Directed by: Walerian Borowczyk
Starring: Lise Danvers, Paloma Picasso, Charlotte Alexandra, Fabrice Luchini, Florence Bellamy, Pascale Christophe
An erotic anthology featuring incest, the loss of virginity, the sexual and therapeutic benefits of bloodlust, corruption of the church and masturbation acts as a distillation of the director's preoccupations.
Split into four stories (originally five, but The Beast was removed from the film and expanded upon for its own release), the first revolves around an assignation between Andre (Luchini) and his 16 year old cousin Julie (Danvers). A poetic meditation on the pretentious posturing of youth and the incipient urge for sexual experimentation, it's at once moving, comical and with just a hint of Malick (If he had an interest in the effects of coastal erosion on the act of fellatio, that is). It is a striking work; based purely on its focus of the sexual act, it may be rich in meaning (even if that meaning may be young ladies like a poetic Frenchmen) but it all stems from the root (ahem) of arousal.
The Tide is the only one of this quartet that is contemporary, the remaining stories dealing with historical figures and situations, and in the case of the second tale, Therese Philosophe, the church. One can only assume from a detailed look at his work that Borowczyk had a particular disdain for organised religion. In this example a country girl (Alexandra) experiences religious ecstasy in a specifically sexual way (receiving the body of Christ in an almost literal context). The Priest's answer is to lock her away, an act of repression of the sexual urge and a disavowal of the act of arousal in any other context other than procreation. In its conflation of sexual imagery and religion, it brings to mind the fervid works of Ken Russell and the bawdy atmosphere of Pasolini and his anthology films. Of the four, it is the most mundane, mainly because it has been explored more incisively and more irreverently in the director's other work.
The final two films are perhaps his boldest work on this disc, both unrestrained and uncomfortable, with Borowczyk untethered by moral strictures, and is a wholehearted embrace of eroticising the horrific and making it both oneiric and arousing in tone. Erzebet Bathory is the infamous tale of the 16th Century Countess and her unusual bathing and beauty regime. Long used as an inspiration for, if you excuse the pun, countless vampire movies, this removes some of the ethereal glamour of the tale and roots it in an earthier environment. The initial picking of the virgins to be taken to her castle is reminiscent of Michael Reeves' exemplary Witchfinder General, and the convent atmosphere of repressed sapphic lust within the confines of the castle wall has the bonkers feel of Jean Rollin erotica mixed with the blood red violence of early Dario Argento. The use of violence and sexuality is at once both disturbing and amusing and is the stand out film of the four (his version of Dr Jekyll is now being restored by Arrow, which after viewing this work makes for exciting news).
That the final segment, Lucrezia Borgia, involves incest should come as no surprise for anyone with the faintest interest in history. That it involves all members of the family in a papal orgy with sex used as an incitement to manliness from her effete betrothed may raise an eyebrow. Borowczyk is on familiar ground with his necrotic depiction of a baleful and corrupting institution, and there is the juxtaposition of animal and human congress that is present in other key works, which also imbricates the legend ascribed to Catherine the Great and her horse predilection into the Borgia’s menage a trois. Get beyond matters of taste (and let's be honest, if you wanted to watch only pallid, bland history you would have turned off by now) and you have an earthy comedic work, both venal and corrupt, with an anything goes approach to matters of corporeal pleasure.
Individually, the works are slight, but Borowczyk's mastery of the short form adds incremental value to each successive tale, building almost towards the rhythms of orgasm, as the films become more sweaty, more fevered. With The Beast originally the epilogue to this film, you can see how the act of climax would be so literally visualised with its focus on the act of ejaculation and life force. As such, its removal is a case of cinematic blue balls.
Considering Borowczyk has sometimes been thought of as a pornographer, with all the implications of a male gaze that comes with the territory, it is interesting to note that most of the sexual awakening and power in this film is feminine in origin. It may be a case of having your cake and eating it, but the lack of prurience and gleeful enjoyment make this an artistic rather than masturbatory work. It may be in a minor key, but one that works splendidly as a primer to the themes and preoccupations of this most contentious of artists.
As with all the releases in this collection, the extras have been carefully chosen. Picture and sound are meticulous and pristine, highlighting the beautiful imagery on show. You also get a full version of the film as an extra with all five tales, restoring the shortened version of The Beast to the other Immoral Tales. You also get a short introduction from Borowczyk expert Daniel Bird. A long interview with production manager Dominque Duverge-Segretin and cinematographer Noel Very. A Private Collection, a short film from the director that takes us through a tour of his collection of vintage erotica. There is also a reunion dinner filmed in 2014, which reunites many of the director's film crew for a relaxed and casual conversation about Borowczyk’s work. Add in the usual reversible sleeve and booklet and you have a sturdy set of contextualising extras.
By Jason Abbey