Note: Cult Epics is releasing "The Beast" as a three-disc set limited to 10,000 copies.
"The Beast", directed by Walerian Borowczyk in 1975, is a fairy tale set in the modern day. The plot is very simple: a young American woman, Lucy, can only claim her inheritance if she marries a French gentleman, Mathurin, by a certain date, and if the marriage is performed by the local bishop. The young man seems to be more interested in breeding his horses than marrying (the opening sequence spares us no detail of the intercourse between two thoroughbreds), but his father, uncle, and the local priest (who openly keeps two young boys as his concubines) want the money, as the family's fortunes are fast diminishing. Lucy arrives with her Aunt to be married to Mathurin. She is curious about the legend of Romilda, a lady of the castle who lived 200 years before Lucy's time, whose ripped corset is enshrined in a glass case and who was rumored to have been attacked by a beast and to have overcome him.
The first meeting between Mathurin and his wife-to-be does not go very well; Mathurin is very shy and drinks to excess and has to be removed from the room. Lucy returns to her room and dreams of the encounter between Romilda and the Beast. At first, the Beast menaces Romilda, chases her through the woods, and rips away her clothes. He is endowed with a penis several feet long, which expands as the chase progresses. Eventually, he captures and rapes Romilda, but she gets over her terror and begins to enjoy it. She is insatiable and pursues the Beast in her turn, for more, more, and more, until the Beast collapses and dies. Romilda then buries him and returns to her castle.
In the morning, Lucy goes to Mathurin's room and finds that he is dead. When they strip his clothing to try to revive him, they realize that his body is covered with beastly fur and that he has a tail. In other words, Mathurin was cursed by Romilda's bestiality, which is usually interpreted as a metaphor for incest.
Fairy tales like the version of "The Beauty and the Beast" that we are all familiar with grew out of the time of arranged marriages, in which young inexperienced girls would be traded to wealthy older men in exchange for some financial benefit to the family. The tale then focused on the young woman's process of adjustment to her new mate, who at first seems ugly and repulsive and gradually becomes increasingly attractive if an emotional bond is formed.
Usually, cinematic fairly tales handle the continuum of erotic to pornographic content indirectly, a subtext that is alluded to symbolically. In this way, parents could take their little children to see the films, confident that they would not derive the same meanings from it that their parents would. For example, in 1901, Georges Méliès made "The Brahmin and the Butterfly", which showed a Brahmin (depicted as a snake charmer) playing his flute until a caterpillar crawled out of a basket. He turns it into a butterfly. She tries to fly away, but he captures her and hides her under a veil. Two women come along and lift the veil and find that the butterfly has turned into a normal woman. The Brahmin tries to seduce her and kisses her shoe (often a symbol of the vagina, as it is in "Cinderella" and in "The Beast"), but she spurns him. He then turns into a caterpillar, and the women walk away. This scenario is typical of hundreds such by Méliès, who relished depicting powerful older men (usually magicians or scientists of some type) losing their hearts to unattainable women and using every resource in their power to seduce, overpower, and own them, only to lose them in the end. The male and the female figures in his films are based on the typical magician's arrangement (Méliès was a magician before he began making films), with an older, powerful male and a young, attractive female, a pairing that is redolent of incest.
The themes of incest and arranged marriage, of older men training younger women in their control to service their needs, continued to be a staple of fairy tale films into the late 1960s and early 1970s. Consider, for example, the musical "Donkey Skin" by Jacques Demy (recently preserved by his former wife, filmmaker Agnes Varda). Originally released in 1970, this movie presents a princess, played by a luscious young Catherine Deneuve, who flees her castle home because her father, the widowed king, wants to marry her. The princess is actually not averse to this arrangement, as her father has seduced her with multiple lovely gowns, but her fairy godmother convinces her that she can do better than him. In order to flee, she has to disguise herself with the skin of donkey. It is only when she encounters a more suitable prince (an encounter arranged by the fairy, who then marries the girl's father herself) that she can shed the skin and marry. In spite of the scabrous content, Demy's film is almost completely asexual in its telling; the erotic content is conveyed by the lusciousness of the sets and costumes, the sensuality of making a cake, the prince's search for the princess by sliding a ring on their fingers, etc. Other than the incest angle, there's nothing that would be immediately objectionable for children to see, but adults would appreciate the coded nods to mature behavior.
So it had to happen: a film director (in this case, Borowczyk, not French but Polish, though he made this film in France and clearly sees it as a continuation of the French tradition of erotic fairy tales) came forth who decided to dispense with the indirectness and show openly all the sex, whether erotic, pornographic, or bestial, onscreen. The result is "The Beast".
The DVD set comes with a 52-page booklet that tries to gloss over the pornographic aspects of the film (the Beast's obviously prosthetic penis expands in front of our eyes and drips copiously, for example), by situating it in an art-film tradition. It also glosses over the crime of arranged marriage (neither Lucy nor Mathurin have any say in the matter, and it is all done for the financial gain of their elders) and the incest that is the cause of Mathurin's unnatural body. Instead, it focuses on the usually unexplored outcome of arranged marriages: even if the young woman grows to accept the beastly older man she has been forcibly married to, in time the physical disparity between them will show in that she will have healthy desires that he can no longer satisfy. This is what happens to the Beast, whom the booklet describes as "innocent": Romilda is insatiable and kills him. Lucy's dream extends Romilda's reach through the centuries, and Lucy's naïve, unrequited desire kills Mathurin as well. We are back to Méliès' Brahmin, an older man who lusts for a natural innocent, but once he has her, he can't control her. In fact, she overpowers him. Demy's solution to all of this depravity, whether it is rape, incest, or vagina dentata, is still the best--that is, a companionate marriage between equals. However, films such as "The Beast" enable us to explore our dark fantasies with humor.
1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, 94 minutes
1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, 98 minutes (the "complete" version)
Although it has not been carefully preserved, the print is in good shape and holds up well. As there is only a four-minute difference between the two versions, one wonders why anyone would ever watch the 94-minute version rather than the 98-minute version.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 mono French track has not held up well, possibly due to the untended existence of the movie's film-based elements. There's also a DD 2.0 mono English dub that is of poor translational quality at times. (Disc 3 only has a DD 2.0 mono French track with optional English subtitles.) The optional English subtitles are huge and intrusively block off a large portion of the screen.
Theatrical Trailer, Still Photos
The second disc contains a two-hour silent movie composed of grainy film footage shot on set as Borowczyk was directing. Borowczyk insisted on no narration or music being added, which makes the footage simply tedious. The behind-the-scenes footage doesn't add to our experience of the film.
The "biography" is extremely limited, composed of stills and text, but it does give us a sense of Borowczyk's progress from painting to postermaker to film director. The short interview is truly unfortunate, as a now aged Borowczyk continues to press his film as a masterpiece with no recognition of its faults, particularly in the script (which is rather muddled). Some of his insistence comes from the film being banned for 25 years; there is an indirect emphasis on the fact that if a phallus is prosthetic, than the image cannot be pornographic. Most unfortunate of all are his repeated misogynistic comments, in both the booklet and in this interview. There is a certain sad irony here, as this director who managed to give us a filmic rendition of Freud's wolfman theme in "The Interpretation of Dreams" seems to have been blocked by his own arrogance from the emotional enrichment his own vision could have given him. The seducer himself cannot be seduced.
Some of the extras have French audio with optional English subtitles.
There's a 52-page booklet entitled "Beast Bis", and it offers photos, commentaries, interviews with the director, and plot summary.