Walerian Borowczyk’s art/filth portmanteau film consists of four stories. Set in the modern world, on a barren pebble beach ‘La Marée’ (‘The Tide’) has Fabrice Luchini as a 20-year-old boy using his seniority to impose his desires on his 16-year-old cousin (Lise Danvers).
Set in 1890, ‘Thérèse Philosophe’ has Charlotte Alexandra as a pious girl, locked in her room, who gets all hot and bothered by the stations of the cross (and a mucky illustrated tract), before falling victim to a malicious vagrant.
The third episode is a staging of the Erzsebet Bathory legend, as Paloma Picasso rides into a Hungarian village and rounds up all the suitably pulchritudinous females for a ritualised sequence of bathing, frock ripping and eventual slaughter. She bathes in their blood before making love to her female squire, who then betrays her to the King’s men.
‘Lucrezia Borgia’ is a carnival of power, corruption and hypocrisy as Lucrezia (Florence Bellamy), the Pope, and various holy lackeys indulge in cackling murder and blasphemous three-way fornication, while a preacher who denounces their regime is burnt at the stake for his troubles.
Plotwise, we are in a brutal and troubling world here, where the urge to power and the sexual drive are hopelessly entwined; where authority is corrupt and murderous and innocence or righteousness are doomed. There’s a Sadean delight in perversity, an emphasis on anti-clericalism and a delight in the blasphemous. This being a Borowczyk film, though, it’s all incredibly seductive, a sensual world of white lace, creamy marble and peachy flesh where everything is sexualised. The carefully chosen objects decorating his sets and locations are there to be stroked, fondled and played with; the elaborate costumes are there to be elaborately removed. Dialogue is sparse, the visual takes precedence. It’s gorgeous, feeling at times like we’ve wandered into a Brueghel, or Dutch master painting.
Immoral Tales brings Pasolini’s Salò (1975) to mind on more than one occasion, but while that film is hellish, cold and ultimately depressing, Borowczyk’s is just that bit more playful – you can sense a knowing smile playing around his lips as the outrage hits home. Sexuality in his films is overwhelming and dangerous and often twisted, but it’s also natural and human and obviously a source of immense pleasure. He often intercuts his scenes of carnality with on-looking animals and uncaring nature, as if they are sitting in judgement, wondering how we let something so simple get so fucked up.
Immoral Tales had a convoluted release history. The episodes were made over 1973-4, and an unfinished version played at the London Film festival in 1974. This disc includes the longer French edit, including another episode, ‘ La Bête’ (‘The Beast’). This was the version that won the L’Age d’Or award (as judged by Max Ernst, among others) and became a box office hit, before it was removed and expanded to become its own feature film La Bête in 1976. I’m grateful for the episodes’s inclusion here because it’s probably my favourite of the Tales: a virginal 18th-century French woman breaks off from playing the harpsichord to follow a straying lamb into the woods, whereupon she is chased and ravaged by a beast, a huge brown-eyed bear-like creature with a seemingly permanent, jism-dripping erection*. Her sexuality awakened, she throws off her corset and proceeds to hump the exhausted creature to death. She then tenderly covers its body with dry leaves, grabs what remains of her clothing and returns to civilisation. This is, I realise, pretty much indefensible from any sexual/political point of view, but as a piece of uninhibited Freudian fantasy cinema it takes some beating. Borowczyk’s Tales all work on this level, troubling wet dreams emerging from his id.
I’m not sure how well they would function as straight pornography, how much use the raincoat brigade would have for cutaways of a snail crawling over a silk shoe, or all that choral and keyboard music. And while the tales are clearly meant to provoke, they simply don’t follow the exploitation playbook. The Bathory and Borgia episodes are notably coy about onscreen violence considering their blood-soaked possibilities. An animator and a supremely visual stylist, the Borowczyk of Immoral Tales is akin to a sensationalist Buñuel , an old-school surrealist with a one-track mind.
Special features include Private Collection, an odd, amusing short in which a man, his head never in shot, displays to us his extensive collection of historical smut: prints, projections, dildos and mechanical toys. There are a couple of informative featurettes, the aforementioned L’Age d’Or award cut of the film, and a trailer. All in all, a fine package for an essential piece of weird cinema.
*As arthouse lust monsters go, it’s up there with Isabelle Adjani’s tentacled lover in Zulawski’s Possession (1981). Incidentally, a young Adjani was to be cast in ‘La Marée’, which would have been her first film, before she got cold feet.