Walerian Borowczyk, 1973
Starring: Lise Danvers, Paloma Picasso, Charlotte Alexandra, Fabrice Luchini, Florence Bellamy
Walerian Borowczyk’s fourth feature — and his most commercial project at that time — is this anthology film comprised of four erotic tales. In “The Tide,” a teenage boy takes a bike ride through the French countryside with his cousin with aim of initiating her into the world of adult sexuality. Her directs her to give him oral sex on the shore, in time with the ocean tide. The second tale, “Thérése Philosophe,” follows a teenage girl who is locked in her bedroom as punishment. She uses the objects around her — including books, a portrait, and a cucumber — to explore her budding sexuality. The third story is focused on legendary historical figure Countess Elizabeth Báthory, a beautiful, if licentious woman who murders girls and bathes in their blood. The final tale is also based on a historical woman, Lucrezia Borgia, and follows her incestuous sexual encounters with her father, the Pope, and her brother.
His first really sexually explicit film, this marked the introduction of heavy erotica that would appear in every single one of his subsequent films. While the previous two efforts, Goto, the Island of Love and Blanche garnered him attention from film critics and art house audiences, this was an early black mark on Borowczyk’s career. Borowczyk was encouraged to make Immoral Tales by famed producer Anatole Dauman. Also a Polish-born French emigre, Dauman was known for his work with Chris Marker, Godard, Tarkovsky, Resnais, Oshima, and many other prominent European directors. He suggested that Borowczyk take advantage of the change in French censorship laws that occurred during the ‘70s, which also resulted in films like Emmanuelle (1974) and Story of O (1975).
Considered uneven and somewhat inferior even by modern critics, I can’t help but enjoy Immoral Tales. Admittedly, in a perfect world, “The Tide” and “Thérése Philosophe” belong elsewhere. Based on a story by surrealist writer André Pieyre de Mandiargues, “The Tide” is the only story in the film to be set in the present day — throughout Borowczyk’s catalog in general, very few of his films have a contemporary setting. “The Beast of Gevaudan” was intended to be placed third in Immoral Tales but was removed to become Borowczyk’s next film and most notorious, The Beast, and I can’t help but wish “The Tide” had also met this fate. Writer André Pieyre de Mandiargues inspired Borowczyk several times throughout his career, including the plot for The Streetwalker, one of Borowczyk’s few feature films set in (then) present day, and I’m sure he could have helped to flesh out the story of André (Fabrice Luchini) and Julie (Lise Danvers).
With its plot loosely inspired by an 18th century novel, “Thérése Philosophe” is the most flawed of the set and drags a bit, though it's still absolutely beautiful to look at. While the other segments respectively deal with underage sex, fellatio, incest, murder, and sacrilege, this segment can’t help but feel a little tamer and paler in comparison, as the subject is solely masturbation and teenage sexual exploration. It also lacks the visual and stylistic heights reached by the other three tales, though it is undeniably lovely. Curiously, Borowczyk hired separate cinematographers for each tale, all of whom he would work with again: Bernard Daillencourt, who shot The Beast, The Streetwalker, and Immoral Women; Guy Durban, who shot some of Borowczyk’s shorts and early films like Goto and Blanche; Noël Véry, who shot some short films, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne, and Art of Love; and Michel Zolat -- apparently a pseudonym for Borowczyk himself, which he would use again on one of his last films, Love Rites.
My favorite of the three tales is the third, based on surrealist Valentine Penrose’s fictionalized account of the life of Elizabeth Báthory. Played by Picasso’s daughter Paloma in her only performance, this is perhaps Borowczyk’s finest examination of sexual cruelty — instead of Báthory ordering someone to slaughter the young women she has chosen, they tear each other apart in a frenzy. The film’s fantastic tagline, “You Don't Have To Go To A Museum To See An X-Rated Picasso,” promises a bit more than it delivers on, but you do get to see Paloma sit in a bathtub full of some very convincing pig’s blood.
Immoral Tales comes highly recommended, particularly for anyone interested in artistic explorations of sexual transgression. Like Borowczyk’s most famous film, The Beast (1975), which found its genesis here, Immoral Tales is beautifully shot, has a sense of irreverent humor, and a complicated use of sexuality. The more I watch it, the more I've come to love it. After Goto and Blanche’s focus on the tragically disgraced wife, Immoral Tales’ gleeful if somewhat ironic study of female sexuality marks the introduction of the theme that would obsess Borowczyk throughout the rest of his career.
The high-definition Arrow Blu-ray also comes highly recommended and includes a hefty dose of extras, as well as English subtitles. In addition to an introduction from Danel Bird, there are two cuts of the film — the short, four-story version and the L’Age d’Or cut, which includes a section from The Beast. You’ll also find interviews, Borowczyk’s short film A Private Collection (1973), and footage from a reunion of Borowczyk’s crew. And despite all the erotic European vampire films of the ‘70s (many of which I love), where else are you going to see a beautiful naked woman almost fully immersed in pigs blood? I know I’m not the only hematolagnia enthusiast in the world.