Monday, July 20, 2009

Beauty And La Bête

Unless you're me, it's not everyday you run into a film that you really don't know how to react to. La Bête is one such film; originally one of a few rejected shorts shot for inclusion in Immoral Tales, La Bête is an astute criticism of aristocratic marriages of convenience but it's also of a style that answers questions you'd never dream of asking. It's a film for those wondering what it would look like if John Waters paid tribute to Poetic Realism, If Mario Landi had directed The Draughtman's Contract, if Frank Hennenlotter had written Barry Lyndon, if Brian Yuzna had produced Deep Throat, if Peter Greenaway remade Aswang, if Luis Buñuel had staged The Madness of King George or if Paul Morrissey and Rainer Werner Fassbender ever collaborated on a sex film. I mean it truly defies categorization. And of course everything I just said makes it sound like a more learned film than it actually is, but it is at the very least uniquely structured.

La Bête
by Walerian Borowczyk

The l'Esperance estate is about to collapse. Pierre, the head of the family, thinks he knows a way to save it. There's a clause written into someone's will or other that states that if Mathurin, the only man of marrying age in the l'Esperance stable, can be married and have his wedding officiated by a cardinal living at the vatican who's also in the family, he'll inherit enough cash to save the family name. Luckily some English women are in roughly the same boat. Lucy and Virginia Broadhurst arrive just in time for Mathurin to shave himself and look presentable at his wedding. Virginia is the executor of the Broadhurst estate and knows that marrying Lucy off is going to put her on easy street. So while Pierre tries to get his uncle Duc Rammendalo de Balo to get his brother the priest to come down from the Vatican to officiate this sham marriage, his daughter Clarisse tries to scrounge up some witnesses while she's not secretly screwing Ifany the butler. And whenever that's not going on, we see Mathurin repeatedly get cold feet and the cook get frustrated with the indignation he suffers at the hands of the l'Esperance family. And stranger than all this intrigue is the fact that its all an incredibly elaborate set-up to a bestial rape scene.

I can't say for certain which part was supposed to be used in Immoral Tales, but I'm gonna go with the beast going to town on Sirpa Lane. Lucy goes to bed horny and has visions of the late Romilda l'Esperance being chased and violated by a creature that looks like a werewolverine (needless to say, it possesses a big fakey rubber penis). At first she's terrified, in a bug-eyed Benny Hill sort of way, and flees it but soon she consents to coupling with it and Borowczyk turns up the sleaze. Not for the faint of heart, this. I wouldn't be at all surprised to learn that he had in fact lifted this scene untouched from the editing room floor and then just shot the rest of the movie two years later. With the exception of Clarisse and Ifany's comically constant couplings, there's nothing remotely sexual about the rest of the film. In fact we don't actually see any women until just shy of the 15 minute mark. That's a strange way to make a film, because it means necessarily that the rest of the movie's tone isn't going to gel with the segment you've already done.

Even with the obvious taken for granted, La Bête is a bizarre film. At times halfway between some absurdist take on Renoir's Rules of the Game (the appearance of Marcel Dalio as Rammendalo does a lot to fuel the comparison) and a queerless La Cage Aux Folles, it hedges its bets on the success of its humour for the majority of its running time. People say the film is ahead of its time; it's not. Luis Buñuel had been making films of a much more biting nature than this for years, most of them having to do with the foibles of the religious upper class. The Pythons did this sort of thing every week when they were still on the air. Dusan Makavejev's Sweet Movie covered the same kind of stuff and was ten thousand times better. Not to mention that Peter Greenaway's stride would be hit in just a few years and make this film seem pornographic by comparison. And is. I mean, I know it's supposed to be a comment on society but I can't help but feel whatever intentions it had were cheapened by Borowczyk's style. Take for example the first scene where (in close-up, mind you) a male horse mounts a female horse and then licks her genitals. I don't care for films with horses at the best of times having seen Le Sang De Bêtes, so unless Mirando Otto is riding one into battle I'd just as soon not watch them up close. That, taken with the rape fantasy sequence just makes for a remarkably unsympathetic tone. What exactly are we to do with the images? Visual symmetry tells us that he equates the two scenes, but what exactly does that mean? Granted it could be that the horses have no choice but to be bred by human beings in captivity, and if Borowczyk had played the bestial coupling as rape through and through (and then showed her family telling her to keep the child that resulted) that might have worked. But by the end of the scene she enjoys the sex as much as the creature and willingly adds to it. That not only kills your metaphor, it's also pretty blindly misogynistic. Think about that; that one-ups Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs pretty soundly for misunderstanding the female mind, anyway.

The problem with infamy is that the discussion surrounding it is almost always one of a sort of subdued reverence. People are too busy saying "how strange!" or "how funny about that big rubber penis!" to call out Anatole Dauman and Borowczyk on sinking lower than their intended victims (nevermind that the two men were sending up one of my favorite movies of all time). Dauman would have sold Bare Behind Bars if it had some prestigious French director attached to it, so criticizing him hardly seems productive. And this film can't be seen as criticism because that scene with the creature is just as low as the aristocratic hypocrisy. Those scenes suffer from that sort of ecstatic sexuality I mentioned in my review of In the Realm of the Senses. Borowczyk refuses to cut away from the sex and it doesn't get any easier to watch. He also threw away the dream-like quality of Immoral Tales in favor of his absurdist political fable and for awhile the fast paced (if really dry) humour carries the movie but it stops dead for the rape scene and then the film just ends with its last minute revelation. A priest fills us in like the detective in a giallo for those too confused to understand what they've just seen. But that wasn't the point of the film, was it? The secret of the l'Esperance family was not what I was curious about, I just wanted to see the farcical wedding antics continue. The film moves from horses mating, absurdist comedy, awkward dinner party, rape scene, horror movie zinger, the end. Am I the only one who wanted more from this film? Am I the only one not satisfied with hateful weirdness? I know Borowczyk could have made a better film and certainly could have done more with the themes he brings up, but settled, like everyone else, for the bizarre.

This film bothers me much more than anything by Jesús Franco or someone from that world because Borowczyk knew what he was doing and still produced something so unsatisfying and stilted. This film has more responsibilities than something like A Virgin Among The Living Dead or Venus in Furs. When you're supposed to be making a satire, you have to follow through and not give in to what's easiest. To squander your talent and your intelligence is a crime.


Aaron said...

I agree. I just tried watching this for the first time last week and couldn't finish it. Not because of the content but because it was just way too boring and I got up to do something else the first two times I tried to watch it. The third time, I fell asleep. At that point I gave up and sent it back to Netflix. I never even got to see the titular "Bete". Also there was a little too much horse-fucking going on.

Scøut said...

Losing the plot in what is ostensibly a smut film is almost never a good thing. They really should have known better.