Thursday, July 23, 2015

IMMORAL WOMEN aka LES HÉROÏNES DU MAL

Walerian Borowczyk, 1979
Starring: Marina Pierro, Françoise Quéré, Jean-Claude Dreyfus

This erotic anthology is comprised of three stories about the sexual experiences of different women. The first, “Margherita" follows the painter Raphael and his rise to fame in Rome. He’s aided by his beautiful, but secretly ambitious mistress, the titular Margherita. She is only using Raphael to steal his money, so that she can go off with her real lover in the countryside. She sleeps with one of his wealthy enemies and causes his death, though it looks like an accident. 

In the second story, “Marceline,” a pretty young teenager in turn of the century France loves only her pet rabbit. Her cruel bourgeois parents, trying to make her grow up, kill the rabbit and serve him in a stew for dinner. Marceline gets her revenge by killing them in the middle of the night and then she travels to the slaughterhouse, where she is deflowered by the young butcher, which ends in yet more violence. In the final tale, “Marie,” the wife of a Parisian art gallery owner is improbably kidnapped by a thug on the street. He calls her husband, demanding ransom, but her husband is reluctant to pay the sum (even though he can afford it). Meanwhile, Marie’s dog, an enormous doberman pinscher, is determined to find her.

This follow up to Borowczyk’s first erotic anthology, Immoral Tales, is not a sequel, though the similar titles seems to imply this. While Contes immoraux does translate to “Immoral Tales” or “Immoral Stories,” Immoral Woman’s title is actually Les héroïnes du mal or “Heroines of Evil” with the central characters’ names all cleverly beginning with “M.” Written by Borowczyk and French author André Pieyre de Mandiargues, Borowczyk had previously adapted one of Mandiargues’ novels for La marge. Here the author apparently penned the second tale, “Marceline,” which is the best of the bunch.

I can’t say that I disliked Immoral Women or that it’s in any way a bad film, but it simply doesn’t stand up to previous efforts like The Beast, The Story of Sin, La marge, or Behind Convent Walls. The film’s finest moments are also unable to live up to the best of Immoral Tales, but it still has plenty to offer for seasoned Borowczyk fans and anyone interested in more transgressive ‘70s erotica. “Margherita” has the most elaborate plot, but is overly long at almost 50 minutes. It’s incredibly beautifully shot with a mixture of sex scenes split between a painter studio’s and all kinds of Roman era props and outdoor ruins. Dark haired beauty Marina Pierro is what makes this so compelling and it’s a pleasure to watch her on camera whether she’s stripping off her clothes or quietly scheming.

While I think Borowczyk’s reputation as an exploitative director is misguided, he does have some troubling sexual politics at work in his films — troubling, but oddly liberating. Margherita is an example of the sort of atypical character he seems to favor. She happily consents to be Raphael’s mistress and muse and has sex with others for financial gain — but she isn’t doing this to fulfill any specific masculine fantasy or because she has been driven to prostitution. She actually winds up the short film’s hero (without needing any man to rescue her) and kills two of her sexual partners convincingly enough that it looks like an accident, steals their money, and escapes to the ruins to reunite with her real lover. In other words, she enjoys sex and is able to easily separate it from love — but is a the rare promiscuous female character to also feel love.

The second segment, “Marceline,” succeeds because it is a plenty of visual poetry, black humor, and surrealism. Marceline engages in sex with rabbit, Pinky, who nibbles at her lady bits with she lays in the grass, moaning. Like The Beast, Borowczyk uses themes of bestiality in the second and third tales, where the female protagonists are more devoted to their pets (sexually as well as emotionally) than any other character. The curly haired Gaëlle Legrand is convincing as an Alice in Wonderland type figure who wanders through her bourgeois life totally disconnected and absorbed in her fantasy world. Her parents are comically cruel and their deaths are slightly surprising, but feel justified within the vengeance-fueled universe of Immoral Women.

The film takes a strange twist when Marceline heads to the local slaughterhouse and is deflowered by the young black butcher — similar to The Beast, where a young black servant has a sexual relationship with the daughter of the bourgeois family that employed him. This moment is particularly complicated, because it’s difficult to discern whether Marceline is being raped or has simply put herself in a positive to lose her virginity. She seems to receive a mix of pleasure and pain from the experience — something else it has in common with The Beast, where a woman overcomes her rape by finding it pleasurable (and vanquishes her rapist by making him orgasm to death…).

In “Marie,” the sexual violence is equally troubling, as Marie (Pascale Christophe) is raped by her kidnapper. This does not turn into a moment of pleasure for her, but she honestly seems more put out that her husband is ignoring her than that she’s been attacked. It’s hard to say whether the kidnapper is even really a villain, because he is portrayed as being so over the top and ridiculous — he kidnaps her by standing inside a box on the street, like some sort of Monty Python skit. The husband, who is selfish and passive, has enough money to rescue her immediately, but just drags his heels. Only her dog comes to her aid. It’s a shame that this last segment feels like a tacked on after that. It’s neither as beautiful nor as entertaining as the first two stories.

Immoral Women is visually sumptuous and has plenty of entertaining moments, but it is not among Borowczyk’s best films. Find it on DVD from Severin Films. It comes recommended for hardcore Borowczyk fans and anyone who enjoys erotica, though unlike many films in that genre, Immoral Tales feels like a series of stories that just happen to include sexual elements rather than loose plots shaped around sex scenes — and that’s definitely a positive.

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