Walerian Borowczyk's 1975 fantasy began life as one of the five segments of his critically acclaimed portmanteau film, Immoral Tales (1974). Borowczyk's French producer persuaded him to remove the sequence in question, a bizarre and explicit variant on the Beauty and the Beast story, and to utilise it as a 'dream sequence' as part of a new feature on the same theme. The resulting feature, La Bete (The Beast), was first submitted to the BBFC in March 1977.
Aware of the controversial nature of the film and the difficulties Borowczyk's previous feature had caused (Immoral Tales was turned away by the BBFC but was classified X by the GLC), the distributor had chosen to make some cuts to La Bete before submitting it to the BBFC.
These cuts reduced the length of a masturbation scene and removed some of the more explicit shots from the dream sequence, in which the heroine imagines having intercourse with 'the beast'. In spite of the reductions already made, the BBFC was sceptical about whether the film would be acceptable to the majority of local authorities, on whose behalf the BBFC classified films. Part of the problem was the film's sexual explicitness, even in the reduced version, which exceeded the standards then accepted for the X category. However, a more serious problem was whether the central 'dream sequence' might raise legal issues because of its suggestion of bestiality.
In a letter to the film's distributor, dated 22 March 1977, James Ferman set out the Board's difficulties: "As I mentioned to you on the telephone, we see considerable problems in passing this film as it stands, although I realise you have made a few cuts of [sic] the most extreme sexual material. Certainly, there are still a great many shots which we feel might be vulnerable at law, and beyond that, there is also much footage which we feel vastly exceeds the standards accepted by the vast majority of local authorities. The problem is that, with a director of Borowczyk's stature, the cutting required might be such as to damage the film artistically, and I do not think the Board would want to become involved in a war of attrition on a film of such consequence". Ferman went on to list a large number of problem areas with the film, namely (i) sight of horses copulating in explicit detail; (ii) a line drawing of a woman being mounted by an animal; (iii) close shots of masturbation, (iv) close shots of genital detail; (v) the more explicit moments in the 'dream sequence', including the 'beast' rubbing his penis against a tree, the 'beast' masturbating and placing his head between a woman's legs, and sight of the beast's semen flowing over the woman's buttocks, breasts and stomach.
Ferman then continued: "This, however, leaves us with the theme itself, the most explicit treatment of bestiality we have ever had, even given that in this case it is treated as a fantasy. I am not sure that, even with all the above cuts, the theme would be considered acceptable to most local authorities, which leaves you in a considerable difficulty. At one time, I might have suggested that some local authorities would probably be prepared to take a more lenient view, but recent GLC decisions indicate a hardening of local authority attitudes in this respect, and I would not wish to make any predictions in this particular regard. I think our view has to be that we will only consider this film with a letter from Borowczyk and/or Dauman [the film's producer] to the effect that this is their re-edited version of the film presented as a new submission, in which case we will judge it on its merits. Whether you wish to go to all this trouble for an uncertain outcome is for you to judge. Certainly, the film will have to be seen by the President before a certificate could be granted".
Subsequent to this, the distributor took the film away and attempted to edit it in line with the BBFC's concerns. However, given the extensive nature of the problems, the cut version was not shown to the BBFC until February 1978. After a viewing of the cut version by James Ferman and Lord Harlech (the BBFC's President), the decision was taken to reject the film. In a letter to the distributor, James Ferman explained: "This film still presents us with enormous difficulties, even in the present version which has been expertly and almost imperceptibly cut. We showed it yesterday to Lord Harlech, who had never seen the film before, and he feels it is stronger in visuals than films we are currently passing. Further cuts would be required for a national certificate, particularly in the masturbation shots and in the beast's attack upon Sirpa Lane when she is hanging from the tree. But this leaves us with the theme, and none of us feels confident that the film could not accurately be described as a study in bestiality. I realise that it is only simulated bestiality, but there are many forms of sexual activity at which we currently draw the line even when simulated. Unfortunately, neither Lord Harlech nor the rest of us really feel the film is of such artistic merit that we can justify treating it as an exceptional case, particularly when the Home Office Committee is currently examining guidelines for obscenity and film censorship in Britain. The clubs, as you will probably know, have agreed that scenes of bestiality are outside their voluntary guidelines, and we must be aware of public feeling on this issue. We have recently had a great deal of difficulty with provincial authorities on some fairly mild sex romps, and I cannot think what they would make of Borowczyk in beast's clothing. I have been in touch with the GLC to ask if they would consider issuing a certificate to enable you to show the film at the Prince Charles, and they have hedged about this, being prepared to see the film unofficially to advise us whether they would support a BBFC certificate [...] I will continue to have talks with the GLC and hope to win them round. Meanwhile I suggest that [...] the whole film [be put] in abeyance until the legal position is a bit clearer. I would like the Home Office Committee to see the whole film if possible, since there are four lawyers on the Committee as well as Home Office officials, and their view of the film would be useful".
Following on from this, the GLC agreed to look at the cut version of the film with a view to issuing a local authority certificate, permitting the film to screen at the Prince Charles cinema, just off London's Leicester Square. As was normal when a local authority was asked to consider a film that had been turned down by the BBFC, the GLC requested a written explanation of the rejection. In a letter dated 10 July 1978, James Ferman noted "This is not a film to which the Board has refused a certificate outright, but we found ourselves unable to agree an acceptable version without extensive cuts, and the film's distributors felt that we were beginning to damage their film by the extent of our requirements. This is a view with which we readily agreed, and since the film is probably only suitable to London and a few of the other metropolitan centres, we feel it is probably one which can best be handled through a local certificate [...] As your Council is aware, the Board's certificates mean two things: (1) that, to the best of our knowledge, the film is and will continue to be legal by British law; and (2) that in the form and category approved by us the film would be acceptable to the vast majority of local authorities in Britain. Although the law has changed in the last year so that indecency is no longer the criminal test, the Board asked for the deletion in this film of a number of brief shots in which the Beast (clearly a man in a bearskin) appears to ejaculate, since we felt that such material might make the film vulnerable even according to current law, and would certainly be felt to be indecent by most local authorities. Many brief cuts of such material were made by the company, and these were all quite expertly and almost imperceptibly achieved by their editor. Nevertheless, we were then concerned with the degree to which the Beauty-and-the-Beast sequence would be acceptable to local authorities around the country [...] there is no doubt that the attack of the Beast upon his female quarry might be felt to be emotionally disturbing, particularly to women in the audience. On the other hand, it is doubtful whether audiences at the Prince Charles would be likely to complain about a film which is clearly fantasy, and quite beautifully photographed fantasy at that".
Following a viewing, the GLC agreed to grant a London-only X certificate to the cut version of La Bete, which opened at the Prince Charles cinema in September 1978.
Embarrassingly for the BBFC, the GLC, and the film's distributor, Ferman's feeling that the film was unlikely to arouse complaints if screened in a cut version at a single London cinema, turned out to be incorrect. Following public complaints about the film, possibly provoked by some sensationalist press reporting, the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) was asked to consider a prosecution of the film under the Obscene Publications Act. In a letter to the DPP, Ferman noted that "One of my principal worries is that we may face criticism from the GLC for misleading them on the advisability of granting a local certificate to the film, and I feel now that it might have been better had we consulted you at a much earlier stage about our reading of the law in this case". In the event, following consultation with legal advisers, the DPP concluded that there was no reasonable prospect of a conviction against the cut version of the film and no further action was taken. In the view of the legal advisers, the film was "outrageous and grossly indecent but absurd". However, this did not prevent further complaints about the film to the BBFC (even though the BBFC had rejected it) and nor did it prevent one member of the public writing to Prince Charles himself to complain that such a disgusting film was being exhibited in a cinema bearing his name. Following all the difficulties and controversy raised by the film, even when screened in a cut version at a single London cinema, there was now no prospect of the BBFC feeling able to award a certificate for national exhibition and La Bete did not receive a cinema certificate from the BBFC until 2001.
The BBFC was next asked to consider the film in 1987, when it was submitted for a video classification under the terms of the Video Recordings Act 1984. Perhaps fortunately, the version of the film submitted to the BBFC was a heavily cut US version under the alternative title, Death's Ecstasy. Over eight minutes of material had been deleted prior to submission, including the most explicit sexual detail. Examiners felt this heavily cut version of the film was clearly within current BBFC standards with regard to sex, sexual detail, and nudity. However, the 'bestiality' theme was still considered contentious and some examiners raised concerns about whether the manner in which the 'dream sequence' was constructed might feed into the 'rape myth' that women secretly desire to be raped. In the scene in question, the woman is pursued through the woods by the 'beast', after which she succumbs to its attentions and finally satisfies it. Accordingly, the film was seen and considered by the Board's Director and Presidents. Ultimately, it was concluded that the very fantastical nature of the sequence and its clearly symbolic nature mitigated against any likelihood of harm, twelve years after the film was made. The fact that the 'beast' looked very unconvincing imbued the scene with a certain level of comedy and implausibility that further removed any serious concerns. The heavily reduced version of the film was classified 18 without further cuts on 6 June 1988. This was the first time that any version of the film had been classified by the BBFC.
In 2000, the BBFC was asked to examine the uncut version of the film for a proposed cinema re-release. Given that the basic theme of the film had been accepted on VHS back in 1987, the main issue this time was whether the more explicit moments of sexual detail, absent from both the VHS release and the GLC-certified X version, could now be reinstated. Although some of the sexual detail was quite explicit, none of it was unsimulated (the beast's spectacular ejaculation obviously involved the use of prosthetics). Accordingly, in line with the commitments expressed in the BBFC's 2000 Guidelines, the cinema version was passed 18 uncut on 1 February 2001 and the DVD version was subsequently classified 18 uncut on 9 July 2001.