Review: Immoral Tales

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Immoral Tales was the first Walerian Borowczyk film that I ever saw, back in the days of pre-cert video when it appeared on the EMI label, uncut and complete with a provocative sleeve full of naked girls. It wasn’t this that attracted me though. I’d already read about Borowczyk in Starburst, of all places, when long-time admirer Tony Crawley wrote a feature / interview around Dr Jekyll et Les Femmes, enough of a horror movie to justify the coverage, and his work sounded amazing. I was already hooked on Bunuel and Godard by this time, thanks to the sort of TV screenings you won’t see anymore, and Boro sounded like he was cut from the same cloth, a cross-genre Euro arthouse maverick with a taste for sexual kinkiness.

Sure enough, Immoral Tales proved to be a genuine eye-opener. Not only was it an astonishing work of art in its own right (and sure enough, sharing the anarchic and anti-religious satirical edge of Bunuel) but it pretty much reinvented what I knew erotic cinema to be. At the time, I was still fifteen and so not exactly a seasoned expert in smut, but I had seen a handful of US Golden Age adult movies, softcore Euro romps and T&A exploitation films. This was something very different. It was unquestionably (and, a rare thing in itself, genuinely) erotic, but it presented the sexuality within the collected stories in ways that I simply hadn’t seen before, with a fetishising of objects as much as the female body, a style of shooting and a use of close-ups that I hadn’t really encountered previously (I had, in fact, seen the Borowczyk-inspired BBC film Schalken The Painter, though the connection was too loose and too distant for me to make at the time). He also posed his actresses like characters in old paintings, cut his movie in a way that was entirely fresh and brought a sense of culture to what might have otherwise been crude renditions of sex and violence. In short, the film blew me away. It opened up my understanding of what cinema could do. The film was a pivotal moment in my expanding appreciation of outré World Cinema, from Paradjanov to Franco.

Seen again today, it’s impressive that Immoral Tales not only stands up, but in many ways is perhaps more subversive and shocking than it was at the time. When Immoral Tales was made, it was part of an era where European filmmakers, new and established, were pushing at the boundaries of a crumbling censorship system, exploring stories about sexuality and breaking taboos. Nothing seemed forbidden; everything was up for grabs, and the idea of serious cinema featuring explicit material seemed eminently possible. Borowczyk’s film might have caused outrage – especially in Britain and especially when it still included the ‘Beast’ segment – but the very fact that such an acclaimed director would make such a film suggested a convergence of art and erotica wasn’t simply possible but inevitable.

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These days, such ideas seem a long way away, despite the efforts of Lars Von Trier et al. Immoral Tales is old enough now to have gained a degree of respectability (though plenty of people still see it as the point where Borowczyk went off the rails), but it’s unimaginable that anyone would dare to make such a film today. The incest, bestiality, violence, teen sex and other unsavoury elements would be widely condemned even if it somehow found financing. There would be concerned articles and Twitter sneering across the board. We have become a lot less liberal since the 1970s, truth be told.

Immoral Tales is a series of four stories (or five if you watch the longer version included here – but more on that later) that have sexuality at their heart. Each has its own feel, and each takes a different approach to how that sexuality is expressed – at times it is playful, at others sensual or violent.

The opening story, The Tide, is perhaps the most incongruous of the tales, given that it has a contemporary setting, unlike the period stories that follow it. This makes it feel a little out of place, though the fact that it appears first helps alleviate this sense of displacement considerably. It’s a slight tale, based on a story by Andre Pieyre de Maniargues, author of Girl on a Motorcycle and the anonymous collector of erotic artefacts featured in A Particular Collection, a short film that also opened Immoral Tales at one point and now appears on the blu-ray as an extra. It tells the story of sixteen year old Julie (Lise Danvers) who heads to the beach with her older cousin André (Fabrice Luchini), where he engineers it so they are trapped by the tide. He then instructs her to fellate him as he teaches her about the tides, promising to ejaculate in her mouth at the precise moment the high tide reaches its peak.

There’s not a lot of substance to the tale, and despite the plot description, it’s the least explicit film here – the nudity is brief and non-sexual for the most part, and the blow job is, of course, off camera. But as a light, Anais Nin style erotic tale, it’s fairly enjoyable, with a quirky performance from Luchini and Danvers displaying an innocent sensuality. In many ways, though, it’s perhaps the most contentious of the stories by modern standards – the age of the female character and the sense of sexual coercion involved would probably cause no end of outrage if it were to be made today.

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Thérése Philosophe is based loosely on (or, more accurately, around) the 1748 erotic novel, and is a mocking look at the connection between religious belief, worship of iconography and sexual desire, as a pious country girl (Charlotte Alexandra) is locked away as punishment for staying in church too long (where we see her caressing the statues and organ in a way that seems to go beyond reverence). In the room she is trapped in, she finds the titular erotic novel, and is soon mixing religious and sexual fervour as she masturbates with cucumbers while reading the Stations of the Cross.

It’s again a lightweight story, but an entertainingly sacrilegious one, and much more openly erotic in style than any other the others included here. It also emphasises Borowczyk’s fixation on objects, his camera lingering on the things that the girl finds around the room as much as it does on her body. On first viewing, it was this story that lingered in my mind the longest, possibly because Charlotte Alexandra spoke to me on a rather physical level rather than for any artistic reasons, and it still packs the most immediately erotic punch of the four stories, I think, possibly because the sexuality is more upfront, unfettered and wholesome here.

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Erzsebet Bathory follows the familiar tale of the infamous blood-bathing Countess (familiar from horror films like Countess Dracula and Legend of Blood Castle) in an unconventional style. It opens with a Pasolini-esque scene of rural life that is interrupted by the Countess (a rare and unexpected acting role from fashion designer Paloma Picasso, daughter of Pablo) and her Squire (Pascale Christophe) arriving to round up the virgin girls of the village and take them to the castle, where they are bathed, pampered, encouraged to engage in a wild orgy and then killed (offscreen), their blood drained so the Countess can bathe in it.

This is the lengthiest of the stories and the most sumptuous – the sets are impressively lush. It also has the most nudity, with dozens of naked girls filling the screen for much of the story. But there is less eroticism here. The nudity is matter-of-fact for the most part, and the sense of dread remains throughout the story – we know that none of these girls will live very long. It’s actually a horror story, and though Borowczyk holds back from graphic scenes of slaughter, the shots of the Countess bathing in blood (real blood, incidentally!) are pretty unsettling. It’s a kinky tale, perhaps, but a decidedly grotesque one, and the Sadian overtones are clear (on the basis of this, it would’ve been interesting to see Borowczyk tackle De Sade at some point in his career).

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The film ends with Lucrezia Borgia, which returns to the digs at religion, this time in the form of the incestuous Borgia family. The satire is more open here, as Pope Alexander VI (Jacopo Berinizi), his daughter Lucrezia (Florence Bellamy) and son Caesar (Lorenzo Berinizi) engage in a threesome after disposing of Lucrezia’s unwelcome and impotent husband. With a Bible that turns out to be a box of biscuits, priests snatching up salacious drawings, a Papal throne used as a sex chair and a rebellious preacher silenced as the Pope fathers a child with his daughter, this is as biting a dig at the hypocrisies of the church as anything you’ll see. It’s also the most openly ‘soft porn’ tale here, consisting largely of a series of sex scenes. Knowing that the two men were father and son in real life adds a curious authenticity to the queasiness you might feel at the incestuous frolics (and must’ve made for interesting family discussions afterwards…).

For the most part, Immoral Tales is light in tone – never out-and-out comical perhaps, but with tongue firmly in cheek. The third story is, perhaps, the exception, though this too has a certain grim humour running through it. But all are tied together by Borowczyk’s attention to detail and his eye for authenticity, as much on display here as in his earlier films. While at first glance, it seems a curious follow-up to Blanche – a film with a deliberately repressed sexuality – the two movies actually go together nicely in purely visual terms. Of course, Immoral Tales has never had the respectability of that film, simply because of what it is – an erotic film. But in truth, this is one of the director’s best works. Unless you really are prudish and ignorant enough to suggest that erotic cinema is somehow automatically inferior (and let’s face it, there are plenty of people who do think that way), then it’s hard to deny this as being just as valid a work of art as his earlier films. It’s a movie with a genuine beauty to it, an astonishing level of style, a fantastic, classically Borowczykian medieval score and a great deal of wit and intellect in the narrative. It’s pretty much a masterpiece, and anyone with an appreciation of 1970s European cinema should be checking this out.

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The new blu-ray sees two cuts of the film – the standard theatrical, which looks better than it has ever done, and the extended version that includes The True Story of the Beast of Gévaudan , the short film that would ultimately be removed and expanded into the feature film La Bete. If you’ve seen that film, the footage here will be familiar – there’s nothing extra of significance as far as I can tell – but it’s good to see this original cut finally. In all honesty, I think that removing it was the right choice – not because it isn’t a fantastic, jaw-dropping tale, but because audiences might well have been reeling and unable to focus on the rest of the film had this popped up halfway through, given how outrageous it is. I’ll discuss the footage more in my forthcoming review of La Bete.

As mentioned earlier, the disc also includes A Private Collection, the short film Borowczyk made as a companion piece to Immoral Tales. There are two versions here, one more explicit than the other (featuring hardcore vintage photos amongst the smutty ephemera on display ). Unfortunately, because British law is an ass, it has had some footage removed for legal reasons – fake bestiality might be okay, but the real thing would land the distributors in court, and possibly in prison, just for possessing it – and the scenes would never be passed by the BBFC anyway. The law that forced these cuts is a disgrace frankly, but Arrow clearly had no choice but to submit to it. The missing footage is replaced by a blank screen, with an admirable admission that the cuts have occurred included. The film is great fun in any case, showing a collection of ingenious vintage adult novelties, and certainly nailing the lie that such things are a modern invention.

DAVID FLINT

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