Immoral Tales (Blu-ray)

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Immoral Tales (Blu-ray)

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Review of "Immoral Tales (Blu-ray)"

published 19/07/2015 | GenerallyInterested
Member since : 15/07/2013
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"Immoral Tales - Surrealism or Arty Porn? You Decide..."

Immoral Tales (Blu-ray)

Immoral Tales (Blu-ray)

I think you are about to describe a different warning from usual

Yes this warning is not about length rather as I start to consider how I might begin this review the obvious thing is this warning: there is more than a small amount of potential that this review may offend. One would hope that it will not be my words but rather the description of what takes place within the film. You feel that some parts of this film are meant to challenge, to raise questions but depending upon your inclinations you may simply just take offence, arguably with very good reason.

It’s only recently that I’ve come across Immoral Tales but I’ve always been aware of the director, Walerian Borowczyk, because of his film Le Bete (The Beast). Considering his films seem to have gained a certain amount of I’m not sure critical acclaim is necessarily always the best description but certainly despite some of the explicit nature of the film, are considered to have artistic merits. Having watched Immoral Tales, in both versions – and I’ll explain that in a minute – you can see why, and at the same time it feels rather disingenuous. So yes, this is quite an explicit film, though in some ways you could argue it’s not because nudity per se is something I necessarily think of as being explicit, rather how you choose to show sexuality. Often what takes place is somewhat hidden, and I cannot help but think that that’s a good thing because if the director had taken a different tack I think if anything it would have been downright laughable, because bits of this frankly when you step away from the film really are.

From what very little I know of the Polish director it seems that some of his work in the late 60s was considered to be by many superior to his work from 1974 onwards, roughly speaking, when Immoral Tales was produced. It is considered that he moved from being a more serious director to, to quote the distributor Arrow’s description “an arty pornographer”. It seems a lot of the critical acclaim that has surfaced for Immoral Tales revolves around it supposedly surreal imagery. To be honest I’d have to say I can’t really find much in here that I think is particularly surreal, so I’m a little bit confused as to exactly what this surrealism is. Part of me wonders if it’s an epithet used to describe the film more because it justifies peoples enjoyment of it rather than just saying: "actually I like it, I don’t care how much sex there is and I don’t care how much nudity there is in it, I just like it". No, we have to smack it under the banner of surrealism; maybe the tag is because it stars in one of the four stories that the film tells, Pablo Picasso’s daughter: Paloma Picasso. Nope, I still struggle to see the surrealism, though I do see the willingness to challenge religious hypocrisy for instance, but is this me just enforcing a viewpoint upon it or is it actually true? Frankly, I would argue that your average episode of Danger Mouse was more surreal than Immoral Tales though admittedly Danger Mouse could be pretty surreal at times. (Some might argue even as an adult you’re better off watching Danger Mouse than Immoral Tales, I’ll let you decide that by the time you’ve finished reading.) There’s another reason why I don’t think you can tag with surrealism and that is because it tends to take itself so bloody seriously. It seems to totally lack a sense of humour. It’s po-faced.

I’ll add before going any further that as I wrote this review I really wondered whether or not I should actually post it; I must admit I’m still a little bit on the fence but to be honest because of the effort I put into actually writing it I feel like I probably should, though I still have misgivings. This wouldn’t have happened if I were reviewing Danger Mouse… Dangerous Mouse was and is good. Don't you agree Penfold?

Quite. Considering you’re about to introduce our cast and the four – actually five– stories I suspect this is where we start to potentially offend people

I say five stories because the version of the film that is normally available and this is the version that if you just hit play on the mains Blu-ray screen will play contains only four stories. There is an earlier film that contains five stories, which won the Prix de L'age D'or, being (to quote our friends at Wikipedia) “an award intended to commemorate the spirit of surrealism”. This longer version of the film contains an additional story, but this was removed and extended and would eventually become his rather notorious film Le Bete.

Lise Danvers, as Julie; a manipulated 16 year old
Fabrice Luchini, as André; her manipulative older cousin
Charlotte Alexandra, as Thérèse; sexually and religiously aroused
Paloma Picasso, as Countess’ Elisabeth Bathory; you know her, right? Bathes in virgin’s blood and stuff to stay young
Pascale Christoph, as Istvan; Bathory’s lover and assistant
Florence Bellamy, as Lucrezia Borgia; incestuous
Jacopo Berinizi, as Pope Alexander VI; Lucrezia’s father; incestuous
Lorenzo Berinizi, as Caesar Borgia; Lucrezia’s brother; incestuous

And in La Bete
Lisbeth Hummel, as the chased woman; little good sense in how to keep clothes from getting caught on stuff

Each film tends to try and tackle some form of taboo.

André leads his younger cousin, Julie, to a part of the beach that leaves them stranded during high tide, to fulfil his sexual desire.

Having lingered in church, a young and religious country girl, Thérèse, is mistakenly thought to have been doing something immoral and locked in a room. Accidentally discovers some archaic pornography, becomes lost in a mixture of religious ecstasy and desire. Much masturbation ensues…

The notorious countess Elizabeth Bathory scours the countryside for young women who she can murder to bathe in their blood to hopefully retain eternal youth.

Lucrezia Borgia and her husband visit her father, Pope Alexander VI. Clearly her husband is unable to give his wife a child, something that the Pope and her brother then sets about trying to (e)rectify.

Finally, also Le Bete:
A young woman runs into the woods, chasing a lost lamb, only to find herself chased by the beast of Gevaudan.

Yes I can see how that fourth story would be more than just a little bit offensive to a great many people, though on one level whatever the Borgias got up to would not surprise me – not that I ever met them for tea, poison I can do without

I suppose I have to ask myself why I actually watched this film. I suppose quite simply I didn’t really know what the film was going to be about, and beyond a certain amount of notoriety that was really all I knew. So I guess it’s taking a punt on watching something that I might turn off after 10 minutes or get to the end.

I then need to ask myself the question: why did I bother watching the film to the end? It’s a good question, because I didn’t think it’s an especially good film, though certainly the director has the ability to create intriguing images, so it’s not without merit; but some form of surrealist masterpiece it is not. It’s not as if I found it a particular erotic film, so why? To be honest I think the simplest answer is nothing more than: I was hoping for some form of epiphany, I was hoping to suddenly have that moment of: oh, so this is why it’s considered to be such a good film by a significant set of cineastes. As is pretty obvious, this never happened.

Each film is between about 20 and 30 minutes long, the first of which being a man taking his 16-year-old cousin to the beach with the intent of having her perform fellatio on him is if anything pretty silly and takes itself oh so seriously. Each film starts with a title card giving a small amount of information and in this one it describes how the elder cousin, André, being a few years older than Julie has a certain sway with her. It seems actually his desire if anything is to describe to her the nature of waves, how they are affected by the sun and the moon and we tend to get as many shots of the tide coming in and out as anything. Beyond some nudity (yes female only – what a surprise) we don’t really see anything occur, because everything tends to get hidden or obscured by clothing. My abiding memory, and also what I was feeling whilst I was watching the story, was actually the fact that the elder cousin, Andre, was just a bit of a pretentious twerp, a bit of a self-satisfied prat. His burbling on pedantically about the tides as Julie obediently goes about her business and how his elucidation of this information is somehow meaningful just makes him out like a pedantic prick. He’s the kind of cousin if you had you would avoid like the plague as you know you are going to get a 30 minute monologue on something mind staggeringly tedious. The whole thing is certainly not erotic and again I struggle to see the surrealism. I suppose immediately though what is obvious and what keeps you watching is the fact that it’s undeniable that the director has a very particular skill at creating images. No matter whatever you say, he’s frequently visually intriguing and often he uses a lot of close-ups and the cover of the Blu-ray is taken from this first episode where it’s a close-up of Julie’s lips, which is eerily effective. Often he does use close-ups of faces, framed just slightly unusually and is impactful and interesting. And in many ways it’s this ability to create occasionally quite stunning yet simple images that probably keeps us watching the film. But certainly this first story feels like the worst of 70s pretentious French cinema, which tended to have the most pretentious teens pottering around spouting bullshit – you’ve just got to watch the awful, and definitely the most dull and boring and agonising film I’ve ever had to watch at the cinema, The Devil Probably to know just how bad that can be. Because yes, though the director is Polish this is very much a film made, shot and spoken in French. (Aside: avoid The Devil Probably like the plague, I wanted to die watching it but couldn’t give up my good seat as it was the first half of a double bill. It’s dire, just dire, dire, dire and it’s 80 minutes of your life that will feel like 80 months of continuing agonising torture.)

So having survived the first frankly pretty dull film with the occasional sparkling image, we move onto the young peasant girl, because like all of the films that follow this is an historical film. Even when standing in the church at the beginning the way that Thérèse manhandles some of the relics and artefacts and pieces of architecture seems to have a masturbatory quality to it and so when locked in her room for potentially having done something immoral – why the woman who locks there are should think this is never fully explained, I assume it’s her own dirty mind – and having discovered the rather ridiculous archaic pornography, she starts to enjoy herself, shall we say, with the courgettes and cucumbers that she has for some reason being left with to eat. You could argue the fact that she’s been given these vegetables to eat is slightly surreal, but actually it feels like it’s just an excuse for female masturbation, the taboos that one assume is this short film is meant to be challenging. (Why it’s taboo I don’t know though not being female I really cannot comment.) Thankfully you don’t see too much of the explicit nature with what’s going on with the aforementioned vegetables, rather the young girl does a lot of writhing about groaning. Her religious ecstasy that seems to occur at the same time takes the form of the voices that she hears, and which start in the church, which I think one is meant to assume is the voice of Jesus talking to her, a voice that if anything is encouraging her burgeoning desire. Again it’s well filmed, certainly if you look at things like the sets they not cheaply produced Hammer horror sets, but it feels like a big budgeted film, where there has been money to lavish on the locations. You have odd moments and fragments of interesting imagery once again but otherwise it’s the same problem of being more than just a little bit dull. Again, you not say that there is anything particularly erotic about it though it does manage to create something of a tone of intimacy. The acting, if you can call it such, seems to be reasonably realistic, as far as it goes. (To be fair I cannot say I spend my days watching women masturbate so I could be entirely wrong.) But because I failed to see any particular surrealism in it, it also feels a little bit pointless. You do wonder if it’s been influenced in some way by Ken Russell’s The Devils, where the nuns get lost between sexual and religious ecstasy, something that occurs here. Maybe as well because I am of an entirely irreligious nature, there is something that I’m missing. My experience of Poland is that it’s still a deeply religious country, certainly far more so than the UK today or even in the 70s, and so frequently watching the film I wondered if some of the imagery and also religious contexts I was missing were something that maybe was important, maybe something that feeds the insinuations of surrealism. So maybe the problem is with me but I’d argue if you need a depth of knowledge of Roman Catholicism to appreciate the film then likely there’s a problem with the film.

Arguably the most interesting film of all is the third one that deals with the ever popular story of Countess Elisabeth Bathory. I must admit when I saw the fact that this story was based on that of Elisabeth Bathory I rather did groan (though not in religious ecstasy and auto-eroticised sexual zeal). It’s such an obvious subject and I suppose the whole taboo of bloodlust and etc. could well have being investigated via some other subject. But it seems that this story is based on one by a surrealist poet by the name of Valentine Penrose, so again maybe this is meant to reinforce the idea that this is surrealist. Anybody looking for maximum nudity in the film will find it within this story, considering Countess Bathory manages to kidnap a considerable number of young women, who spend most time wearing a dearth of clothing. If anything I must admit it’s probably the sets that are the most interesting piece in this story, there is something slightly odd about them, feeling both very modern and slightly Gothic. Also it somehow manages to generate a curious air of menace. Part of this seems to be created unusually, because the Countess has a partner in crime who seems to be slightly androgynous and also aloof, and for much of the story you’re unsettled by them, because this character, Istvan, seems to be both interested and distant in everything that is going on. She seems to observe as much as she does act, and when she does act it is quite decisively. I’d almost argue that what disturbed me most about this story’s wasn’t the cavalcade of rather unnecessary nudity but the fact that you felt that there might actually be a good story in here, a good film lurking somewhere beneath the surface if only the director would get away from his fascination with softcore pornography. Also the fact that the Countess played by Paloma Picasso is actually very well cast, she does have something quite authoritarian about her, she also comes across as both sensual and a disciplinarian. There is something’s difficult to pin down, just as there is with Istvan. It’s frustrating when you see talent sublimated by pointless gratuitousness. If anything this makes me think of the song in The Threepenny Opera, The Ballad of Sexual Obsession that relates how a great many intelligent and talented man have lost all of their faculties due to their obsession with prostitutes, because this seems to be where the director’s ambition and skill has been lost in his desire to be surrounded by a lot of nubile naked young women.

So I have to say that this particular story is not necessarily dark, because sometimes it can be quite ferocious, it can be quite genuinely disturbing, but as I say it’s frustrating because you are hoping for the film to escape its excesses but it simply cannot. Hey Ho, a least it’s not dull in this instance anyway.

Oh yes and so now we get on to the final two stories, or rather the final story and the additional one, the ones most likely to offend

I suppose coming from a so religious country, the director perhaps felt it all the more daring to challenge Catholicism. If I’m honest I’m deeply suspicious of the Pope personally and the Vatican if only because in the last election of the Pope you’ll notice how one of the Cardinals in the running made it clear that one of his prime purposes would be to trying to clear the Vatican of corruption. The irony of what is meant to be the spiritual centre as being corrupt is difficult to avoid.

I’m not sure if the point of this story is to challenge the powers that be, or to try and tackle what may be perceived as historical excesses in the Vatican, or just to try and offend. Certainly it will offend a great many people considering it shows the Pope having sex with his daughter and son at the same time, something that the daughter seems to take an equal amount of pleasure in. It even starts with the Pope and his daughter having a great deal of fun with drawings of well-endowed horses. It’s clearly out there to mock and humiliate and again is slightly frustrating because it’s very well filmed, there are some unusual images, but again it ultimately just feels a bit pointless; again, is the thing with the horses meant to be some way surreal? Again I don’t see it, it’s just out there to provoke. I’ve got nothing wrong with provocation but you feel like it needs a point to it and I really can’t see it here.

Equally I’m not sure I can really see the provocation, or rather the point of the final story and the one that is available in the original version of the film, which is included as an extra. I suppose the story of La Bete has the advantage of simplicity, but arguably not much else. The young woman being chased through a forest by an ejaculatory monster – and that’s really no exaggeration – at times is often deeply silly, and also potentially very offensive. Again it also seems to take itself seriously. It has the problem of when the beast finally captures her she takes as much if not more pleasure than the beast itself. What seems to be so staggeringly missing here is what you get in Angela Carter’s stories in her collection of The Bloody Chamber, where she turns fairytales on their heads and draws out all that is latent from them and enforces it on the surface of the stories. This is where Little red Riding Hood is more likely to release the inner beast herself and swallow the wolf; but though the ending to this story perhaps has the suggestion that the young woman for want of a better term wins, it doesn’t have the challenging nature of Carter stories and that really is the most damning thing about it. It’s just exactly what the story needs because again without it it’s no more than arguably unpleasant softcore pornography including some rather extended close-ups of a large plastic, monstrous and unreal penis that is continuously ejaculating. Also, as the woman is being chased and slowly being deprived of her clothes, whether or not this is by the beast’s thrashing limbs or their being caught on branches of trees it’s downright stupid. It feels childish and the sort of thing that you would expect in a pastiche a decade or so later. Yet it seems to not realise that it’s practically a pastiche of itself because it seems to be taking itself painfully seriously. If anything you could argue that a problem with the film in general is that perhaps it is taking itself a bit too seriously. To me the first film, with the pedantic prat of a cousin, sums up much of the tone, which is that it isn’t really willing to mock itself. I don’t think that the film doesn’t have humour, but it doesn’t seem to realise how ridiculous it is, and may be the ridiculousness of it is meant to be self-conscious and thus in some way surreal but I never really got that sense of it being that. Also this story uses a short piece of harpsichord music on a loop which by about the 27 millionth time it repeats itself you want to bang your head against the wall until your brains falls out. It becomes so downright irritating by the end you scream: please stop, please stop, please stop, please stop.

Also the fact that you could argue the film is particularly robotic, and surely part of the point pornography is to be erotic and arousing. So you can even claim that it fails there, if that’s why you’re watching the film. I think it’s also worth pointing out that what you tend to notice in these films is the fact that though there is quite a lot of nudity, but when it comes to potentially showing male nudity it is if more than a little bit prudish. I think this hypocrisy is if anything damning to the film, because it strips the film of anything that suggests it’s making no particular distinction between male and female nudity and/or sexuality. Rather, it’s voyeurism.

I don’t know about your reading public but I think I’m feeling pretty exhausted, and perhaps a little bit disturbed so I think that for once rather than just being downright unkind here in suggesting that you should end your review, you just really need to

So do I think that I will ever watch any more of Walerian Borowczyk’s films? To be honest I think I probably will but only those earlier films, ones that aren’t lost in arty porn nonsense. Fair enough it could be that some of his later films may settle down, become less silly, and if so I might explore those given the time, but do I want to watch films such as La Bete? I really think not, there are so many other films to watch and after having watched Immoral Tales I really don’t see the point.

There is also the question of misogyny. Is it misogynistic? I find the question difficult to answer. Because you can argue parts of it are and in parts not. It’s exploitative though. You could argue that the first film is the most misogynistic as it assumes the compliance of a young girl who seems to have little in the way of her own volition. The second story suggests some sexual liberation though the extra, fifth story I suspect is meant to suggest that the titular beast is overcoming sexual inhibitions or somesuch but if so the end result is something other than. Unlike A Snake of June.

So overall the film is just a downright disappointment and pointlessly voyeuristic and sadly lacking in any courage to try and be anything other than arty-porn or the casual attempt to offend. At least for all that a film like Salo is disturbing, explicit sexually and in terms of violence that film had a point, being a critique of Italian fascism (and messed with my head for about a fortnight afterwards), this film just seems to be complacent at best and at worst, well, I think that depends upon your perspective so I’ll leave that to you to decide. As I say there are some startling and interesting images, and arguably it’s very well filmed. Certainly the sets are well put together and sometimes quite intriguing, especially in the story regarding Countess Elisabeth Bathory. But certainly I never had that epiphany, that moment when I felt that I understood why there was any particular value in this film. The ability to create the occasional intriguing and compelling image and having good production values to me never avoids the fact that this is ultimately just a softcore porn film, given a sheen of respectability. Also I think it comes up against the essential problem that for the most part sex and nudity in cinema is incredibly boring. I find it very difficult to find sex and nudity in cinema particular interesting because it tends to be that this usually get in the way of any story, it’s rarely integral to the narrative, except in say films like Branded to Kill or A Snake of June (sorry that one is coming your way, too but that’s a good film). So I really don’t what the fuss is all about and so whether or not I would recommend it I just have to say no. If only because I don’t really see much value in watching it. I’m still intrigued that I got to the end because though it was dull and though I can’t say that I had any particular interest in many of the stories somehow I got to the end. It wasn’t like The Devil Probably where if I hadn’t been watching a double Bill of films and the cinema hadn’t been full, I would have escaped because I needed to keep my seat. I could easily have run away and thrown the disc through the window, okay I wouldn’t have thrown the disc out the window because I got it from lovefilm and that would have been a bit of a pain, but you know what I mean.

I suppose there will be people who will enjoy the film, and I’m sure there will be people who will appreciate the surrealism that I’ve failed to see, perhaps also the irony that I fail to see, also the fact that maybe it isn’t quite as pompous as it seemed to be to me.

For those interested in the disc then you can buy it for about £14, and it does include quite a wide array of extras including the extended version of the film as I described, as well as an introduction by an expert on the director, Daniel Bird. There are a number of different short films by the same director as well as a feature which brings together a number of different individuals who were responsible for the production of the film. I cannot say I explored these because frankly at this point I’d had enough.

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Comments on this review

  • K2705 published 03/10/2015
    Well reviewed.
  • hiker published 03/10/2015
    As Mike says... it sounds like simple smut... but not even enjoyable smut, so why bother
  • river61 published 29/07/2015
    an e for sticking with it!
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Product Information : Immoral Tales (Blu-ray)

Manufacturer's product description

Product Details

Country Of Origin: France

DVD Region: Blu-ray

Actor(s): Lisa Danvers, Paloma Picasso

Actor: Danvers, Lisa

Director(s) (Last name, First name): Borowczyk, Walerian

EAN: 5027035011233

Classification: 18 years and over

Video Category: World Cinema Feature Film

Production Year: 1974

Genre: Drama

Running Time: 1 hour 43 minutes


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