The artist and the model. The muse. The creation of the masterpiece. These elements have found their way into more than one cinematic work that has emerged as its own masterpiece. Jacques Rivette’s ‘La belle noiseuse’ springs to mind.
Yasuzo Masamura’s ‘Blind Beast’ is kind of like ‘La belle noiseuse’ only two and half hours shorter, about sculpture rather than painting, and you’d need to imagine Michel Piccoli as a sightless mother-dependent nut-job who kidnaps Emmanuelle Beart.
Okay then: ‘Blind Beast’ is actually quite different to ‘La belle noiseuse’ aesthetically. Nonetheless the artist/model relationship connection would probably make for a good double bill.
In Masamura’s film, Mako Midori plays Aki whose provocative work for a famous photographer has just been the subject of an exhibition. A nude study sculpture is also on display, and we catch our first glimpse of rival sculptor Michio (Eiji Funakoshi) in an otherwise empty gallery feeling up the statue like he’s about to reach for the Kleenex.
Later, posing as a masseur, he gains access to Aki’s apartment, uses the old handkerchief soaked in chloroform routine, and – with a little bit of help from his dear old Ma (Noriku Sengoku) – whisks her off to his studio in the middle of nowhere. It’s here that he puts a proposition to her: stick around, be his model, and she’s free to leave once he’s completed his masterwork.
There’s just one contentious point (apart, y’know, from the kidnapping): being blind, the only way he can capture Aki’s physical essence in his work is through the medium of touch. In other words, he’s decided to hold a young woman against her will so he can give her a thorough groping in the name of art. With clay-ey hands.
Initially repulsed, Aki is suspiciously quick to agree. And so begins a game of cat ‘n’ mouse complicated by the Oepidal overtones to Michio’s relationship with his mother, something Aki senses early on and is quick to exploit. In an already fucked-up movie, things take an even darker turn in the last third as Aki and Michio find themselves locked into a masochistic and mutually destructive web of passion that seems to presage Nagisa Oshima’s ‘In the Realm of the Senses’ (made seven years later).
‘Blind Beast’ is a beautifully shot if somewhat intellectually and emotionally confused movie that relies almost solely on Aki’s voiceover to denote the various stages of their unhealthy relationship. Certainly nothing else in the script, or the arc of the performances, suggests a convincing development from mind games to sexual power play to mutual dependence to flogging and biting and the non-artistic application of craft knives.
Which isn’t to say the performances are bad, although Funakoshi vacillates, often quite hilariously, between “I’ll suggest my character’s blindness by moving really slowly and waving my hands around and fuck whoever just said I look like a zombie” and “what? my character’s supposed to be blind!” Sengoku invests a one-note character with a low-key menace. Midori gives it her all, equally beguiling whether she’s being docile, coquettish, sly or seductive.
But the real star of the show is Shigeo Mano’s art design. Michio’s studio is a bizarre piece of grand guignol, a workspace assembled in the depths of the id, its walls dominated by larger-than life anatomical friezes. An eyrie of eyes on one wall, a nest of noses on another. Here an outcrop of arms, there a maze of legs. Lips that could swallow a grown man or woman if they suddenly opened. Breasts of every shape and size round out the collection. The floor space is occupied by two halves of a female nude, bosom uppermost on the first, ass in the air as regards the second.
Fifteen minutes in, and virtually every scene between Aki and Michio plays out against these images; indeed, they’re often dwarfed by these grotesque exaggerations of the female form. (Parenthetically, it’s interesting to note that Piero Schivazappa’s ‘The Frightened Woman’, in which a gynaecological bit of set design is used to unforgettable effect during a similarly masochistic sexual duel between a supposedly dominant anti-hero and an ostensibly threatened heroine, was the made the same year.)
‘Blind Beast’ is an interesting conflation of art house and exploitation which, even if it doesn’t quite hang together convincingly enough, makes unfailing use of its unique mise en scene. It’s a curio, the kind of film you just know would never get made today. They’d have to call it ‘Visually Impaired Beast’ for a start!