Wednesday, 10 September 2014

The Beast (1975)

So here we finally are - the last of Arrow's current crop of dual DVD & Blu-ray releases of the work of Polish director Walerian Borowczyk, and the most recent chronologically. THE BEAST also happens to be the work of his that first brought him to my notice and, I suspect the notice of many others as well - for better or worse.
        THE BEAST is an attention grabbing, infamous film. Based around a segment originally filmed for IMMORAL TALES which was then saved to be part of a longer feature work, its original release was met with horror, outrage, censorship and outright banning. What's interesting is that, apart from some graphic scenes of horses having sex at the beginning, for the first hour or so the unsuspecting viewer may well wonder what all the fuss is about as THE BEAST bears all the characteristics of setting itself up as something approaching farce.

Lucy Broadhurst (Lisbeth Hummel) travels from England to marry Maturin L'Esperance (Pierre Benedetti). They stand to inherit a considerable fortune as a result, as long as the marriage is blessed by a specific Cardinal. Behind the scenes we learn the Cardinal is still in Rome & won't accept the L'Esperance family's calls because Maturin wasn't baptised until recently. As Lucy explores the house she finds a number of weird family heirlooms - paintings that conceal obscene images of bestiality, and a corset in a glass cabinet that allegedly belonged to Maturin's eighteenth-century ancestor Romilda. Lucy isn't entirely without secrets of her own, however. She's been busy taking Polaroid snaps of horses having sex and getting off to them in her bedroom. Maturin, on the other hand, seems to have no interest in her at all. In a dream sequence Romilda (Sirpa Lane) gets chased through a forest by a huge hairy thing with a huge hairy thing. After a prolonged sexual encounter with it, she eventually proves more than a match for its sexual potency and the beast dies. Meanwhile back in 1975 the plot is about to go completely bonkers with plenty of nudity and weird hairiness of its own.

In a decade where censorship had become significantly relaxed it’s still unsurprising that THE BEAST caused quite a lot of outrage when it was first shown. Nearly forty years later, and the sexual content still feels rather over the top, so goodness knows what viewers of the uncut version must have thought back in the day. THE BEAST is, of course, all about sex, whether it's the unfulfilled desires of Lucy, the perceived impotence (or bestial leanings) of Maturin, the predilection for teenaged boys exhibited by the priest staying at the house, the inter-racial couplings of the servants (probably a lot more shocking then than we can probably conceive) or the fact that the entire movie is taking place at what one presumes is a stud farm. In amongst all this bouncing around, Borowczyk also manages to create some beautiful images, and once again shows an exquisite sense in his choice of musical underscoring (in this case harpsichord music by Scarlatti).

Arrow's Blu-ray presentation of THE BEAST is uncut and second to none. It's rare to see a European film from this era looking this good (the most recent would have been the BFI's Blu-ray of Robbe-Grillet's SUCCESSIVE SLIDINGS OF PLEASURE). Extras include a brief introduction by film critic Peter Bradshaw and The Making of the Beast which combines behind the scenes footage of the making of the film with a commentary by camera operator Noel Very. Frenzy of Ecstasy is a featurette which displays Borowczyk's original sketches of the beast, and then provides a synopsis of the perceived BEAST sequel, MOTHERHOOD, which sounds so completely barking mad I wish he'd had the chance to make it. There's also the short VENUS ON THE HALF-SHELL which features some very strange art indeed, a trailer, booklet and reversible sleeve.

As a work of film restoration on Arrow's part, and an example of the censor's current day attitude towards a movie by a director of Borowczyk's reputation, I cannot recommend THE BEAST highly enough. As an actual film I'd have to recommend it be approached with caution. It's possibly the most provocative and certainly the most outrageous of Arrow's Borowczyk Blu-ray releases. Actually, it's one of the most outrageous in the entire Arrow catalogue. Nearly forty years old, it still has the power to make you wonder what on earth was going through his mind when he made it. Which in itself should be recommendation enough.

Arrow Films released Walerian Borowczyk's THE BEAST on dual format Blu-ray and DVD on 8th September 2014

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