Immoral Tales (1973) – By Roger Carpenter


More than any other Borowcyzk film, Immoral Tales has become a lightning rod for fans and critics. Contemporary reviews called the film pornographic but viewers (both past and present) drawn to the film by the use of this adjective are generally disappointed by the distinct lack of sexually explicit material. It didn’t help that one film campaign sported a poster with the statement “You don’t have to go to a museum to see an X-rated Picasso.” But to truly judge the film for its own merits one must recall the era in which the film was made.

Following Denmark’s legalization of hard-core pornography in 1969, many European countries followed suit. After winning several obscenity suits in 1972, Deep Throat, though not the first film to show actual sex on an American screen, essentially paved the way for hardcore material to be legally shown in the U.S. By 1973, several pornographic films from both sides of the Atlantic had broken box-office records for adult films and “porno chic” was born. So, when Borowcyzk released Immoral Tales and it was labeled as pornographic, the film was essentially doomed. The arthouse crowd, who enjoyed Borowcyzk’s unusual film shorts, was alienated by the sexual frankness of the film while viewers expecting true pornographic material were also very disappointed. But to describe Immoral Tales as pornographic is doing the film a disservice and is, quite simply, unfair. Unfortunately, Immoral Tales is partly a victim of bad timing. Released two or three years earlier, it may have been a runaway hit. But by 1973 worldwide audiences were flocking to see actual sex on screen, not the softcore ruminations of arthouse directors like Borowcyzk.

On a second note: much of the material the film is based upon on is surrealist writings. In fact, the film won the Prix de L’age D’or in 1974, a prize that commemorates surrealism in film, in honor of famed surrealist filmmaker Luis Bunuel. This means the film is going to be a bit more obtuse than many viewers expect.

And a third note: Borowcyzk is a filmmaker who was content to film a story and allow the audience to make their own conclusions as opposed to simply spoon feeding themes and messages to viewers. Thus this film’s notoriously disjointed feel.

All this to say that viewers should watch the film with some basic understanding of film history along with some background on the film itself before issuing judgement.

Filmed in four episodes, Immoral Tales, addresses themes of sexuality beginning in contemporary time and progressively moving back in time to the early 17th century. The film opens with a segment entitled “The Tide,” based upon a story by Andre Preyre de Mandiargues. It tells the story of two cousins, a 20-year-old male and a 16-year-old female. The boy leads his younger cousin to a beach where she fellates him to the rhythm of the incoming tide. Episode two, entitled Therese the Philosopher, concerns a devout young girl who is unfairly punished by being locked in her room for three days. Her dedication to Christ is mixed with her sexual exploration of various objects in her room while she passes the 72 hours. The third story is the tale of Elizabeth Bathory, based upon the writings of surrealist poet Valentine Penrose, while the final segment documents the debauchery of Lucrezia Borgia.

The Tide explores the theme of domination and submission as the boy leads his cousin to a location that will become isolated as the tide rises, essentially demanding sexual satisfaction from her. Viewed in a time when 50 Shades of Grey is a runaway hit, this more subtle exploration of dominance may be seen as completely dull by many viewers. The dialogue is quite pretentious as well. The young girl’s body is on display but any sexual acts are obscured and basically implied, leaving the viewer to contemplate the dialogue more than the physical act of fellatio. Many viewers universally dislike this segment.

Therese the Philosopher is also a slow-moving film. More prurient viewers will again be disappointed by the lack of graphic sexual material, but this segment is more a meditation on the corruption of the church than it is a study of sexuality. Therese’s explorations are juxtaposed with those of a monk railing in the pulpit about priests openly having sexual relations and siring children, the end result being the monk being lynched and burned by Therese discovers the non-nutritional value of a zucchini.

Elizabeth Bathory is told with almost no dialogue. The segment opens with Elizabeth combing peasant villages for beautiful young girls who will be taken to her castle and “blessed” by being allowed to touch her pearl-encrusted gown. The young women are made to take group showers and “cleansed” before being allowed to hold an audience with Bathory, who then chooses a lucky girl for the “blessing.” The scene depicting Bathory bathing in blood is relatively graphic and shocking, especially knowing the blood was actual pig blood. Bathory’s assistant helps to clean her of the blood before the two engage in some heavy petting.

The final segment has the power to be the most shocking—if the viewer knows the history of Lucrezia Borgia and the rumors that surround her life. It is well-documented that many early Popes had wives and children, and it is well-documented the Lucrezia was the daughter of Pope Alexander VI. Lucrezia had several husbands in her short life, with one rumored to have been ordered killed by her papal father while a second husband forced to sign documents admitting to impotency and annulling the marriage. This segment concerns the Lucrezia and her (allegedly) impotent husband who is sent away so Lucrezia can consummate an affair with the Pope—her father—and a Cardinal—who, careful viewers will note—is her brother. Similar to The Tide, the sex occurs off-camera or obscured but even if the sex were hardcore, those scenes aren’t nearly as shocking as the idea of the incenstual relationship might be.

As an aside, the first showing of Immoral Tales included a fifth segment that pushed the film over the two-hour mark. Entitled The Beast of Gevaudan, it was excised immediately after the first festival showing, Borowcyzk opting to flesh out the story and use the footage in his next feature film, The Beast. This original short piece was thought lost until it was discovered in 2010. Arrow Video includes options to view the standard theatrical version with four episodes or the “festival cut” that includes The Beast of Gevaudan.

The Beast of Gevaudan is a retelling of the legend of a beast that roamed the French countryside. In this version, the beast falls in love with a beautiful young woman and attacks her. She loses consciousness but, when she regains her senses, she finds she thoroughly enjoys the beast’s advances. The two engage in a torrid sexual encounter until the beast dies of ecstasy. This segment is, by far, the most graphic segment. While the other episodes are filled with nudity—some of it quite graphic as the camera lingers lovingly over close-ups of female genitalia—the beast is depicted as having an obviously erect, horse-=sized member. And, while the sex is, again, either implied or obscured, the beast has several explicit ejaculations that coat his lover quite graphically. These more graphic shots may be why this segment was so quickly excised from the final cut of the film.

While the movie is often misunderstood and misrepresented, it also is disjointed, fairly slow, and was perhaps designed for a movie going niche that, by 1973, had all but disappeared. Neither as strong as Borowcyzk’s early efforts or the films coming just after this one, Immoral Tales is typically dismissed as the director’s weakest effort during this period. I think I might agree.

Nevertheless, the film does have some strengths. Viewers interested in surrealism or those interested in anit-religious messages might be interested. Others who appreciate authentic period production values—the costumes and music are both accurate for the times depicted—may find the film interesting.

Arrow, as always, has found some interesting special features that add to the package. Along with the inclusion of the recently-discovered fifth segment, the entire film has been treated to a high-definition digital transfer. There is a new introduction by Borowcyzk expert Daniel Bird, a visual essay about Brorwcyzk’s works on paper by Daniel Bird, an interview featuring the film’s production manager and cinematographer, and the theatrical trailer. The real gem, however, is a wide-ranging, hour-long interview with the director himself. Borowcyzk discusses painting, cinema, and sex. Also containing an illustrated booklet with new and archival writing, Arrow’s version of Immoral Tales is the definitive version of the controversial and uneven but fascinating film.

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