Part fairy tale, part sex romp, part Buñuelian satire, Walerian Borowczyk’s The Beast is as much of a quirky oddity now as it was upon its original release in 1973. Disparaged by Borowczyk purists and mainstream reviewers both (the New York Times called it ‘unfit for man or beast’), the film was originally rejected for UK certification by the BBFC and not seen here in its uncut form until 2001, when it finally underwent something of a critical reappraisal.
So how does the once controversial film look now, nearly 40 years on from its production? Certainly still transgressive; perhaps less so for its over the top scenes of prosthetic bestiality than its cheerful disavowal of current social mores (it’s hard to imagine the character of the priapic black servant passing muster these days, for one). The sexual liaison between woman and beast (King Kong with bodily fluids!) that so outraged reviewers at the time seems largely comic now; not simply because of the relatively primitive make-up effects, but mainly due to the fact that Borowczyk seems to be in on the joke, even if most of the critics of the period weren’t.
But beyond the more censor-baiting material, The Beast is still a barbed, funny satire on sex, hypocrisy and repression. Certainly its jabs at the aristocracy and the priesthood, although perhaps less daring with age, are still relevant several decades on. And the director’s visual command and deft pacing keep the bawdy hijinks from ever descending into complete silliness, even if he never seems to be taking any of it particularly seriously. It’s impossible to claim The Beast as a particularly poetic or meaningful film; without a doubt there are Borowczyk works that go deeper. But it nevertheless remains a defiantly entertaining one, political correctness be damned.