Immoral Tales (Contes immoraux) Review

In which Borowczyk goes erotic…

The portmanteau, or anthology, film – a feature made up of separate short films, either thematically linked or with a frame story, by different directors or the same one – has a long history. It’s particularly common in the horror genre, going back at least as far as the silent era and Waxworks (Das Wachsfigurenkabinett, 1924), with famous later examples including Dead of Night. One production company, Amicus, made a speciality of the form in the 1960s and 1970s and the subgenre continues to this day.

I mention horror anthologies in this review of an erotic film anthology for two reasons. Firstly, one segment in subject matter and treatment certainly overlaps with the horror genre. Secondly, horror and erotica (and comedy) are all genres defined not by specific content but by the effect they have on the viewer or reader. And both lend themselves particularly to the short form, where that effect can be in a concentrated dose, not diluted by the demands of plotting and subplotting that a full-length work requires.

Borowczyk’s two earlier features, Goto Isle of Love and Blanche had certainly attracted much critical notice but neither had been successful at the box office. Polish-French producer Anatole Dauman suggested that, with the liberalisation of censorship over the last half-decade, that Borowczyk might want to make an erotic film as a likely more commercial proposition. The result was Immoral Tales (Contes immoraux) and his career took a decisive turn away from his earlier work as a result.

Borowczyk’s reputation had been made with short films, animated or live action, but the market for them had reduced since the mid-1960s. After his first full-length film, The Theatre of Mr and Mrs Kabal, he had concentrated on features, and had only made one more short, 1969’s five-minute stop-motion piece The Phonograph. Now, between 1972 and 1974, he made six more. While the final film had four episodes, at one time or another, all six were considered for inclusion. A Private Collection was shown with “The Tide” and “The Beast of Gévaudan” as a work in progress for the feature at the 1973 London Film Festival, with scandalous results which I will discuss later. A Private Collection (included on this disc and discussed along with the extras) was excised to become a curtain-raiser for the feature. Immoral Tales originally had five episodes, and in that form won the 1974 Prix de l’Age d’Or. However, Borowczyk then removed “The Beast of Gévaudan” and used it as the basis of his next feature, The Beast. The theatrically-released version of Immoral Tales comprises four episodes, each one taking place further back in time than the last.

We begin with “The Tide” (“La marée”), set in contemporary times and based on a short story by André Pieyre de Mandiargues. André (a very young-looking Fabrice Luchini) is twenty and his cousin Julie (Lise Danvers, in a role originally offered to Isabelle Adjani, but she declined) and this gives him a hold over her, she thinks. They go for a cycle ride to the beach and he orchestrates events so that they are isolated by the high tide. He exhorts her into performing fellatio on him while he discourses on the sea, the tides and the turning of the earth (as you do) intending to climax just as the waves break over them. After that, we go back in history with “Thérèse philosophe”, an account of a young girl (Charlotte Alexandra) finding religious ecstasy in objects to hand, including religious symbols and foodstuffs, notably a plate of cucumbers.

The next story is the longest of the four, all but devoid of dialogue after the opening, “Erszébet Báthory”, inspired by the Hungarian “Bloody Countess” of the seventeenth century, arguably the most prolific female serial killer in history, played here by Paloma Picasso. (Báthory was the inspiration for Hammer’s Countess Dracula in 1971, and this episode certainly borders on horror.) Many virginal young women are rounded up for the Countess so that she could bathe in their blood (actual on-screen blood, though from pigs) to preserve her youth and beauty.

If “The Tide” touched on the taboo theme of incest, so does the final story, “Lucrezia Borgia” (played by Florence Bellamy) who gets up to all sorts of goings-on with her father Pope Alexander VI (Mario Ruspoli, acting as Jacopo Berinizi) and brother Cesare (Lorenzo Berenizi, aka Fabrizio Ruspoli) as the heretic Savonarola (Philippe Desboeuf) denounces the family and is burned at the stake for his pains.

If you’ve been following Borowczyk through his films up to now, you will recognise many of his stylistic tropes, including a fixation on objects, many of which appear onscreen while characters talk and act outside the frame. This being an intentionally erotic film, those objects include lips, nipples and frequently unclothed crotches, almost all belonging to the female cast. That said, compared to what Borowczyk went on to film in The Beast, this film is relatively decorous, with only a couple of brief between-the-legs shots (one involving the insertion of a pearl). However, this was too much for the BBFC who rejected Immoral Tales (and, separately, A Private Collection as well). My first viewing of this film, more than twenty years ago at the National Film Theatre, was of a 35mm print which began with the Greater London Council X certificate that the film was given in the capital. It would not be passed by the BBFC, uncut, until a VHS release in 1995. Meanwhile, in France, it was a commercial success, the second-biggest-grossing “film érotique” of its year, beaten only by Emmanuelle.

Four cinematographers are credited, though it’s not so simple as one per short. Shooting of “The Tide” was delayed due to weather conditions, and Borowczyk’s then-regular DP Guy Durban had to leave for another commitment. Camera assistant Noël Véry completed that episode and the opening exteriors of “Erszébet Báthory”. He was then promoted to camera operator and Bernard Daillencourt (who became Borowczyk’s new regular DP) shot the rest of “Erszébet Báthory” and “Lucrezia Borgia” in studios in Sweden. The fourth credited DP, Michel Zolat is a nom du ciné for Borowczyk himself, who as usual designed and edited the film as well as writing and directing.

Almost inevitably with a portmanteau film, some episodes have a greater effect than others, and “Thérèse philosophe” and “Lucrezia Borgia” seem dull in comparison to the story in between, with the Savonarola scenes in the latter remarkably stagily filmed. Immoral Tales is the point where, as David Thompson put it, Borowczyk went erotic, and his reputation as a (softcore) pornographer begins here. This has the unfortunate effect of overshadowing his earlier work. Sex sells, of course, and this and The Beast are probably the most commercially attractive of the five feature films in this set, but they aren’t their director’s best work.

The Disc

Immoral Tales is a dual-format release from Arrow Academy, encoded for Region B on Blu-ray and Region 2 on PAL-format DVD. It also forms part of the five-feature box set Camera Obscura, which is limited to a thousand copies and is at time of writing sold out.

The feature and short films are correctly presented in a ratio of 1.66:1, anamorphically enhanced on the DVD. Three of the four episodes were shot in 35mm, and the Blu-ray master is transferred and restored from an interpositive. The results are excellent, with strong colours and fine detail coming through, and grain natural and filmlike. “Thérèse philosophe” was shot on 16mm reversal stock (transferred from a 35mm low-contrast print) and is very much grainier, but that’s to be expected.

The soundtrack is mono, presented in LPCM 1.0. Dialogue is clear and well balanced, and the music (a mixture of an original score by Maurice le Roux and existing works by Guillaume de Machaut and Spanish and Hungarian folk music) comes across well. Optional English subtitles are available for this French-language feature and the French-language extras.

The extras begin with an introduction by Borowczyk expert and this set’s co-producer Daniel Bird (5:14) However, unlike the other introductions, we don’t see Mr Bird nor do we hear him speak, his contributions being on-screen captions between clips from the film. Also on the disc is the trailer for Immoral Tales, which is basically wall-to-wall female nudity, 2:20 of it. This item is distinctly scratchy. It begins with a caption saying that the film is banned to the under-eighteens (in France) as if you couldn’t work that out.

“Love Reveals Itself” (16:42) is a making-of featurette, with contributions from Borowczyk’s regular producer Dominique Duvergé and also Noël Véry, who demonstrates the camera rig he devised…not unlike a Steadicam, which was introduced later in the decade and for which he was to become one of France’s leading operators.

In “Boro Brunch” (7:37), we’re all round to Noël Véry’s in February 2014, as several people involved with the film reminisce. Dominique Duvergé thinks that Véry became a surrogate son and protégé to Borowczyk, as he was “more pliable” than Guy Durban had been. Florence Dauman (Anatole’s daughter) had a small role at the beginning of “Erszébet Báthory” and reveals that she actually shot a nude scene for the film, which scandalised her father, and not because she still bore bikini marks from a recent holiday. Also present are Philippe d’Argila (co-producer of Blanche and husband of Borowczyk’s regular costume designer Piet Bolscher), Zoë Zurstrassen (continity on Borowczyk’s 1983 film The Art of Love) and Dominique Rivolier-Rispoli, whose husband and stepson played, respectively, the Pope and Cesare in Immoral Tales.

As mentioned above, the feature on this disc is the four-episode version of Immoral Tales which runs 103:08 on Blu-ray, as it did in the cinema. However, you can also play the longer “L’Age d’Or” cut, with the short film “The Beast of Gévaudan” (though onscreen it’s just “La bête”, like the later feature) reinstated as story number three. This version of the feature runs 125:26. The short film, which so scandalised the London Film Festival audience in 1973 (despite a warning to easily offended in the programme booklet) is mastered from a 16mm print, although the film was shot in 35mm. This is the only surviving copy of the short film, as Borowczyk edited it into newly-shot material when he made the feature film. As such it’s not up to the resolution of the rest of the feature, and has some minor damage, but is certainly in very watchable condition. The feature has one chapter stop per story, so you can watch this short in isolation by selecting the “L’Age d’Or” cut from the extras menu and skipping forward via your remote.

A Private Collection (Une collection particulière) was at one point going to be part of the feature but was early on separated from it and served as an apéritif for the main course. Here, Borowczyk is in (slightly deceptive) documentary mode. With a narration by André Pieyre de Mandiargues, we take a short trip round a collection of vintage erotica (some of which was actually constructed by Borowczyk himself). Typically, the owner is shot from the shoulders downwards and all we see of him are his hands. There are two versions of this film, both included on the disc, the theatrical version (12:12) and the “Oberhausen Cut” (14:31), shown at that city’s International Short Film Festival in 1973. The latter is more explicit, as Borowczyk clearly shot alternate versions of some material, with fingers obscuring the more graphic details in vintage photographs in the shorter version, those details uncovered in the longer version. However, the main difference is towards the end, when an innocuous cartoon is intercut with a very old (early twentieth century most likely, though impossible to date) film clip depicting genuine bestiality between a woman and a dog. This material had to be pixelated in the German Blu-ray edition of Immoral Tales, and here in the UK the relevant parts of this clip are blacked out entirely as unsimulated bestiality footage is legally defined as “extreme pornography” in the UK and possession, let alone distribution, of it is a criminal offence. Interestingly, the booklet reveals that the Oberhausen Cut is the version of this film which survives on its original camera negative, while the re-edited version was mastered from a 35mm internegative. We can only speculate, as he is no longer here to confirm this, that the Oberhausen Cut is Borowczyk’s favoured version, and it was preserved in the hope that it might one day be legally releasable. However it isn’t, in its unexpurgated form, in the UK and many other countries, and is likely to remain so indefinitely.

The booklet begins, after a credits listing for the film, with “A Plate Full of Cucumbers”, Daniel Bird’s essay on the film, a useful primer on the background of the film and its five, later four, episodes. Next up are extracts from contemporary British reviews, firstly from the New Statesman following the 1973 London Film Festival showing. Its tone is evident from its opening sentence: “What on earth does the British Film Institute think it’s up to?” Meanwhile, Derek Malcolm in the Guardian thought it made Last Tango in Paris “look like a vicarage tea party”. Further reviews come from the 1977 GLC-certified release and are more appreciative, possibly because the short film which had caused the earlier scandal was no longer included. These are followed by the entirety of longtime Borowczyk champion Philip Strick’s review for Monthly Film Bulletin. Finally, there is a short piece by Michael Brooke on A Private Collection, restoration notes, disc and booklet credits and acknowledgements.


Updated: Sep 14, 2014

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