• Gabe Powers

The Beast Blu-ray Review (originally published 2015)

Bestial dreams interrupt the venal plans of a French aristocrat attempting to save a crumbling mansion by marrying off his deformed son, Mathurin, to a horny American heiress, Lucy. Yet Mathurin seems more interested in his horses than in his bride-to-be. Meanwhile, Lucy discovers the story of his 18th-century ancestor Romilda (Sirpa Lane) copulating with the titular beast. (From Arrow’s official synopsis)



While Walerian Borowczyk’s work is unique enough to remain relatively obscure outside of cult and arthouse circles, he did make one film that was so outrageous and shocking that it managed to transcended his limited audience. That film was The Beast (French: La Bête, 1975). The Beast is usually characterized as a porn version of Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont’s Beauty and the Beast. This is an adequate shorthand to get non-Borowczyk fans in the door, but it is, of course, not a completely accurate portrait. In truth, it is a Boro-centric adaptation of Prosper Mérimée’s 1869 novella Lokis, which itself is described as a parable-like subversion of Beauty and the Beast. Originally, it was going to be the fifth short in Immoral Tales (French: Contes Immoraux, 1974) – as seen in the expanded L'age D'or version – but was expanded into a full-bore spectacle that is, by some accounts, the director’s magnum opus.


I still think I’d prefer a feature-length version of Immoral Tales’ third story, Erzsebet Bathory, but the expanded The Beast flourishes in ways Immoral Tales does not, largely because it isn’t bogged down by split narrative focus. Despite an established and maintained through-line narrative, it is still an episodic exercise, one that loses itself in the savory qualities of mundane and obscene ritualism. Ordinary chores and basic household maintenance – the Marquis sweeping cobwebs from a frame, his son being groomed for presentation, a chef preparing a meal – are treated with the same obsessive-compulsive focus as scenes of amorous horses mating. Inanimate objects are again sexualized in a general sensual sense (pornographic renderings and fetishized set design, for example) and, in the case of a batch of bedposts, the literal sense. As I delve deeper into the director’s catalogue, I realize that even stories with specified timelines (such as those in Immoral Tales) are sort of visually anachronistic. Like Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne, The Beast seems to take place out of time, where Victorian and ‘70s aesthetics/fashions collide. These stories don’t take place during historical eras – they take place at different points in Borowczyk’s universe.



Borowczyk ensures that the celebrated/despised monster rape fantasy sequence stands out as particularly hallucinatory (it was shot for a different movie, after all), but the ‘real world’ is almost as surrealistic and certainly more ripe for the director’s patented social satire. The crumbling estate at the center of the plot is filled with deranged aristocrats and a sexually frustrated staff, and the characters correlate deformity and religious deficiency. One of the more telling moments zips by so quickly it makes me wonder how much more thematic texture I missed in this initial viewing. In it, a baptism occurs behind closed doors, as if it is a more intimate or obscene moment than any of the sexual acts. The actual obscenity on display doesn’t spread beyond the confines of the current softcore standard, but the bestial sex acts and the shots of the Beast’s throbbing rubber phallus leaking semen will certainly raise the eyebrows of more sensitive members of the audience. I’m not sure if I prefer the absurdity of the Beast’s scenes in the context of either film. Since it serves different purposes, I suppose there’s no reason to choose one over the other.



Video

Unlike most of Borowczyk’s movies, The Beast has enjoyed a healthy history on North American DVD, thanks to Cult Epics and their extensive three-disc limited edition release. But Arrow has beaten others to the HD punch with this brand new Blu-ray transfer. The 1.66:1, 1080p version of the The Beast was also transferred directly from the 35mm source and restored/graded/cleaned in HD. This transfer is less consistent than Immoral Tales (or at least less consistent than the parts of that film), due once again to the precise and dreamy photography that Borowczyk and cinematographers Bernard Daillencourt & Marcel Grignon employ. The dream sequence at the center of the film was filmed earlier (likely on different stock) for Immoral Tales and stands out as the most ‘different looking’ of the images (it is fuzzier/foggier than the other footage). There’s little notable print damage or compression issues, but increased grain and occasional pulsing between sequences. At the same time, the majority of the transfer is quite crisp with vivid colors, rich blacks, complex gradations, and, when required, the edges are sharp.

Audio

The original mono soundtrack was also transferred from the original magnetic reels and is presented in LPCM 1.0. The majority of the film is in French (with quite a few English scenes) and dialogue is quite natural with only occasional hints of distortion. Volume levels fluctuate a bit, usually during scenes with dialogue without losing any of the important exposition. The presence of soft environmental ambience is, once again, welcome and does quite a bit to broaden the scope of the single-channel sound. There is no credited composer and minimal musical sound, aside from harpsichord melodies that are likely traditional baroque pieces. Where music is concerned, the sound quality is nice and warm.



Extras

  • Introduction by Guardian film critic Peter Bradshaw (1:50, HD)

  • The Making of The Beast (58:00, HD) – Following a collection of title cards and still images, camera operator Noël Véry supplies commentary for silent 16mm footage shot on location. Véry worked on nine of Borowczyk’s films and shares his unique insight into this particular project.

  • Frenzy of Ecstasy (4:20, HD) – A visual essay on the illustrated evolution of the Beast’s costume/make-up design and plans for a sequel that would’ve been entitled Motherhood.

  • The Profligate Door (13:20, HD) – A featurette about Borowczyk’s ‘sound sculptures’ hosted by Musée Chateau d’Annecy curator Maurice Corbet.

  • Boro Brunch (7:40, HD) – Footage from a reunion meal recorded in February 2014 reuniting members of Borowczyk’s crew, including costume designer Philippe d’Argila, editor (now director) Florence Dauman, actress Dominique Ruspoli, producer Dominique Duvergé-Ségrértin, camera assistant Noël Véry, and script supervisor Zoe Zurstrassen.

  • Borowczyk commercials, produced for Les Cinéastes Associés: Holy Smoke (10:00, HD), The Museum (1:50, HD), Tom Thumb (1:50, HD)

  • Gunpoint (11:00, HD) – An anti-hunting documentary short by filmmaker Peter Graham that was produced and edited by Borowczyk (11:04)

  • Behind Enemy Lines: The Making of Gunpoint (5:20, HD)

  • Theatrical trailer



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