Close-Up is a column that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. The retrospective The Many Sins of Walerian Borowczyk is showing February 12 - June 18, 2017 in the United States and in many other countries around the world.
As the reverberation of horses fervently neighing and clomping their hooves begins to permeate the opening credit soundtrack of The Beast, one may recall the similarly orchestrated donkey brays that introduce Robert Bresson’s Au hasard Balthazar (1966). Or, given its title, and the very basic concept of a young woman becoming enamored with an savage creature, one may be tempted to compare this 1975 feature to the many variations of Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve’s classic fairy tale, La belle et la bête. One would be more than a little confounded, however, by making either inadequate association. If Walerian Borowczyk’s semi-porn-semi-art-semi-monster movie bears any resemblance to another film or story, it would be to those that also comprise this Polish filmmaker’s erratic and eclectic body of work. And in many ways, even that is pushing it.
From its hardcore close-ups of two horses in the throes of equine passion, with the reproductive anatomy of both the stallion and mare shot in jarring, graphic proximity, to its climactic fantasy that concludes in a, well, fantastical climax, The Beast is a cinematic peg without a suitable hole. This goes for its content—most of which has, for better or worse, evaded other films—and for its place in Borowczyk’s flamboyant, if inconsistent, filmography.
Borowczyk trained as a painter and lithographer before entering cinema by way of poster design and animation. After moving to France in the early 1960s, and following a well-regarded series of innovative animated films (shorts like Les jeux des anges  and full-length titles such as Mr. and Mrs. Kabal’s Theatre ), he ventured into live-action filmmaking with Goto, Island of Love (1969) and Blanche (1971). Then, in 1973, he made Immoral Tales. This is when things took a distinctly and explicitly sexual turn for “Boro.” While the ensuing path hasn’t always produced first-rate filmmaking (his last two films, Emmanuelle 5 and Love Rites, both from 1987, scarcely express the formal mastery evinced ten year prior), some of what followed is truly remarkable. The Beast especially.
Loosely adapted from a Prosper Mérimée novella entitled Lokis, Borowczyk planned to incorporate The Beast’s notorious dream sequence—then a standalone short shot in June of 1973 and known as The True Story of the Beast of Gevaudan—as one of the stories in Immoral Tales. But after that portmanteau was cut off at four segments, Borowczyk began bracketing the earlier footage with a fully-formed narrative. Along with Goto, The Beast was Borowczyk’s only original screenplay, and the finally realized feature stars Lisbeth Hummel as Lucy Broadhurst, a young woman betrothed to the socially undeveloped and curiously crude Mathurin de l’Esperance (Pierre Benedetti), a man she has never met. When she arrives at the palatial de l’Esperance estate with her proper and therefore soon to be quite appalled aunt, Virginia (Elisabeth Kaza), they take a wrong turn and come upon Mathurin in a stable as he ardently tends to the aforementioned horse copulation. Virginia is repulsed, but Lucy is fascinated, eagerly taking instant snapshots of the routine. Finally arriving at the manor, Lucy and Virginia are introduced to the rest of the out-of-sorts household. There is Mathurin’s father, the Marquis Pierre de l’Esperance (Guy Tréjan), Pierre’s uncle, the wheel-chair bound Duc Rammaendelo de Balo (Marcel Dalio), and, eventually, a priest (Roland Armontel). Pierre’s hippy hot mess daughter, Clarisse (Pascale Rivault), also lives there, biding her time by engaging in an oft-thwarted bedroom romp with illicit lover and family servant, Ifany (Hassane Fall). While Rammaendelo pleads with his Cardinal brother to perform the Lucy-Mathurin marriage, something the religious figure is adamantly reluctant to do (probably with reason), Pierre repeatedly alludes to harbored secrets involving bitter old man Rammaendelo and his poisoned wife. Though the entire residence is abuzz with the impending marriage, no one involved seems particularly excited or happy. There is obviously a good deal on the mind of this motley crew, and little of it concerns a genuine desire for conventional marital bliss.
Though rarely one of the finer points in a Borowczyk film (even when working with exceptional actors like Michel Simon in Blanche), the performances in The Beast are worthy of praise for the admirable sobriety of the actors. Benedetti, Tréjan, and Dalio have to say, do, and suggest a range of bewildering, sometimes unnerving material, and they do so with a sincere earnestness, never conceding to the plot’s ostensible nonsense. But carrying much of the film, as essentially the beauty of this beastly tale, is the Danish Hummel, a wide-eyed stunner who took over the part after the film’s initial star, playmate Jeane Manson, abandoned the production just three days in. Hummel had a short-lived acting career that started in 1974 and just barely finished out the decade. Her later roles included, oddly enough, 1977’s La bella e la bestia, an omnibus collection of Borowczyk-esque bawdy tales directed by Luigi Russo, and one last role, some ten years later, in Russo’s Le diaboliche. Though most of the characters in The Beast are unpleasant to be around and are generally cruel to one another, Lucy is the charming exception. Excitedly, buoyantly, and inquisitively canvasing the mansion, she is, unlike Virginia on one side and Pierre and Rammaendelo on the other, delightfully unaffected and not in the least put off by the occasional oddity. Quite the contrary, she is riveted by the stories that abound, by the bestial drawings, and by one tale in particular, dating back hundreds of years and involving an erotically-charged encounter between an antique ancestor, Romilda de l’Esperance, and a raucous creature in the woods.
Lucy’s captivation with this vintage chronicle reflects a historical inclination shared by Borowczyk, as a key motif in his work is the timelessness of eroticism. Period piece films like Immoral Tales, Blanche, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne (1981), and Art of Love (1983) recurrently showcase how sexuality has manifest itself through the years, in any number of settings, while in the modern-day Love Rites, Hugo Arnold (Mathieu Carrière) becomes aware of the enduring impression maintained by a storied brothel on his street. At the same time, if sexuality has been omnipresent in the past, in the eyes of Borowczyk, it remains all-pervasive in the present, sensually festering in art, fashion, architecture, and even in public spaces like subways and museums.
With such a stress on prevalent eroticism, Borowczyk tends to give his films a lavishly committed degree of visual attention; as must always be to his credit—in The Beast and elsewhere—his work is exquisitely photographed. With cinematography by Bernard Daillencourt, who also shot Borowczyk’s Immoral Women (1979) and, not far removed from Borowczyk, David Hamilton’s Bilitis (1977) and Laura (1979), The Beast is routinely illustrated with a subtle, delicate luster. More intimately, his fleshly close-ups of isolated body parts engage with a meticulous handling of fetishized objects: see the claw-marked corset in The Beast, a symbolic testament to the violent-sexual nature of Romilda’s wild confrontation, or props like Lucy’s rose, which are sexualized in their depiction and usage. Women in particular are placed under Borowczyk’s besotted cinematic microscope—as stated by an ancient Roman tutor in Art of Love, apparently echoing the director’s own credence, women desire “to be looked at.” However much such an objectified notion may run counter to contemporary mores, Borowczyk openly accepts and flaunts his own voyeuristic tendencies, as well as those of his characters and his audience (the scintillating, gradually more exposed Hummel gets this treatment on all three fronts). From the pervy use of binoculars in his 1959 short The Astronauts to the exhibitionist actress of Emmanuelle 5 and a snooping photographer in Love Rites, Borowczyk’s characters are often subject to the lustfully prying eyes of another.
Having earlier worked on films as diverse as Costa-Gavras’ Z (1969) and Jacques Tati’s PlayTime (1967), The Beast’s production designer, Jacques D’Ovidio, does an extraordinary job decorating the ostentatious yet noticeably neglected chateau. He and Borowczyk establish the country estate interior as a gateway for external influence, where outdoor elements (leaves, snails, etc.) appear inside as a sort of residential parallel to the film’s personified theme of wild/domesticated overlap. Borowczyk, who was always a stickler for precise scenic and ornamental arrangement, infuses The Beast with tell-tale signs that denote disorder, disregard, and a vain, uncivilized attempt by the de l’Esperance clan to play host. The kitchen, for example, is littered with debris, while paintings are covered in cobwebs and furniture is caked in layers of dust. The house is archaic and inhospitable; it encompasses lives out of time, intentionally sequestered, haphazardly left to the overrun of wildlife (in more ways than one, as will be seen). There is in The Beast a continual confluence and co-mingling of the natural and the unnatural, seen in everything from Virginia’s plush fur coat to the way Pierre ominously grooms and bathes his son like livestock being led to show (putting lipstick on a pig, Pierre’s best efforts do little to conceal Mathurin’s barbaric table manners).
By film’s end, as Lucy examines the Polaroids of the engorged horses, the imagery arouses both her sexual interest and imaginative allure. That such abnormal stimulation should spur this seemingly chaste young woman suggests she may fit in with this peculiar family after all (“I like forests and animals,” she says early on). The enraptured Lucy falls into an intermittent dream state, during which time she fantasizes about—or that she is—the beautiful Romilda de l’Esperance, played by Sirpa Lane. In a delirious coup de grâce from Borowczyk, Romilda searches for a wayward lamb and happens into a arboreal arena inhabited by an aroused, man-sized beast. What follows is a feral culmination of sexuality, violence, and depravity. Fleeing the creature in her best try-but-not-too-hard manner, Romilda’s clothes are snagged, suitably and strategically stripped off, readying her for the wooded tryst. It’s a prolonged carnal consummation, where the hairy beast’s distended member yields a bounty of seminal discharge, all of which is shown in such copious detail that the outrageousness of it all can’t help but be comical (the overtly non-realistic costume and phallic features keep the assault less discomforting and more ridiculous).
Since The Beast doesn’t call superficial attention to its lascivious self like Immoral Tales, which gets its promised content out there in its very title, or something like Emmanuelle 5, where familiar audiences know exactly what they’re in for, this sequence is certainly a jaw-dropper, without any extensive hint of what is to come (literally). But while the suggestive etchings seen earlier do little to prepare the viewer for the enacted ravaging, the action should not be much of a thematic surprise. Like many a Borowczyk ingénue, Lucy is introduced at a time of innocence, ripe with budding curiosity and self-discovery. From there, he frequently traces the initiative pathway of those who traverse outmoded or clichéd sexual identities to arrive at a state of independence and assertion. Of all films, perhaps Emmanuelle 5 is the best example of this, but one sees further variations in Art of Love, where the teacher edifies the uninitiated, and, more blatantly, in Love Rites, where the drama is referred to at one point as an “elegant invitation to debauchery.”
Borowczyk’s films are populated with young girls subjected to the precarious bond between ferocity and passion; as Lucy with her potentially feigned naiveté discloses a veiled fantasy life, the aristocratic Romilda derives pleasure from the incident. In this regard, Immoral Tales is a revealing(!) precursor, dealing as it does with aggressive abuse linked to willing sexuality. And much of this falls in line with a varied yet consistent examination about what is, in the end, natural, how the sex and hostility is entwined, and how one addresses and reacts to dormant longings that are subconsciously hidden or forcefully restrained. In a violent variant, Love Rites has the hitherto submissive prostitute, Myriam (Marina Pierro), produce claws for her fingers, proceeding to scratch and carve at Hugo’s face and chest, turning the tables in a vicious fashion that certainly has its parallels in The Beast, while the steady revelation of the latent beast within is seen also in Dr. Jekyll, which famously includes bodily transformation and animalistic impulses that struggle to find release. Conversely, in Behind Convent Walls (1978), Borowczyk’s amusing entry into the “nunsploitation” sub-genre, the sisters eschew their religious dictates to revel in the joyousness of sexual exploration.
Connected to this, and nowhere more evident than in The Beast, Borowczyk is regularly preoccupied by the often-arbitrary restrictions placed on love and desire, where these restrictions come from, and how they are assigned. Again using Immoral Tales as a gestation point, that film was seen as a vehicle with which to address a quartet of so-called “transgressions”—fellatio, masturbation, lesbianism, and incest. This carries over to The Beast, where the relationships confront a number of perceived limitations. Though there are the far more objectionable notions of pedophilia (the priest’s questionable attachment to two young boys) and, of course, bestiality, Borowczyk tests the waters of such innocuous taboos as interracial relations (see Ifany and Clarisse, who engage in the only human-on-human intercourse in the film, which is nevertheless continually suspended, leaving her to finish on a bed post) and sex outside of marriage (despite the range of aberrant behavior, the sanctified wedding of Lucy and Mathurin is of the utmost concern).
“Today, everything hinges on sex.” So says a character in Love Rites. Though that film was released in the late 1980s, such a declaration could just as well be applied to the time of The Beast. This was a decade rife with soft-core titles from Bernardo Bertolucci and Pier Paolo Pasolini, on one sophisticated end of the spectrum, and Jean Rollin and Jess Franco, on the gloriously trashy other. Borowczyk scholar Daniel Bird called The Beast a “parody of pornographic tropes,” and indeed, the film is built around the exaggeration of its sexual fundamentals and its high/low art contrasts (Scarlatti’s harpsichord provides a nice air of classical respectability). Following an “unauthorized” Italian remake in 1980, somewhat enticingly called The Beast in Space, Borowczyk himself toyed with an ultimately aborted sequel in the early 1990s (it was to be called Motherhood and involved a seal-child; say one thing for Borowczyk, be it horses, birds, or butterflies, one never look at the animals the same way after seeing his movies). At any rate, The Beast is a wildly rousing comedy of manners—or the lack thereof—filled with Buñuelian absurdity and eroticism. It is a paradox from beginning to end. Like its revelatory though inevitable conclusion, the film would be tragic if it weren’t so bizarre; it would be wholly erotic if it weren’t so shocking; and it would be patently sexy if it weren’t so funny. As a keen provocateur and multitalented artist, Borowczyk knew how to be sensational, and The Beast, his best film, is an appropriately surreal and dazzling mixture of farcical humor and uninhibited sensuality, all with the logic of perpetual reverie.