(1974)3Sidney JenkinsThe omnibus film Immoral Tales marked director Walerian Borowcyzk's first steps away from arthouse material and toward softcore; as such, the material displays its director's characteristic intelligence but lapses into exploitation a little too often. Aesthetically, the compositions and framing -- particularly in the first sequence, "The Tide," and the third sequence, "Erszebet Bathory" -- are astonishingly dexterous and smooth, and betray Borowczyk's origins as a painter; almost every other establishing image could be taken for a Renaissance tableau. But dozens of the rapid-fire close-ups are so obsessively perverse in a metonymic way, most severely in "The Tide" (flooding shots of young girls' rears, breasts, pubic areas, lips, etc.) that Borowczyk comes across as a dirty old man wallowing in softcore filth. He's like a Polish Allen Funt, leering with his camera and inviting the audience to objectify females with him. We might even be able to do so (Borowczyk teeters ever so closely to the brink of pure eroticism) were the picture's dramatic foundational material not so dark, cynical, and horrifically grim. Overall, the most impressive aspect of the picture - eveident in every episode - is Borowczyk's ability to suggest stylistically (with grimy, occasionally blurry, mud-encrusted landscapes, and reverberated Gregorian chants filling the soundtrack) that he has somehow unearthed these sequences from the dusty vault of time.
As for the individual episodes, this four-episode film scores 2-2. The first two sequences lose potency for different reasons. Borowczyk's opener, "The Tide" (the film's only contemporary segment, about a young man who lures his cousin into a carnal act on the beach) makes intelligent use of natural metaphor, though this is a minor virtue at best, and the pervasive depravity (given the girl's tender age and her immediate, unhesitant complicity) makes one weak. With "Therese" (the second segment), Borowczyk hits his nadir -- the drama becomes neither arousing nor titillating, but an unremitting bore. Yet the filmmaker partially redeems himself by peppering the sequence with flashes of perverted wit (e.g., he flashes to close-ups of cucumbers -- which the title character has used in a rather obvious way -- falling into huge chunks on the floor). Only the third and fourth sequences work wonders. "Erszebet Bathory" (the best of the lot) carries a sense of ominous foreboding and menace that hooks the viewer. Anyone who knows the story of the Blood Countess would be hard-pressed to identify the tale's gory resolution ahead of time and still find the nude shower scenes a turn-on, but, deliberately or accidentally, this emerges as a strength: our foreknowledge of the conclusion undoes the effect of the nudity and eroticism before us, penetrating the fabric of the onscreen sexuality and forcing us to see through it. The production design of "Bathory" waxes luminous, and the sequence takes its final bow with a beautifully ironic wrap-up, per the most polished short fiction. The only element it possibly lacks is a closing image (see A Day with the Boys) that would turn the stomach of the audience by unveiling the extent of the countess' satanic cruelty (i.e., the historical revelation that she sliced up not simply the twenty or thirty girls onscreen, but over eight hundred). Borowczyk works a more literate wryness into the closing piece -- a feast of ecclesiastical perversion that pornographically lampoons Catholic liturgical rituals, one by one, and fully exposes the filmmaker's twisted, malevolent penchant for blasphemous humor more transparently than anything in the prior ninety minutes. The film wraps (in its final shot) with an unexpectedly poignant and thought-provoking imagistic meditation on the tenderness of pre-corrupted innocence.
In this visually stunning drama, the many faces of extreme eroticism are explored. In four episodes, beginning in the present, dreamy glimpses into the minds of unknown and famous erotic villains are screened without ever becoming pornographic. In the first episode, a girl accedes to her cousin's wish for ritualized oral sex. In the second, a very religious young woman has an erotic awakening which she cannot separate from her religion. In the third, the notorious Countess Bathory murders young girls in order to gain eternal youth by bathing in their blood; in the final episode, the daughter of the Pope, Lucrezia Borgia, has elaborate quasi-liturgical sex with male relatives.