Starring: Lise Danvers, Paloma Picasso, Florence Bellamy
Director: Walerian Borowczyk
Walerian Borowczyk had one of the more unusual career trajectories in cinema, going from being the creator of charming homespun animations to – at least in the public mind – a notorious pornographer. It’s as if Oliver Postgate went from making The Clangers to directing Deep Throat. Except that Immoral Tales (1974), the film that marked this startling switch-around, is no ordinary piece of soft-core porn, and in fact there’s no other film quite like it.
It divides into four sections, receding back into time as though to remind us, reassuringly or not, that no one era has a monopoly on naughtiness. The modern day tale The Tide concerns a bossy lad, André (Frabrice Luchini) who lures a submissive younger cousin, Julie (Lise Danvers), to an isolated cove and there inducts her into a convoluted sexual fetish. In the Belle Epoch-set Therese Philosopher, an overly pious young girl (Charlotte Alexandra) is locked in a junk room that is like an Antiques Roadshow expert’s wet dream and there delivers her body unto God with the aid of a cucumber. Erzebet Bathory, the longest of the sections, recounts the familiar story of the 17th century Countess who bathed in blood, and Lucrezia Borgia offers a snapshot of wickedness in 15th century Italy.
Immoral Tales is a tricky movie to discuss, you can argue it so many ways. It’s easy enough to mistake the film simply for a parade of cheesecake. And yet recurring themes are there, if you hunt for them: all of the women in the film are imprisoned, in one way or another, and suffer willingly or unwillingly at the hands of the forces of oppression – overbearing boyfriends, cruel elders, the state, the Church, family. One way of looking at it is that the film knocks these tyrants off their pedestals and has the last laugh by turning them into figures of titillation within the context of a marginalized, often outlawed genre. Another way of looking at is that the victims, the girls, ascend out of their circumstances in some sense by being transfigured by the director’s artistry. We’re not seeing the thing itself, but a picture of the thing, and the picture is very beautiful. It’s these contradictions that keep Immoral Tales vibrant and alive.
Therese Philosopher has been transferred from a blown-up 16mm print and seems a bit soft and blotchy, but all of the other segments have enjoyed a 2K transfer from a 35mm interpositive (with sound from the original magnetic reels), and the results are first class, even better than on The Beast. Even if you know the film of old, you’ll feel like you’re seeing it for the first time.
Of all Borowczyk’s films, this is the one that is the most informed by a Fine Arts sensibility. Watching this Blu-ray, you’ll marvel at his painterly eye. The Tide, for instance, is drenched in rugged yet gauzy Post-Impressionism. On a human level, you’ll probably want to punch the garrulous André and rescue the piteous Julie from his clutches, but at the same time you’re enthralled by the way Borowczyk uses the flinty blues and slatey greys of the Normandy coastline, the mist-shrouded cliffs, a sky thronging with seagulls that twinkle like stars, to isolate and draw attention to the rosy pinks of Julie’s flesh, especially her mouth, the one burst of colour in the entire panorama.
Erzebet Bathory begins in a bawdy, Breugel-like manner, all dung heaps and lusty peasants bathed in a golden sunlight. There’s a shot of a cow in a manger where you can see the subtle silvery-blonde hues of the beast’s fur in amazing detail. Then the Countess arrives, black-caped and feather-hatted, and the scene transitions to Bathory’s bathhouse and the Countess’ Alma-Tademaesque harem of nudes. It’s a unashamedly sybaritic vision, as much about lush fabrics, harmonious colours and intriguing perspectives as it is about bare flesh. Paloma Picasso’s self-possessed Countess, wafting around in nothing but a train of lace and pearls but with a dangerous alertness in her eyes, almost seems to sum up the segment’s aesthetic. It’s a piece of filmmaking that has more in common with the paintings of Delacroix and Jacques-Louis David than it does with your average blue movie, and it’s mere cultural convention that stops one from according it a similar respect.
Like Erzebet Bathory, Lucrezia Borgia shows Borowczyk at the height of his powers. It’s also one of the most shocking things Borowczyk ever filmed. Her husband dragged off to be murdered, Lucrezia (Florence Bellamy) indulges in kinky sex games with the Pope and a Cardinal, who also happen to be her father and brother (played, in another twist of perversity, by a real father and son). As the Pope thrusts his tongue into the corner of her mouth, even now you think, “Oh no, he didn’t…” and you can’t help wondered whether the actors were afraid of being struck by lightning at the end of each take.
But it’s hard to hold onto a feeling of censure. The sacrilegious orgy unfolds with the glow, the jewelled colours of a Pre-Raphaelite masterpiece. Florence Bellamy looks stunning in her Renaissance togs and even more so out of them. Borowczyk’s skill at counterpointing naked flesh with ornate costumes and décor is breathtaking. The whole thing is a feast for the senses; and not just for the eye, for the ear as well, as the visuals surge to the rhythms of Guillaume de Machaud’s ravishing Messe de Notre-Dame, sounding rich and full-bodied on this transfer. This trio of great sinners and heretics seem to disappear in a blaze of seraphic bliss.
In both of these segments particularly, the images have such bite and force in HD, they encourage you to float on an aesthetic high and lose yourself in an appreciation of the world as pure surfaces. But at the same time you’re aware, in the back of your mind, that you could be regarding things in an altogether different light, that the Count’s harem is meant for the slaughter and the Borgias are about as cuddly as an armful of snakes, and this knowledge serves the same purpose as the grinning skull or gathering clouds that Old Masters would tuck into the corners of their canvases.
As seen on this transfer, Immoral Tales is simply one of the most beautiful films of the 1970s, brimming over with radiant camerawork, authentic-looking costumes, meticulous set-dressing and disarmingly natural performances from its array of pretty young actresses. (Anyone keen on antiques will wonder where on earth Borowczyk sourced the marvellous bric-a-brac packed into every corner of his movies, and the answer is that he made a lot of it himself.) While it’s never going to be everybody’s cup of tea, it at least deserves to be reassessed by those interested in the figurative arts and not averse to a naked lady or two. Hopefully this Blu-ray release will finely see it being appreciated and understood.
Immoral Tales was originally supposed to include a fifth segment, The Beast of Gevaudan, but it was dropped, the footage being recycled as the dream sequence in The Beast (1975). This disc comes with an alternative version of Immoral Tales that restores that fifth segment. Transferred from a 16mm print, the segment is a bit grainy, but fans will be very glad to have it as it contains several minutes of extra footage: there’s a much lengthier shot of Sirpa Lane running along in just her corset, seen from behind, and a few additional seconds of her fondling the beast’s appendage and covering up his body with leaves. Oh, and there’s quite a bit more sperm.
A Private Collection (1973) is a 12-minute long pseudo-documentary, supposedly about a gent showing off his dazzling collection of vintage erotica – a wax doll that rolls its eyes as it masturbates, a mechanical silhouette that rogers away vigorously, etc. In fact, many of the automata were constructed by Borowczyk himself, which only makes it even more fascinating. It’s a delight and the picture is lovely. There’s also another version, longer by two minutes and more explicit, including some surprisingly dirty Victorian photographic porn. Be warned, both versions contain gratuitous amounts of scratchy wax cylinder music.
Also, there’s a 5-minute intro to Immoral Tales, and a 16-minute “making of”. In this, we get to see the home-made harness that camera operator Noel Very designed so as to mount the Panaflex camera on his shoulder for tighter shots (apparently Borowczyk’s enthusiasm for DIY was catching). We also learn that Isabelle Adjani was approached to play the part of Julie in The Tide and turned it down, and that they used 30 gallons of real blood (from pigs) for the Countess Bathory’s bath. Finally, there’s a 7-minute piece in which some of Borowczyk’s old friends and collaborators get together for a chat over lunch. Here the juiciest snippets of gossip come from the delightful Florence Dauman, daughter of Anatole Dauman, the movie’s producer. She reveals that, having had a small role in the Bathory segment, she was due to play the part of Clarisse, the Duke’s randy daughter, in The Beast, but her father refused to let her do it and was moreover horrified when he caught sight of her naked in Immoral Tales’ rushes.
Following on from their limited edition box set, Arrow have released five Walerian Borowczyk titles on Blu-ray: The Beast, Immoral Tales, Blanche, Goto Isle of Love and The Short Films & Theatre of Mr and Mrs Kabal.