Immoral Tales Blu-ray Review (originally published 2015)
Updated: Dec 4, 2019
Walerian Borowczyk’s perverse portmanteau, Immoral Tales (French: Contes Immoraux, 1974), was the Polish-born director's moment to break out of the arthouse and avant-garde animation scenes and into the infinitely more lucrative realms of erotic exploitation movies. It was a big hit during the onset of the porno-chic revolution (opening around the same time as Just Jaeckin’s softcore harbinger Emmanuelle, 1974) and helped characterize the rest of his career. Even as a newcomer to his oeuvre (edit: at least in 2015), I can easily recognize the seeds of his favorite themes taking root – specifically the exploration of eroticism, hypocrisy, and obsessive rituals of the ruling class. Immoral Tales is starkly and beautifully shot in a crisp, surrealistic manner that serves its loosely-knit narratives.
Part one, The Tide (French: La Marée, based on a story by André Pieyre de Mandiargues), is set in the then-present day. A young man and his 16-year-old female cousin take a bike ride to the beach, where they crawl among the rocks and are stranded by the tide. Concealed from adults and authority figures, their vaguely provocative discourse evolves into sexually-charged games and the boy reveals that this was his plan all along. This opening act is a rich visually rich primer for the anthology, especially as Borowczyk teases the subtext by inter-cutting images of rising waves with the rising sexual desires, but, on its own, there’s little more than sexy imagery to latch onto.
Part two, Therese Philosophe, is set in 1890. A pious girl, who seems to be convening directly with God, sees erotic potential in a number of church artefacts. She is locked in a room (her bedroom?) for three days for her ‘crimes,’ where she looks at 19th century pornographic renderings and continues exploring the sensual possibilities of the objects around her (including her only food source – cucumbers). Therese Philosophe is shot in a more intimate and abrupt manner than the other shorts (also in 16mm – see below). It’s a less delicate kind of art film and a more frantic story, told via sharp cuts and cramped close-ups. Despite its stylistic differences, it develops and fits the film’s themes better than The Tide and may have been a better place to start (I’m not sure The Tide should’ve been included at all, actually).
Part three, Erzsebet Bathory is set in 1610. It follows a day in the reign of the infamous Hungarian countess who was accused of torturing and murdering hundreds of young women, then bathing in their blood under the assumption that it would keep her young. The legend is also the basis of a number of vampire movies, including Peter Sasdy’s Countess Dracula (1970 – a Hammer production) and Harry Kumel’s Daughters of Darkness (1971). Borowczyk’s version avoids most of these fantastical trappings to present a gorgeously surreal, bite-sized costume drama, complete with rich production design, intricate photography, and cruel social satire. Erzsebet Bathory is the high water mark of the entire film. There’s enough lush, avant garde visual storytelling here to have sustained a feature runtime. Note that Paloma Picasso, the youngest daughter of Pablo, plays Bathory in her one and only film appearance.
Borowczyk closes out the film with the most blasphemous and disturbing entry, Lucrezia Borgia, which is set in 1498. In this final short, Pope Alexander VI shows his son Cesare Borgia, daughter Lucrezia Borgia, and Lucrezia’s suitor obscene drawings of horse penises, before engaging in a ritualistic and incestuous orgy. Meanwhile, a priest lectures the masses outside about righteousness, before being dragged away by royal guards and burned at the stake. The short ends with the christening of their bastard love-child. More delightfully weird production/costume design (in one gag, a breakaway wall is opened behind a marble bust of Vannozza dei Cattanei) and lewd (sometimes absolutely absurd) comedy fronts this grotesquely decadent final entry. It’s a disappointingly literalist indictment and a comedown from the previous episode, but also an effectively vulgar way to end the film.
Arrow has included the L'age D'or cut of Immoral Tales, which includes a fifth short, La Bête (The Beast), which is set in 1765. It was eventually extended to feature-length and became the director’s next film (see my review of that film right here).
Immoral Tales’ only North American DVD release came from Anchor Bay Studios. It was non-anamorphic and included forced English subtitles. Arrow Video was beaten to the punch on a Blu-ray premiere by Bildstörung in Germany, but that release was region-locked, limiting the audience outside of RB. This new simultaneous RA/RB release has been given the typical Arrow shine. According to specs, it was scanned and restored from a 35mm InterPositive, except for the Thérése Philosophe section, which was shot on 16mm and transferred from a 35mm low-contrast print of the original elements (you can definitely see a difference in detail and graininess). The cinematography is credited to Bernard Daillencourt, Guy Durban, Noël Véry, Michel Zolat, and Borowczyk himself. I assume their efforts were divided between the four shorts, though the director’s influence makes for a relatively homogenous look. This means that it’s a foggy and soft picture, which doesn’t lend itself too well to crisp edges and fine textures. Yet, even the blurriest shot doesn’t match the soupiness of Borowczyk’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne, so Arrow has more room to clean up this 1.66:1, 1080p transfer. Grain levels appear accurate and the smoothness of the soft photography is impressive. Colors are rich, natural, and nicely separated, despite the plushness – only the brightest reds appear to have problems with low-level noise.
The mono soundtrack has been transferred from the original magnetic reels and is presented here in LPCM 1.0. The effect is quite clean by including gentle environmental ambience and clear dialogue that is rarely affected by volume discrepancies or notable distortion. Maurice LeRoux’s medieval, renaissance, and church organ music (which I believe is mixed with traditional pieces from the eras) has a nice ethereal quality and an impressively deep-set presence. During Erzsebet Bathory, there is a particularly intense moment where LeRoux’s music practically goes to battle against a screaming horde of nude women and the dissonance becomes utterly terrifying.
Introduction by Borowczyk expert Daniel Bird (5:10, HD) – An impressionistic video essay breakdown of the film’s controversial reception from critics and audiences.
Love Reveals Itself (16:40, HD) – New interviews with production manager Dominique Duvergé-Ségrétin and cinematographer Noël Véry. It includes anecdotes from behind-the-scenes of the very long production (turns out the blood that Picasso bathes in was real), as well as footage of Véry in his workshop with the ‘special cameras’ he designed for the film.
Obscure Pleasures: A Portrait of Walerian Borowczyk (1:03:20, HD) – A re-edited archival interview from a 1985 UK Channel Four Visions documentary short. Parts of this extensive discussion appeared in brief during the Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne extras as well. It includes lots of montage images from his features and shorts, along with some raw, on-set footage from his productions (without sound).
Blow Ups (4:40, HD) – A visual essay by Daniel Bird, concerning Borowczyk’s paintings, drawings, cartoons, and other graphic art.
Note that the UK version, which was released last year, also includes two cuts of the short film A Private Collection (1973), but does not include Obscure Pleasures.
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