scandalised Varsovians in 1894 - a reproduction hangs on the walls of the film’s main location. (Borowczyk graduated from Kraków’s Academy of Fine Arts, not far from the National Museum where Podkowiński’s original has hung since 1904).
Borowczyk initially made the short film The True Story of the Beast of Gévaudan (La véritable histoire de la bête du Gévaudan) for the anthology Immoral Tales (Contes immoraux, 1974), but it was subsequently removed and turned into the 18th-century dream sequence in The Beast. It’s now bookended by a Lokis-inspired present-day framing story in which young Lucy Broadhurst (Lisbeth Hummel) travels to France for an arranged marriage, but discovers that her would-be husband Mathurin (Pierre Benedetti) is less interested in her than he is in his horses - shown graphically copulating in the film’s confrontational opening sequence.
|Lucy Broadhurst (Lisbeth Hummel)|
in the throes of her dream.
The original short film now becomes Lucy’s erotic dream, in which Mathurin’s ancestor Romilda (Sirpa Lane) is pursued by a ravening beast sporting a monstrous phallus, but her awakened sexuality proves too much for it. The film was made years before the modern definition of the term “political correctness” was coined, although the sequences between Lucy’s future sister-in-law Clarisse (Pascale Rivault) and the château’s black manservant Ifany (Hassane Fall) are at least as much a comment on class-based divisions as on racial ones.
|A horrified Romilda de l'Espérance (Sirpa Lane)|
encounters the beast.
Besides its complex disquisition on human and animal sexuality, The Beast is also a pointed social satire, with the aristocracy and the church coming in for mockery of a kind already familiar to devotees of Borowczyk’s fellow Surrealist Luis Buñuel. Indeed, the shot of a snail occupying Romilda’s discarded shoe echoes the moment in Buñuel’s The Diary of a Chambermaid (Le journal d’une femme de chambre, 1964), in which a murdered child is found with sticky snail tracks over her legs.
A new high-definition restoration of Borowczyk's The Beast will be released on Blu-ray and DVD by Arrow Films in Spring 2014 as part of the Walerian Borowczyk Collection box set. A Kickstarter fundraising campaign to restore Borowczyk's first live-action feature Goto, Isle of Love (Goto, l'île d'amour, 1968) is running until 11 January 2014.
Next week, C...