Shagging Dog Story: Walerian Borowczyk’s La Bete (1975) – Blu-ray review
Borowczyk’s beast-porn horror-com might seem silly nowadays, but you’ll never look at a horse – or hear a harpsichord – in quite the same way again.
(Walerian Borowczyk, 1975)
Oh, to have been at the meeting where Walerian Borowczyk pitched La Bête. “It’s like Beauty and the Beast... except beauty can’t get enough of the beast. Not content with being rogered senseless by the hairy fella, she then titwanks him until he comes all over her breasts.” To which, presumably, everybody in the room said, “Seriously, dude, WTF?”((In reality, as recounted in disc extra Frenzy of Ecstacy, the pitch was rather more mundane. Borowczyk sent sketches of the beast to producer Anatole Dauman, and the project was green-lit. Indeed, Michael Brooke (a Borowczyk expert who helped put together this disc) told me on Twitter that, far from being scandalised, Dauman urged his director to be ruder. Dauman, it should be pointed out, was also the guy who made In The Realm Of The Senses, so he must have been pretty hard to shock.))
Excuse the crudity, but there’s no getting away from it. However, if you’re shocked, don’t worry – the most genuinely shocking thing about Borowczyk’s once notorious movie is what a silly thing it is. Borowczyk was on a one-man mission to inflame polite society with his taboo-baiting cinema, and here he tackles, quite literally, the bête noire of bestiality. It’s not a bad idea, per se, until you realise that for all the director’s apparent delight in Freudian symbolism, he’s rather more literal-minded when it comes to depicting society’s repressed horniness as a man in a monster suit with a prosthetic dick that pumps out fake ejaculate on cue.
Elsewhere, an interracial couple go at it while children hide in a cupboard, a nubile woman masturbates with a rose, and the horses are at it, too. Near constantly, in fact; one stallion is pumping away for the first 20 minutes and – when he stops – one character has helpfully taken a Polaroid so Borowczyk can repeatedly remind us what its giant dick looked like.
The point is obvious: we are all beasts, so why aren’t we honest about it? There’s the germ of a good idea in the narrative set-up, about a family in fear of its lycanthropic secret being outed when a will decrees that a businessman’s daughter should marry the beast family’s son. Oh, and the family is related to a cardinal, allowing Borowczyk to take scattered potshots at religion, society and sexual repression.
The trouble is, for the most part, it’s not actually funny. Borowczyk’s style, indebted to Luis Bunuel, has a nice line in depicting off-kilter banality, idly observing behaviour that’s not-quite-right from camera positions that are also not-quite-right. Yet it’d be more enjoyable if the director admitted he was making a comedy. Until a few beserk minutes of running around towards the end, he consciously avoids making this the country-house farce it so clearly needs to be.
That said, genuine laughter escapes in the bonkers (in both senses) sequence where, in a flashback or fantasy (or both), an 18th century lady is hunted and raped by the beast until she starts loving it. Regardless of the terrible sexual politics – and it’s worth remembering that Angela Carter was writing a far more radical and disturbing feminist take on fairytale lore around the same time – it’s neither erotic nor frightening, the two things that censors of the time were worried about.
Indeed, as the lady is gradually disrobed by items of clothing getting snagged on branches, it might srike you that Monty Python’s ‘Scott of the Sahara’ sketch did this same gag, before this film was made. At which point, Borowczyk’s preferred soundtrack of upbeat harpsichord music starts to give events the feel of The Benny Hill Show relocated to pre-revolutionary France.
So, it’s not quite the provocation it once was – and yet, Borowczyk’s sheer commitment to his plan means that it remains outrageous even if it doesn’t outrage. This is far bolder and weirder than pretty much anything being made nowadays. In an accompanying video lecture on this disc, The Guardian critic Peter Bradshaw reckons that society is still lagging behind when it comes to a proper appreciation of what Borowczyk was trying to do. Despite La Bête’s myriad flaws, even forty years later the film’s assault on cinematic propriety means that my next visit to a multiplex is going to be duller in comparison.