“The Beast” (“La bête”)
When two fading, elderly aristocratic French gentlemen convince a young woman to marry the boorish son of one of the men sight unseen we learn that the boy has not been baptized, and due to some odd addendum to a will, only a particular cardinal can perform the ceremony. Lucy (Lisbeth Hummel) arrives with her aunt to the country estate and then waits around until the cardinal shows up. She hears of the legend of a great beast ravishing a beautiful young woman named Romilda de l’Esperance, and after an extremely uncomfortable dinner, she goes to bed and dreams that she is de l’Esperance. That is basically the plot.
There’s a fairly erotic yet humorous scene with the young woman dreaming. Director Walerian Borowczyk seems to be trying to say something about the desperation of fading aristocracy and how the female of the species will always be drawn consciously, or not, to the beast in all men and how taming that beast for one’s pleasure is tantamount to destroying it. While I am quite sure that this was not meant to be a comedy but it surely comes across like one. It opens up with a long and quite graphic sequence in which two horses are seen mating while their trainer casually observes them from afar. (This actually once caused the film to be banned). It is a could idea to look at the trainer’s facial expression and his body movement and recalling them later could be quite beneficial.
After the mating sequence, the viewer is introduced to the young and beautiful Lucy and her aunt Virginia Broadhurst (Elisabeth Kaza) who are on their way to meet the trainer, Mathurin de l’Espérance (Pierre Benedetti). As requested in her late father’s will, Lucy is to marry Mathurin in a special ceremony that will be blessed by Cardinal Joseph de Balo. She has never met her future husband, but his eloquent letters have convinced her that he is the right man for her and she can barely wait to meet him.
Lucy also cannot wait to see her future home. She has read a book by the famous Countess Romilda de L’Esperance (Sirpa Lane) in which she insists that the house is haunted. A lot could change in two hundred years, but was the Countess telling the truth?
The film is quite shocking but has a great sense of humor and it is both poetic but very sarcastic, unapologetic and also forgiving. The original short story is broken down into multiple pieces that appear in different parts of the film. Though it is easy to tell that some of the explicit sequences were meant to test the viewer’s patience and this is due to the director’s sense of humor. The cast is excellent and watching this reminds us of how films once were.