Monday 1 June 2015
Topless N’ Tales
Directed by Walerian Borowczyk
Blu Ray Zone B/DVD Region 2
So, not long after seeing a selection of Borowczyk’s Short FIlms and Animations (reviewed here), I decided to give the director’s infamous Immoral Tales a spin, seeing as Arrow have nicely put out an uncut version in a groovy dual Blu Ray/DVD edition. And, yes, you guessed it, Fopp are selling this at a value for money price too, at the moment... just in case my motivations needed any extra explanation.
Before I go any further, though, I should probably post a fair warning to people who buy these things and love the medium here. Unlike most labels which will let you know and, in some cases, insult the stupid copyright holders who are insisting on their films being released in a Region specific format (I love The Masters Of Cinema’s region warning screens), Arrow’s blu rays do not warn you that you are trying to watch their films in a different region... they will simply just not load up and refuse to play. It took me a couple of days to figure out that there wasn’t anything wrong with the disc and I’d left the Blu Ray setting on Zone A. Frankly, I find this practice unacceptable and I would say that if you are a company who is being forced to comply with this horrible practice of Region locking your product you, at the very least, should let people know on screen so they know to buy a multiregion machine. Also, as a label, you can stop pretending you’re in any way interested in promoting the art of film if you agree to restrict access to a potential audience like this.
Now, back to the movie.
When I did finally get this thing playing, I found that the disc doesn’t just contain an excellent transfer of the original release of Immoral Tales, a film consisting of four erotic sections. It also contains a copy of the early print of the film from when it had five segments in it. The extra segment in the original was called The True Story of the Beast of Gevaudan and it was basically taken out before release because the director wanted to expand it into what became, probably his most famous movie, The Beast. So there’s that. Arrow have done a good job here... although they let themselves down a bit on another extra but... I’ll get to that later.
1. The Tide
The film in its theatrical version starts off with an episode called The Tide. This is the story of a young man (Fabrice Luchini) and his even younger, adolescent cousin (Lise Danvers) who he takes to a beach so he can introduce her to sex or, in this case, so he can arrogantly bend her to his will and have her service him orally on a secluded beach with the tide coming in, while he distracts and prolongs his self control by reciting facts about the oncoming tidal situation. He aims to come in her mouth, he tells her, at a specific time into the proceedings and in accordance with the tidal timetable we saw him covertly rip from a newspaper in an earlier part of the film. Actually, the whole gameplay element to the piece and the way the male character wraps everything up in a statistical package very much reminded me of the early work of Peter Greenaway... although that’s probably the only real similarity between the two directors.
The Tide starts off with static shots showing two sides of a conversation but, after a short while, the camera starts moving around and it seems to me to be a pattern, at least I thought so and especially in regard to this film, that this director likes to observe things from afar, like a long shot series of master shots, before he starts to get closer to his subjects in whatever environment they find themselves. Like the static shots of a landscape shown in longshot while the moving elements of the shot are the 20 year old man and his 16 year old cousin, as they ride their bikes towards the camera... or, the inverse of that, cutting to another long shot where they diminish in distance and size as the sequence plays out.
Even before the rules of the game are explained to his cousin, the director is focussing on body parts whenever he does decide to get in close to his subjects... displaying a propensity to concentrate on a sexualised or erotically perceived view of his cast in what might at first seem an innocent scenario. So he might focus on a lady’s butt as she rides a bike or on her lips etc... which is in turn enhanced in this particular segment by a colour palette consisting of pastel blues, white and grey neutral tops worn by the two characters, landscape greys and washed out sand colours... all complementing the flesh tones of the actor and actress. There is an impressive and extended shot, for instance, where the teen in question is playing with her finger in her mouth and the whole thing plays in extreme close up of just her lips and finger as it weaves in and out of her mouth, covered with her own saliva. It’s a shot with a certain amount of presence and I guess a lot of people must have thought the same thing because it was used as the basis of many of the original advertising posters for the film in various countries back in 1974 and, indeed, on the Arrow Blu Ray/DVD release that it’s currently on sale with.
This kind of focussing in on specific details is also matched at times in the sound design, such as when a close up of the girl’s ear when she is servicing her cousin is followed by a shot of flying insects and accompanied by bird song on the soundtrack... as if to highlight a point of view sympathetic to the body part the director has just chosen to edit into the sequence. We also have the sound of the constant lapping of the sea, of course, as a backdrop to the sexual shenanigans afoot and I have to say I admire the two performers' bravery in letting the sea come in and wash over them while they are writhing all over the place... hopefully it wasn’t too cold and gruelling for them. And always throughout, the director keeps cutting in views of the landscape in juxtaposition to what’s actually going on with the two figures... Borowczyk seems quite tuned in to constantly reminding you of the character’s place in their landscape. Like an obsession with establishing shots gone mad.
2. Therese Philosophe
After The Tide we have the second segment called Therese Philosophe and this concerns the character Therese, played by Charlotte Alexandra, and her relationship with religious iconography. That is to say, the episode starts off with her entering a church... She is alone and starts exploring the various elements in the room with her hands, obviously infused with lust at the sexual possibilities of assorted knobs, posts, organ pipes etc. When her mother catches up to her, she pulls her home and locks her in a room as punishment for what her mother perceives are her wrong doings.
Therese yells at her mother that she can’t be without her book of Stations of the Cross and after a short while her mother throws it into the makeshift prison for her, along with some food mostly comprising of uncut cucumbers... yeah, you can see where this one is going straight away, can’t you?
The girl then starts exploring all the artefacts in the room with the same fervour and sexual attitude as she did those in the church and it’s here that I was struck by the similarities between Borowczyk’s live action features and animated shorts. His films are as much about people exploring objects as they are about interacting with each other... it’s almost, at some points, like we are not watching live, flesh and blood performers but puppets or cut outs that Borowczyk can move around the screen however he wants. Now, of course, many people would approve of this notion, especially directors (I’m sure Hitchcock would have approved of this guy’s methods of film making, in some ways) and I’m certainly sympathetic to the idea that the actors are clay to be moved around by the director... it’s not the only way to work but it can be an effective way of creating, depending on what’s appropriate to a piece and your approach to it. However, the downside can be what you get in film like this which is... no matter how sympathetically some of the characters may be portrayed, there’s a feeling of disconnection being projected by the final product. No emotion or empathy coming through from the performers as they are rigidly straight jacketed by the directorial style.
Now I really don’t mind this... it’s not an issue for me and, depending on what else is on offer in a film, won’t necessarily detract from my viewing experience... but I do suspect some people may find Borowczyk’s films unnecessarily cold in places. I’m cool with it though.
Back to the specifics of the episode... when Therese finds a lewdly illustrated book, it further fans the flames of her desire so she gets her kit off and before you know it, she is laying face down on the bed, taking in all the religious paraphernalia and making full use of those cucumbers... and when I say full use, I’m sure my readers will understand that her mouth is not the orifice she is most using to reap the full benefit of this largely unsung vegetable. It’s interesting that Borowczyk takes a swipe at religion by sexualising it in this manner and he does so again, later in the movie... but I’ll get to that in a while.
There is one final thing of note on this segment, however. When the girl finally escapes the confines of her imprisonment, through a first story window, she moves away from the camera again in a static longshot which sees her blending into the distance. Again, it’s a similar style of fixing the characters in space that the director used in the first segment.
Now, in the original, unreleased version of the movie, The True Story of the Beast of Gevaudan came in as the third segment but, since it’s not in the theatrical cut to the movie, I’ll wait and review this segment last in the running order here, as an add on. So that means the next part of the movie, in its theatrical edition (and using that word loosely due to probable censorship issues over the years in various countries), is Erzebet Bathory.
3. Erzebet Bathory
Okay, we all know the story of this character by now. A large section of the British public probably know of her as Elizabeth Bathory and her story of cruelty and bathing in the blood of her tortured female victims to ensure her youth has been rendered in cinematic tales loads of times... with perhaps the most well known of a large batch being Ingrid Pitt’s go at her for Hammer in Countess Dracula (reviewed here).
Borowczyk’s version takes out the scenes of brutal torture, only glancing sideways and leaving these aspects of the story left to your imagination, somewhat, instead concentrating on the spectacle of the sexuality. And he’s got a pretty famous lady playing Bathory herself for his vignette about the legendary character... Paloma Picasso. Yeah, that’s right... Pablo Picasso’s daughter, no less. This film also concentrates on the fear that the reputation the lady in question bings, as she stops at a local village to pick up supplies... and when I say supplies I mean supplies of young, virginal women to have sexy times with. Supplies! Supplies! The unexpected hits them between the eyes. You can bet it does when a whole bunch of them goes back to Bathory’s castle for what amounts to a naked inspection, a long group shower and an orgiastic.. um... orgy of some sorts.
Again, some familiar signature items seem to be appearing and painting a picture of the director’s stylistic leanings here. Once again he focuses on various anatomical features... such as peoples eyes looking on in fear. Picasso’s eyes are even framed as a kind of strip of a section of her face, Sergio Leone style, at one point. There are countless shots of various sexualised body parts too, of course, and at one point Bathory spies on the many showering girls as they lather up their enthusiasm... various moments pitched against shots of her eyes to demonstrate the voyeuristic aspect of the scene. Of all the segments in this movie, this really is a celebration of women’s body parts and the amount of nudity in here is astonishing.
The narrative gets a bit jumpy at some point here. Bathory gives the many young ladies a swig of a special drink she’s concocted and throws herself to them. They all go about ripping her dress off and doing unspecified sexual stuff with her in some kind of mass, frenzied jumble of highly photogenic flesh, from what I could make out. For an actress who is the daughter of the man who popularised cubism, she’s less of a square than you might imagine. Then, after she leaves her ladies of choice, they all seem to start getting more wild and violent and streaks of blood begin to show where they start clawing at each other... I think. It’s not really dwelled on in any kind of detailed way but the implication is it must be bad because the next time we see Bathory, she is bathing in a big bath of blood... presumably culled from the many girls. And then, after one more scene of implied sexuality, there’s one last little but significant part to the ending of the tale... but I really don’t want to spoil that here... partially because I don’t want to give spoilers and partially because, frankly, in a film of this nature, it’s pretty much the only thing that could conceivably be considered a spoiler. These vignettes really don’t have much in the way of plots, to be sure.
4. Lucrezia Borgia
So the last segment is a scenario where Lucrezia Borgia, played by a truly stunning looking lady called Florence Bellamy, goes and visits the pope and his aide, where she disposes of her lover and has all kinds of sex with the two heads of the church, simultaneously. Like Borowczyk’s early animations, he shows a fascination for the scrutiny of objects and illustrations, making his characters interact with their environment as much as they interact with each other. The Pope shows Lucrezia various pictures of horses genitalia and the study of this phenomenon gets her juices up and kick starts the sex that follows. Like the second chapter in this collection, the director seems intent on ridiculing and tearing apart religious iconography... and you can’t get to be too much more of a religious icon, in this day and age, than the Pope, I guess.
Now, as I said earlier, Arrow's fantastic Blu Ray and DVD restoration transfer of this film comes with a nice little collection of extras and includes another version of the movie, this time with the basis for his next feature, The Beast, which he released as an expansion of this unreleased segment a year later.
2B. The True Story of the Beast of Gevaudan
Okay, it’s been a few years since I watched my 3 disc US restoration of The Beast but I’m pretty sure that most, possibly all, of the footage in this segment was retained and used in the later version of the movie. It’s basically the key scene or punchline scene (or possibly money shot scene if you want to push the metaphor to its logical conclusion) of that later film and, frankly, I think I possibly prefer it in this shorter, to the point, variant than the final feature version... although that version is not also without its charm.
The segment starts of with a slow zoom-in on a highly picturesque building and then pans down to the windows to show a woman inside playing her harpsichord. A young sheep tethered outside the house escapes and wanders off into the forest and she runs out and gives chase. An interesting thing to note is that the harpsichord music continues so, it’s an example of one of those fairly uncommon occurrences in cinematic history where a piece of diegetic music (music from an on screen source) on the soundtrack suddenly turns in to a piece of non-diegetic music (a composition composed to accompany, comment or support the scene) without calling attention to itself. This is good stuff.
As she runs through the woods, hot on the trail of her fleecy friend, she is spotted by some kind of man-beast creature who lusts after her with his massive, horse-like organ... chasing after her in order to have his wicked way with her. It has to be said that, for its time and almost even by today’s standards, the “man in suit” nature of the beast is very well done and it’s really not hard to suspend your disbelief. As our heroine continues running through the forest, various branches and conveniently placed twigs conspire to pull the girls clothing from her as she runs... look, I never said this wasn’t implausible and, seriously, beyond corny... but it’s a curious mix of a film. Mostly because this episode is all about bestiality and a whole load of body fluid spillage on the part of the beast. His enthusiasm throbs and dribbles beast-juice throughout the majority of the segment.
Now this film was banned in a lot of countries for years, from what I can recall, so I find it bizarre that it’s suddenly okay in the UK... where bestiality is a big ‘no no’ with the censors... or more probably with the obscene publications act... for this film to be suddenly accepted again. If you can get over the fact that this is about a big beast who rapes a woman before the woman starts getting into it and becomes a complicit lover, killing the beast with the consequences of his spent lust, then it actually becomes quite a ridiculously comical and entertaining piece. For instance, while she flees and throws her old timey wig at him, the beast (after much rubbing and dripping of his enormous beasthood) starts having sex with her wig. When she tries to escape by climbing from a tree and is caught hanging from a branch trying to get away, the pummeling of her fleeing feet on his huge pole of lustiness fans his hairy fervour even more and results in a lot more body fluid spillage.
Once the lady has sampled our hairy, beary antagonist’s unfiltered lust, she sheds more clothes and starts getting into it (oh right, it’s written and directed by a male, I get it), giving the titular character a hand/blow job and ushering in its doom... burying it in autumnal leaves after the “one sex act too far” is finished. Like I said, I prefer this cut without all the preamble of the feature length version of this film... at least until I get around to watching that one again, anyway.
And that’s about it as far as this movie goes. I can’t say I didn’t enjoy this spectacle of sexuality and, although some of the acting is quite terrible, it’s well put together, nicely composed, well lit and has a keen eye for detail imbued in it by the director. It’s a well put together film and the Arrow release is almost perfect. Almost because, there’s just one thing I didn’t understand... especially in light of the inclusion of The True Story of the Beast of Gevaudan on here. Bestiality is very much a big problem over here (and probably is in most countries, I would think) but there is an extra short film on here by Borowczyk called A Private Collection. It’s a documentary style narrative of a man, possibly the director, showing off his various sexual illustrations, curios and gadgets which he’s collected over the years and it certainly continues to highlight Borowczyk’s obsession with the pursuit of objects on screen. However, the distributors have also seen fit to include the rarer, slightly longer by a few minutes, alternate uncut version of A Private Collection on here too. The Oberhausen Cut, as it’s known, includes archival silent film footage of a woman having sex with a dog. However, because of the censorship issues, the scenes in question have been blacked out. Is it just me or does anyone else find it weird that they would bother to release an uncut version of the film and then censor all the bits that were cut from it in the first place? This seems complete madness.
All in all, though, apart from that bizarre ‘about turn’ on one of the extras, the UK Arrow release of Borowczyk’s Immoral Tales is a film I might possibly hesitate to recommend to most people but is also a film that I mostly enjoyed and will probably watch a few more times in my lifetime... if I can find that time. It’s filled with stunning women and there are very few characters you don’t see in a state of undress, if that’s what floats your boat. A problematic film in terms of moral judgements but, hey, the clue is in the title, I reckon. I think each potential, individual viewer can probably make up their own mind about whether they want to see this or not... and not leave that decision in the hands of the hateful, art destroying censors. Give it a go... or not... but certainly a disc I don’t regret buying at all.