Zipper Morals: Walerian Borowczyk’s ‘Immoral Tales’

Walerian Borowczyk’s Immoral Tales is either a curious failure or a problematic success, depending on where one draws the line between art and exploitation.

Immoral Tales
Walerian Borowczyk
15 Sept 2015

The festering horror that lurks beneath the dreamy delusions of 1974’s Immoral Tales owes much to the gothic contraptions of writer Sheridan Le Fanu. Much like the stories of Le Fanu, Immoral Tales works up a vampiric atmosphere of sexual obsession. However, the erotic perversions blatantly on display here are solely Walerian Borowczyk’s. The highly controversial filmmaker had already achieved a modest level of critical fame amongst the cinematic intelligentsia for his intricately wrought parables, Goto, l’île d’amour (1969) and Blanche (1971), adult fairy-tales which merged the otherworldly dynamics of Jean Cocteau with the navel-gazing rigour of Ingmar Bergman.

For all of the critical lauding, however, Borowczyk couldn’t gain a strong enough foothold in the Everest climb of Europe’s movie-making industry. At the insistence of French film producer Anatole Dauman, Borowczyk made a deliberate detour into the soft-porn market (then known as erotic films) in a hopeful bid for commercial success.

The resultant effort was an unnerving tableau of fleshly exploit, slagged off in many quarters as high-end porn. To be fair, Borowczyk only toes the line here on that critical consensus, even if it’s perilously close, and his Immoral Tales are positioned (perhaps somewhat strategically) at a remove by the pansophical lens with which he rather prudently frames his subjects. It’s an uncomfortably close look at the misgivings of desire, one that probes deeply the wanton activities which make good on their threat to obliterate the scenery.

Being that Borowczyk was a painter of some repute prior to his cinematic activities, the Polish-born French-by-proxy filmmaker had the sure hand of turning even the most horrifying aspects of the most base desires into a sumptuous package of baroque design. The strange and unpleasant taste of exploitation, however, still seeps through on these death-enshrouded tales of moral sublimation; we are witness and prisoner to every erotic folly played out here as high drama, as nubile bodies of aphrodisian scope are torn, shattered, caressed, and destroyed, following the patrimonial betrayals spanning at least seven centuries.

Borowczyk, in fact, was a remarkable filmmaker whose brilliant trilogy on the nature of subjugated women (Goto, Blanche, and 1975’s Story of Sin) earned the praise of many critics across the European continent. His ability to align a high-fashioned eroticism with a studied narrative on the battle of the sexes was of an erudition that was rare and still is by today’s standards. But Immoral Tales lets those erotic preoccupations take the reins with reckless abandon. We have four salty narratives saturated in the Anglo-Saxon philosophies of religious and moral doctrines.

The first narrative is based on a short story by French writer André Pieyre de Mandiargues, whose taboo-crushing surrealism earned him the Prix Goncourt for another of his works (La Marge) which Borowczyk also adapted into film. Taking place in modern-day France, the first instalment of this quartet, entitled “The Tide”, concerns the randy endeavours of a particularly calculating teenager, who lures his younger, unsuspecting cousin to the lonely shores of a deserted beach; he coerces her (without much effort) into an act of fellatio.

The scenes of the erotic exchange are cleverly – and narrowly – sidestepped, with an almost scheming sense of daring; Borowczyk films uncomfortably close-up shots of the young woman’s nude body, taunting the viewer with the threat of a disturbing transgression. Interspersed throughout these exchanges are the obvious, perhaps even obtuse, panoramas of the surging ocean; a hyperbolic, heavy-breathing metaphor of sexual incitement.

Attractively shot, with admittedly gorgeous scenery to counteract the lubricious infraction(a flock of seabirds hovers above the sexual act like a thick spread of stars), the sour taste of exploitation hits all the intended notes. Many who believe Borowczyk of being ignorant of his own enterprising manipulation need only seek out a rare interview in which he considers the sexual contravention of Walt Disney in the assessment of his own.

If the tone of discomfort presented in the opening tale suggests an eroticism of a prohibitive nature, then the following story, “Thérèse Philosophe”, smashes all iniquities down to the abysmal depths of tactical debauchery. The second episode here presents a young 19th-century woman of budding sexuality and religious hunger who finds herself on the receiving end of her mother’s spanking strap when her holy preoccupations keep her out late and away from home. Locked up in the guest house as punishment for the night, Thérèse spends the evening leafing through religious paraphernalia and exploring the furnishings with sensuous fervour. Her religious zeal comes to a peak and, in a shameless obliteration of narrative distance, we witness a bald display of sexual self-service as Thérèse abuses the cucumbers set aside for dinner.

The membrane-thin barrier that separates the exhibition from full-on pornography is held securely only by the curious (though perhaps feckless) comment the episode seems to make on the marriage between divine spirituality and the earthly conducts of sexual desire. Of the four stories, “Thérèse Philosophe” is filmed in an unflattering display of crudely edited sequences, the grainy film stock suggesting that the segment may have been shot during a moment when Borowczyk hadn’t procured a sizable fund. The weakest of the four tales, “Thérèse Philosophe” helps, in an entirely inverse way, to bolster the shock and surprise of the following story, “Erzsebet Bathory”.

Based on the true-life account of the sadistic Hungarian countess who murdered many young women during the 16th century, “Erzsebet Bathory” reveals the height of Borowczyk’s aesthetic powers. In a breathtakingly sumptuous demonstration of visual splendour, Borowczyk frames a tale of bloodlust and sexual depravity through a lens of sophisticated glamour. An inspired choice of casting sees Pablo Picasso’s daughter, Paloma (now a high-end fashion mogul and business entrepreneur) in the title role as the quietly ruthless aristocrat. It begins with the countess’ men rounding up nubile, young, virgin women in the local peasant villages and forcibly taking them back to Bathory’s castle on a hill. Inside, the young women roam the halls wide-eyed with astonishment at the incredible wealth now within their reach.

A pageboy ushers the women into the showering rooms, and a renaissance scene of daisy chains and female fellowship unfolds under the mists of perfume and water. It has been rumoured that the countess owns a gown of magical properties said to grant anyone who touches it eternal youth and beauty. Bathory dons the garment after she secretly laces a chalice of wine with a narcotic that will induce mania; she orders each of the women to take a sip. In a heated orgy of sexual violence, the women take turns ripping the dress from the countess’ body while literally tearing each other apart. The chamber is soon bloodied and, as the now scurrilous legend goes, the countess takes to the bathtub where she bathes in the blood of the freshly slaughtered women; her actions in doing so (as per her reported belief that she will retain her youth and beauty) is a rather sketchy historical account often contested by many.

Borowczyk’s ability to instate one of history’s most heinous atrocities into the designs of staggering cinematic poetry allows the viewer to forgive the reprehensible treatment of humans on display. “Erzebeth Bathory” is awash in a lush colour scheme of deep, Romantic hues (everyone from Rossetti to Delacroix is referenced) and the alternating stylized and extemporized movements suggest a technique particular only to Borowczyk. The fated moments of both bloodbaths (the young women’s and Bathory’s) fulfill, unquestionably, their service of shock value; even in comparison to the brash and overextended violence in this digital age of anxiety, the segment proves a licentious knife, sharpened to a lethal point and plunged deeply into the unwary and impressionable consciousness.

The final story in Immoral Tales is “Lucrezia Borgia”, a story of a young woman’s sexual liaisons with both her brother and her father, Pope Alexander VI. Returning to the themes of sex and religion explored in the second story, “Thérèse Philosophe”, Borowczyk surveys an overdone concept of Catholic blasphemy through a clear-eyed (though utterly adorned) view on incest. A fruitless exercise in religious consternation, the filmmaker draws a certain purity in style through the use of bold, simple colour and clean, razor-sharp lines.

The story (rumoured, by some accounts, to have been true, in part) angles for an absurdity that is so over the top, the shocks seem to come more from a reserve of self-important humour than they do a sense of moral indignation.  Borowczyk still maintains a coordination of visual extravagance, no matter how far-flung his narrative is and, even in its most repellent moments, the story is often difficult to ignore.

Arrow’s Blu-Ray/DVD combo package release of Immoral Tales is given the royal treatment. It sports a high definition transfer that reproduces a razor-sharp image with colours that are rich and vibrant. The audio (dialogue and soundtrack) opens up generously with no distortion and offers a clear, clean sound. The film is in the French language with optional English subtitles.

The release contains a bevy of extras, including an introduction to the film as well as a visual essay, both by journalist Daniel Bird. Yet another visual essay by the cinematographer and production manager of the film also makes its way onto this release, as does an interview with Borowczyk, who discusses (what else?) sex in cinema. Also included is an essay booklet in which a lengthy (and beautifully written) review, originally published by Sight and Sound in 1977, revisits the age-old debate – is it art or is it porn?

The most important extra here is the addition of a fifth tale, originally filmed for Immoral Tales as a short but ultimately removed and later developed as a feature-length film: Borowczyk’s most notorious (and in some quarters, reviled) work, The Beast. A woozy, often unpleasant, fairy-tale of repugnant humour, camp horror, and chi-chi Euro elegance, The Beast was indeed the divisive statement that had a number of critics sharpening their pitchforks, with only a few detractors ardently fighting in Borowczyk’s corner. Viewers have the option of watching Immoral Tales in two versions here: one with “The Beast” and one without.

Viewed with “The Beast”, Immoral Tales sags a little more under the weight of its kitchen-sink drama. For the most part, all of the stories are filmed with a po-faced seriousness even when the heights of pretention reach Grand Guignol levels. The addition of “The Beast” derails the overall tone of the work thanks, in part, to the story’s silly humour and its exceptionally queasy displays of low-brow eroticism.

In its original version as a quartet of stories, Immoral Tales is either a curious failure or a problematic success, depending on where one draws the line between art and exploitation. Borowczyk does not make it easy; so convincing is the eloquence and beauty of his visuals, it is enough to disorient one’s moral judgment here. If you take an inductive approach to the film, however, you may find, within these orgies of fantastic dilemma, the purpose and design that have eluded so many viewers.