Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Immoral Tales

Immoral Tales
Original Title: Contes immoraux
Directed by: Walerian Borowczyk
France, 1974
Drama/Erotic, 103min
Distributed by: Studio S. Entertainment

I do hold a soft spot for the movies of Walerian Borowczyk even though I’ve only seen a handful of them, and I'm nowhere near being a completist on his works at all. But there’s something about his movies that appeal to me beyond the regular art house/exploitation fare.

It may have to do with the underdog element due to the fact that the critics turned their backs on him and suddenly stopped praising his work when he got to bold, or it could be that he created some of the most artistic and visually stunning pieces during the early years of his career. Possibly it’s the melancholy that I find in his work, just like in several of Jean Rollin's films. There’s something else in these movies that sets them apart from the common exploitation flick. I’m not sure what, as it’s more a feeling than something concrete, more abstract and imaginative just like those movies of his that I like. Ones that invite the audience to imagine more than shown on the screen, that plug into that primal voyeurism that we all share. Or it could simply be because that his movies certainly are pieces of art.

You can’t watch a Borowczyk movie without thinking about art, as his movies are saturated with the presence of art. Art was a major influence on Borowczyk’s works since he was a young child, and it shows in his films. Born in Kwilcz, Poland a decade after the First World War, the teenage Borowczyk followed his childhood passion for art and took up studies at the Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków. There he painted, produced large amounts of lithography’s - some that ended up as movie posters - and started experimenting with bringing those graphics to life through stop motion animation. Pretty soon started to make a name for him self after some of his movie posters won the Polish National Prize for his graphic work in 1953.

In 1959, Borowczyk emigrated to Paris where he continued his exploration of art, this time primarily focusing on his animation. His movies (many co-drected with Jan Lenica) took on a more violent atmosphere almost like personal nightmares – as in Les astronauts 1959 which he co directed with French visionary Chris Marker and holds a style close to those animations associated with Monty Python, blending photographic material and stop motion. And it’s within these early, animated shorts that one clearly can see how Borowczyk has been a strong influence on Terry Gilliam. Gilliam states that Borowczyk’s Les jeux des Anges (The Games of Angels) 1964 is one of the ten best animated films ever. After a series of acknowledged, praised and award winning surreal dark short animated films, and his first full length animated feature film Theatre de Monsieur & madam Kabal: un film dessiné pour les asultes (Mr. & Mrs. Kabal’s Theatre) 1967, Borowczyk took the step out to full length live action pictures.

The 1968 feature Goto, I’île d’amour (Goto, Isle of Love) about the brutal dictatorship on a small island in the tropics is filled with random destruction and frivolous viciousness as the movie tells a tale of isolation, sexual fetishism and the struggle for power, all woven together in an almost Kafkaesque state where everyone has a name that starts with the letter G.

Goto, I’île d’amour is packed with the themes that Borowczyk had explored earlier, and would use throughout the main body of his work to come. Borowczyk continued experimenting with familiar themes and imagery in his movies – both in long and short form, and was still a quite popular and appreciated director. After Blanche 1971, which won the Interfilm Grand Prix at the Berlin International Film Festival in 1972, Borowczyk’s work started to be viewed upon through a different pair of goggles. Where Blanche may have used the themes of human sexuality and lust, it steered clear of actually portraying it on screen and kept it more a suggestive part of the narrative, that was all about to change with the anthology film Immoral Tales.
Even though Immoral Tales became a quite successful film, especially in France where it was the second most popular film on the year of it’s release, it unfortunately also set Borowczyk up as the fall guy for negative criticism against erotically themed films, when his former protagonists suddenly became antagonists and voices where raised against the sexual and evocative content of the movie – content that wouldn’t raise any eyebrows be it made today, so perhaps Borowczyk was ahead of his time as the contemporary art house films frequently use graphic eroticism and similar themes in their portrayals of the human psyche.

But I also feel that it’s valuable to bring attention to the scene of the time period that Immoral Tales was released into focus here. In the mid seventies, the novelty of porn chic was wearing off, and the backside of that once popular oddity was now revealing itself. And with it there obviously came a backlash that would eventually thrash the makers of arty erotica – and cheap sexploitation too for that part. This is probably why critics had a hard time determining what Borowczyk’s films where at this stage in his career, because where they do appear as visualized art house pieces using the busted taboos of free sexuality, they can easily be read as something completely different, even though there’s not really much graphic material in Borowczyk’s films at this period. And not wanting to be praising the wrong kind of movies, the critics turned their backs instead.

But instead of praising the natural sexuality and suggestive eroticism of the art house movies, his next movies where scrutinized in the same light as the quickly degrading porn genre. So when Borowczyk continued to explore themes of human sexuality, greed, and absurdist subjects with his next feature La Bête (The Beast) 1975, all of the art house credibility that he once had was shattered and Borowczyk would never really regain the momentum that he once was recognized for.

The movies that followed - like the highly underestimated and perhaps lost masterpiece La Marge (The Margin) 1976, definitely damaged by the reputation of The Beast, Interno di un convento (Behind Convent Walls) 1977. Lulu 1980, a take on the Frank Wedekind sex tragedies immortalised previously by G.W. Pabst as Die Büchse der Pandora (Pandora’s Box) 1928, and the terrific Udo Kier showcase Docteur Jekyll et les femmes (Dr. Jekyll and His Wives) 1981, to name but a few - all more or less just passed by and never really received the attention that they deserved. The once favoured master of Polish art house cinema had now rapidly been abandoned and never managed to regain the stature that he once had.

Borowczyk sadly became remembered as a simple exploitative maker of smut than the true visionary artist that he indeed was at one time. He certainly did make some poor choices at the end of his career in my opinion, but one thing that mustn’t be forgotten is the importance that Walerian Borowczyk had, and the part he played in bringing Polish Cinema to the international significance that it has held since the early fifties.

Immoral Tales, possibly the one that started the backlash of Borowczyk’s career – as mentioned he received a fair amount of negative criticism for the film, and it was banned in Germany amongst others - is a good old European art house anthology movie, the kind of movie that allows directors the power to move from short story to short story and getting the message through in the shortest possible time. You’ve seen them before, Pasolini made a few of them, several of Fellini’s films where in that mould, and then there’s the Italian/French collaboration movies like RO.GO.PA.G 1963, and Histoires extraordinaires (Spirits of the Dead) 1968, even Mario Bava’s I tre volti della paura (Black Sabbath) 1963 and the Dante/Landis/Spielberg/Miller film Twilight Zone the Movie 1983 uses this form to share short stories in a feature film length. It’s an effective way to make a bunch of short features that hang together by one common theme.

And just like those mentioned above, it is also a very stylish and lush movie, sensuous and sometimes stunning with its visuals. The title – Immoral Tales - is a play on recently deceased Eric Rohmer’s Ma nuit chez Maud (Six Moral Tales III: My Night at Maud’s) 1969, as Borowczyk originally had planned to have six short pieces to the film. Only four made it into the movie and a fifth later got used as that surreal dream sequence in the 1975 shocker The Beast - but that's a later story. Like many of Borowczyk’s films, the four episodes, which portray sexuality in four different decades, are filled with symbolism and strong themes, the main theme for Immoral Tales obviously being various forms of immoral sexuality.

It’s a pretty varied movie, where the four segments are of equal varied quality. I find the Erzsébet Báthory segment, set in 1610 starring Paloma Picasso - daughter of Pablo as Báthory, in her only acting role, to be the high mark of the film, and even though the three other tales, the contemporary Le Mareé, Thérèse Philosophe set in 1890 and the closing saga placed in 1498 - Lucrezia Borgia, are entertaining in their own way's, they don’t quite reach up to the high quality, beautiful cinematography and stunning imagery of the Erzsébet Báthory segment.

The visuals, and themes that later led to the destructive criticism are merely imaginative visuals. Where Borowczyk insinuated and suggested these themes in Blanche, he goes one small step further in Immoral Tales, but a step that still doesn’t cross the line. It’s still in decently good taste and never gets obviously exploitative – he stays safely inside the realm of the art movie. It is seductive and suggestive without ever going fully graphic. With that said, there are some heavy topics and themes at play here, and the full battery of Borowczyk’s symbolism and subtext come to the screen. There’s depraved sexuality, incest, criticism towards the papacy, symbolic connections between sexuality and spirituality, murder, deception and prevailing pessimism. Also the recurrent themes of greed, deception and failure to dominate, which frequently appear throughout Borowczyk’s movies are here too.

I would guess that the main reason for the movie’s negative reception (apart from France) is quite possibly due to the fact that Borowczyk chooses not to condemn any of the acts portrayed in the segments. Instead he plugs into our own voyeurism and simply let’s us observe events with no actual resolution, as nobody in the movie is held responsible for their acts. There is no indicator of remorse responded anywhere in the movie, and it in some ways becomes something of a cold statement. Strong emotions blended with bitter proclamation - it’s a confusing, but fascinating cocktail. Which together with the religious subtexts probably is why the critics turned their backs on the film and the filmmaker, and what a shame that is, as they obviously missed the point of the wonderful art that Borowczyk was creating, because a movie that triggers emotions outside the context of it’s narrative has definitely done it’s job in the outmost way.
Widescreen 1.66:1 – Anamorphic

Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo. French Dialogue. Swedish, Norwegian, Finnish and Danish subtitles optional.

Borowczyk biography and filmography. The theatrical trailer, photo gallery, trivia about the film, and trailers for other Studio S releases.

Walerian Borowczyk's Immoral Tales is due for Scandinavian release through the good people at Studio S Entertainment on the 12th of May 2010, and can easily be picked up from SubDVD.

And for more on the films of Borowczyk, check out Jeremy Richey's magnificent Moon In The Gutter.


Alex B. said...

That's a great read, thanks!

The only feature Borowczyk I've seen so far was LA BETE, which I found alternatively dull or ridiculous.
That was 4 years ago, and I wouldn't mind giving it another shot today(especially since I learned that footage from LA BETE ended up in the Italian sci-fi erotic trash LA BESTIA NELLO SPAZIO), but haven't the disc anymore.
That DVD also included Borowczyc's short LA MAREE, which must be a segment of IMMORAL TALES.
I loved LA MAREE, it was very simple, almost dire and yeah I'd say pretty amoral. It was like a darker take on Rollin's cinema.

CiNEZiLLA said...

I'm setting up a La Bete piece as we talk...

I quite like it, it's wild and crazy and takes the piss.

You'll have that to look forward too later. :)

Lars Jacobsson said...

Watched this just now, thinking I might just aswell give the guy one last chance... but no, it wasn't to be. Another stinker from Mr. Borowczyk, too banal to work as "art" and not sexy enough to work as erotica (I wonder how filming a bunch of naked girls with David Hamilton-style photography could grant him a "master of erotica"-reputation?). And it was boring as hell too, just as LA BÉTE, LA MARGE, THE BLOODBATH OF DR. JEKYLL etc. So no more Borowcyk's for this guy, I finally realised I hate the guy's films! (the exception being his beautiful non-erotic arthouse film GOTO, ISLAND OF LOVE, showing the man actually has some well-hidden talent up his sleeves). Admittedly his films have good photography. Maybe he sued have pursued a career in fashion photography instead...?

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