Sunday, 17 February 2008

La Bete (1975, France, Walerian Borowczyk)

The notorious La Bete caused a sensation upon release and was swiftly banned in the UK on the grounds of depictions of bestiality. The origins of the film were in Borowczyk's previous film, Immoral Tales, which I have not seen, but appears to be an anthology of tales about sexuality through the ages, though not quite as effectively done as Pasolini and Fellini were accomplishing at the time when marrying the traditions of arthouse cinema and more adult content were in fashion. That said, if one reconsiders Cocteau's 'La Belle et la Bete' for a second, you might recall the subtle allusions to Belle's sexual attraction to the Beast - I recall one scene where she caresses a knife in a suggestive manner. Borowczyk is perhaps just making this more overt.

It had been filmed as one segment of this film but perhaps aware of the stir it might cause, Borowczyk made it into a full feature, framing a supposedly satirical narrative around the 18 minute short to put it into context. In short, the plot involves the arranged marriage between a British heiress and the son of a French aristocrat, who may have a dark secret that could put the impending marriage at risk. It really doesn't make a genius to work out what it might be.

Right, you know what you're in for immediately with the rather extended scene of two horses mating, watched with unnatural keenness by Mathurin, the son. Everyone in this house has some sort of perverted sexual preference, whether it's the visiting parish priest with the two altar boys at his side, or the daughter who's carrying on with the black servant (and then humps the bedknob when he is called into during the act). Some kinder critics have described this anti-clerical and anti-borgeois satirical elements as in the style of Bunuel, though this depends on whether you think Borowczyk cares enough about the narrative he has framed around the infamous dream sequence, and I am not totally sure he does.

The dream sequence (dreamed by Lucy during a moment of sexual delirium) clearly got the BBFC in a tizz, but watching it now, it's really hard to keep a straight face. You wonder whether this film generally is trying to be serious or comic. It really is difficult to tell. Anyway, the scenes of bestiality are pretty ludicrous - a man in a wolf suit, with a rather large fake phallus chases an aristocratic woman around, removing her clothes, before finally having his way with her. What might have been a problem was the fact she obviously starts to enjoy the attack and what's more turns the tables, becoming the more aggressive partner in this act. How anyone could find this offensive really is beyond me. I know it's the implications of these events, but they're filmed so ludicrously, you couldn't possibly take it seriously. And that's the film in a nutshell. Still, if you overlook the awful acting and dialogue, there's still plenty of interesting if half-baked ideas on show. Films of notorious reputation should often be seen out of experience, but if the BBFC really wanted to ruin or undermine this film, it would have been better off leaving it unbanned, where it clearly would have been forgotten and not had the reputation it enjoys now. 2.5/5

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