With Immoral Tales (Contes immoraux 1974) it was as though Borowczyk had released his inner perv. It’s an odd compendium which at times sees its four stories gelling but at others not quite so. This is certainly true of the first part which has a contemporary (to the time it was made) setting whereas the others are much more rooted in historical times. Also one thing I noted on watching it again is the disparity between them as far as plot conventions such as dialogue are concerned, the middle two parts have very little whereas the first could be considered over-wordy. I guess I was more used to the director’s style having watched the previous documentary pieces with Blanche as I really noticed certain things that had been mentioned such as the cutting off of heads within the frame and the stark looms that honed in on facial expressions and the eyes at times. This was far from my first view of the movie having already got it on Nouveau Pictures but naturally Arrow’s print and extras make that version pretty much redundant.
The first part La Maree (The Tide) centres on just two characters, innocent virginal 16 year old Julie (Lise Danvers) and her worldlier 20 year old cousin André (Fabrice Luchini). It’s basically a coming of age story for Julie as the two of them ride through the gorgeous Gallic countryside to end up cut off by the tide on the sort of rocky beach that Jean Rollin had used to great effect in his vampire movies around the same time. André is a domineering so and so who has purposely got them cut off and although Julie seems willing for whatever, he pretty much orders her about and the commands her to take him in her mouth until the time it takes for the tide to turn at which point she will get a salty reward which does not come from the sea. It’s pretty pretentious stuff but gorgeously shot with the sound of the sea being completely dramatic and mesmerising. It’s not done in an overtly exploitational way, there is nudity but it is not shot in anything more than a tame softcore sense, the emphasis strikes as being very much on eroticism. It does seem a little dated and I am sure if it was re-done now it will end as it should have done with Julie drowning her little sod of a lover!
Thérése Philosophe is another part which is minimalist of cast with focus set on country church going girl Thérése (Charlotte Alexander) who is punished by being shut in a room for three days by I assume her mother after being late back from church. She was genuinely late as her licentious developing mind had her lovingly in the holy place stroking an organ (a real musical organ I hasten to add). Luckily there are plenty of objects de arte to keep her occupied in this room and the camera voyeuristically gives us a fascinating guided tour through its mysteries. Amidst all this she discovers the French novel of the title, full of risqué photos, well they sure were for the 19th century. Her mother has left her some food for her period of incarceration and it consists of several whole cucumbers. Let’s just say I am sure you can see where this one is going. The fact that there is so much religious iconography and symbolism in this piece which is essentially a masturbatory rite of discovery no doubt would have been very controversial in Borowczyk home country of Poland. It was lucky he was living and working in France really as after this one wonders if he would have been welcome back with open arms.
I never knew there was originally a fifth segment The True Story of the Beast of Gévaudan which is essentially a short forerunner of The Beast featuring the dialogue free, chamber music driven frenzied climax (and there is no better word) of the full film. I shall leave further talk of this until reviewing the full feature but Arrow have presented two versions of Immoral Tales on their disc, one (the L’Age d’Or Cut) with this back in as the third part. I should add that you really should not watch this version until you are au fait with The Beast in its entirety.
We are off to 16th Century Hungary next with the well known tale of Erzsebet Bathory telling the lurid story of the aristocratic noblewoman with a penchant for bathing in human blood (and whatever they used it really does look like real blood.) It is probably the most memorable part of the film and it kind of makes one want to get back in a time machine and travel back to the time as all the women there are unnaturally healthy and gorgeous. Borowczyk fills the screen with nudity as far as the eye can see and there are long shower scenes with much innocent bathing going on; I counted somewhere in the region of 30 ladies lined up for Bathory’s bath times. Paloma Picasso who reminds at times of Asia Argento plays the lead role with conviction and there is a sting in the end of the tale making it all the more fulfilling. This really excels due again to the camera work and the attention to detail in the wonderland palatial surroundings of Bathory’s manse. Visually it is stunning and the director’s attention to set décor really pays off with the blood red style leaping off the screen.
There is plenty more of this too on the final part dealing with another historical lady Lucrezia Borgia. She gives the words “filthy bourgeoisie’ a new meaning as the degenerate Pope’s daughter spurred on with pictures of horses phalluses gets all hot under the collar to get it on with her dad and her brother. It’s what can only described as contentious and blasphemous stuff and is a pretty wild end part to the film. Borgia played by Florence Bellamy really seems to get into her part and annoyingly giggles throughout but puts on another highly charged and quite erotic performance. This part with its garish set design kind of reminded of Peter Greenaway or Ken Russell at their most hysterical and historical and it’s enough to make your head spin Indeed the whole film did just that when first seen, certainly as far as critics were concerned who were quick to describe the whole experience as “wretched.” Naturally UK censors at the time were not amused either.
Onto the extras and first there is an introduction to the film by Daniel Bird with written rather than spoken parts accompanying clips. It does talk about the reaction the film had on being shown at the London Film Festival in 1973 and it’s no surprise to read that it left the audience somewhat shocked and flustered. Next up is ‘Love Reveals Itself’ a making of Immoral Tales. Lots of valid points are mentioned again around clips of the film by cinematographers and producers etc. One early one is that at the time they were not really sure of what Borowczyk was attempting here and it was only later that it was realised he was pretty much making the film as a means of fighting power and the church. Camera techniques are discussed as are the leading cast and their discovery. One very interesting fact is that apparently Isabelle Adjani was originally thought of to play the part of Julie in The Tide. Apparently the part was too complicated the young actress though. Considering some of the roles she would play later such as in Andrzej Żuławski Possession ten years later I personally think she would have breezed it. It was pretty much the end of the acting career for Lise Danvers at any rate. There are plenty of illuminating facts about the film on this and I was pleased to discover I was right about the Bathory segment and it was real (animal) blood that was used.
Next up is a brief reuniting segment arranged by cinematographer Noel Very where people who were originally involved in the Borowczyk oeuvre at the time break bread (and drink wine) and chat about their recollections. Finally we get a look into Borowczyk private collection which is made up of objects from bygone times of quite a saucy nature such as dirty pictures and sideshow type toys that are definitely not for children. There are two versions of this and the longer Oberhausen Cut still had to be cut (screen goes black a few times) pre submission to the BBFC as it would have broken section 7d of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008 (and if you want an idea of what that contained look it up). Some of this stuff from Victorian times is downright filth!
And that wraps this one up and gives plenty to watch through again. I probably never appreciated Immoral Tales without all this extra insight but certainly do now and it is another remarkable film presented the best way you are ever likely to see it. What’s not to like?
More beastly goings on coming up soon!