The Beast
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The Beast (La Bête, 1975) is a notorious cult movie, the kind of movie you might not admit to having seen. It's notorious for the rape scene that serves as the movie's centerpiece--in which a beast ravishes an 18th century aristocratic woman who ultimately enjoys the experience. This isn't exactly the sort of stuff that gets you points for being politically correct.

The movie was originally conceived as an episode of director Walerian Borowczyk's Immoral Tales (1974), which was quite notorious (including scenes of masturbation, incest, orgies, and blood baths) without an added sequence involving bestiality. In its original incarnation, The Beast focused on just the rape scene--an alternative view of the Beauty and the Beast tale in which the Beast is truly a beast and not just a gentleman in disguise. Here, the Beast is equipped with a phallus that would make a horse envious. No, this definitely isn't for the faint of heart.

This short version of The Beast was screened as early as 1973 as a work in progress. Needless to say, it created quite a sensation. Borowczyk didn't get to finish the film for two years. He decided to open up the story and created a framing story that involved the heirs to a French estate. An American heiress named Lucy (Lisbeth Hummel) arrives for an arranged marriage in which she will marry the brutish Mathurin (Pierre Benedetti) and therefore continue the family bloodline. During her short stay, Lucy has a dream--and this dream is the rape scene. In this format, the rape becomes a feverish fantasy of forbidden lust, most likely spurred into shape when Lucy stumbles into the estate's stable and witnesses the mating of two horses, which Borowczyk's camera shows us in startling, unflinching close-ups. The movie also suggests that a corrupt atmosphere hangs about the estate (pornographic drawings are hidden behind paintings), and this atmosphere may also be responsible for inducing the woman's nightmare. With these excuses in place, the fantasy rape scene becomes halfway plausible. But the framing scenes are just awful. They're like watching paint dry. Borowczyk's camera drifts listlessly around the participants as they sit down to dinner and discuss the inheritance and the impending marriage. But the scenes drag interminably. Borowczyk approaches the framing scenes with a flaccid style, as if he's afraid to make decisions. His actors deliver flat, bland readings of the script's dialogue, and Borowczyk delivers images that look like afterthoughts.

So what do we now make of the rape scene after it has been integrated with the framing scenes? Well, now it's purely fantasy, which makes it less objectionable. Now the rape scene can be dismissed as sheer folly, an explicit version of Beauty and the Beast in which Borowczyk doesn't back away from the story's bestial implications. To the contrary, he embraces bestiality with a relish certain to suck your bottom jaw to the floor in disbelief--especially once the woman (Sirpa Lane) decides she likes being violated by a beast with an enormous horse-like phallus. She somehow forgets that a huge creature (that looks like a cross between a werewolf and a bear) with sharp claws and a mouthful of dagger-like teeth might pose a threat to her physical safety. When she feels him inside her, she's overcome with desire and continues to copulate with the beast until she drains him of all his energy. Okay, her reaction doesn't make one bit of sense, but because this sequence is now a dream, it's possible to suspend disbelief and view this lust-crazed nonsense as decadent, hedonistic victimless fun. Of course, everyone's not going to buy that line of reasoning, though; some people will undoubtedly view this movie as the worst sort of vile garbage.

Cult Epics DVD release of The Beast comes as a three-disc set, which is complete overkill. The first disc contains a widescreen version of the movie, the second contains over 100 minutes of stray video footage--without audio--from the making of The Beast, and disc three contains a slightly longer version of the movie. The additional four minutes of The Beast come during the movie's execrable dialogue sequences, so it's hard to imagine anyone finding any value in the third disc. The "Making of" video footage on the second disc is also just about worthless. Only a short video interview with Borowczyk saves this disc from being totally expendable.

The Beast is one of those cult movies that fails to live up to the hype. It has an outrageous central premise and that premise is largely responsible for the movie's reputation. Director Borowczyk filmed these central scenes with definite gusto, but the surrounding movie is a sad and dull tale.

The Beast is now available from Cult Epics as a three-disc limited edition DVD set. The set includes both a pristine director's cut version (94 minutes, aspect ratio 1.85:1, enhanced for 16x9 televisions) and a longer version (98 minutes) that shows considerable signs of wear. Special features: over 100 minutes of video footage (without audio) from the set of The Beast; an interview with director Walerian Borowczyk; a theatrical trailer; a stills gallery; and a lobby cards gallery. Suggested retail price: $39.95. For more information, check out the Cult Epics Web site.