You’ve probably read the short version of the above quote: “I can’t define pornography, but I know it when I see it.” True confession: I can’t define pornography either, but I’m not sure if I know it when I see it. More specifically, I don’t think the distinction matters when the end result brings pleasure, whether sexual or not.
Part of the problem with Justice Stewart’s vague definition is not so much what pornography isn’t, but as what it is usually defined: the portrayal of sexual subject matter for the purpose of sexual arousal. The negative connotations of the word are hard to escape.
But why should there be any negative connotations at all? Why should pornography be forced to reside in some kind of artistic ghetto? Are pornographic movies somehow less “movie-like” due to their subject matter? Besides, if they provoke sexual arousal, why is that inherently a bad thing? Do we criticize comedies for provoking laughter or horror movies for provoking scares?
This is where Walerian Borowczyk enters the picture. In her 2006 obituary on the director, New York Times writer Margolit Fox wrote that Borowczyk was “described variously by critics as a genius, a pornographer, and a genius who also happened to be a pornographer.” In a 2014 article on the filmmaker, writer Glenn Kenny remarks that despite the sexually explicit nature of many of Borowczyk’s films, he “never betrays a desire to arouse.”
After watching The Beast, I must wholeheartedly disagree with these categorizations, except for perhaps the genius part.
Borowczyk’s 1975 film originated as one of the segments in his 1974 anthology, Immoral Tales, and is loosely based on the French folk tale of The Beast of Gévaudan. The references don’t end there. After the opening credits, the film displays a quote from Voltaire – “Troubled dreams are in fact a passing moment of madness” – which sets the tone for the rest of the film. Lucy Broadhurst, one of the characters, even comes across a copy of Voltaire’s controversial The Maid of Orleans during the course of the film.
Yet The Beast isn’t stuffy, pretentious, or boring. In fact, it contains no shortage of sex. It opens with a lengthy, wordless sequence of horses mating, including extreme close-ups of their genitalia. The beleaguered black butler, and Clarisse, the wholly white daughter of the Marquis de l’Esperance, are having a secret affair, which we witness in vivid detail. Lucy, who has arrived to marry Mathurin, the Marquis’ son, displays the kind of wide-eyed, rosy-cheeked, perpetually horny demeanor that seems ripe for being exploited, even if her urges are only explored through masturbation.
Lucy’s curiosity is piqued by the legends of Romilda de l’Esperance. The dream sequences of Romilda’s pursuit and rape by The Beast, which are intercut between the scenes of the main drama, serve as a window into Lucy’s fantasies as well as provide a hint as to the true identity of the titular beast.
There are those who have accused Borowczyk of trying to obscure vulgarity with pretty period costumes, lush scenery, and literary allusions, though it would be difficult to categorize or condemn a film as painstakingly and beautifully constructed as The Beast as just pornography. No doubt he intended to provide commentary on race, class, and religious hypocrisy in The Beast, not to mention, sex.
The shot of Romilda’s destroyed corset floating in the pond is one of the most subtle yet explicit references to the physical appearance of a post-coital vagina I could possibly imagine. For this alone, Borowczyk should be considered an artist of the highest caliber, regardless of whether or not he’s a porn provocateur.
The most ardent fan of pornography might be taken aback, though, by bestiality, whether implied or realized through cinematic construction – even if that realization is through a human man in a beast suit. Even, and perhaps especially, if that beast suit is equipped with a large, erect, fully-functioning penis.
While it is perfectly acceptable for women to have rape fantasies, such things are complicated when it is a man behind the camera. The idea that Romilda, after being raped by The Beast, would soon succumb to sexual desire and then, through that desire, cause The Beast’s eventual death from pleasure, feels like pure male fantasy. The idea that Lucy cannot climax without the help of Mathurin, and that such an excess of unbridled licentiousness could actually kill him, veers into sexist, if not misogynist territory. Such speculations could also be dismissed by the continued close-up images of sexual pleasure on Romilda’s face.
After all, The Beast cannot be sexist or misogynist. It is only a film. As such, it is a safe space to explore fantasies, whether those fantasies consist of sex that crosses racial and class lines (still controversial in 1975) or lines between species.
It’s intriguing that at the end of the film, the Cardinal condemns bestiality as “the most odious crime, because it debases man.” There is nothing said about debasing the animal (and one could argue that filming two horses mating is a non-consensual act that borders on animal abuse). Could the Cardinal’s words be an ironic comment on the sexual relationship the film depicts between a priest and his two young choirboys?
That’s the great thing about Walerian Borowczyk’s The Beast and movies in general: it’s up to the audience to decide.
The special features on this Arrow Video Blu-ray release are impressive; some of them appeared on their Camera Obscura: The Walerian Borowczyk Collection Region B box set from September 2014.