❉ Glen McCulla on the twin peaks of Borowczyk’s career of cinematic carnality.
“Love, agreeable though it may be, pleases even more through its manifestations than in itself.” – La Rochefoucauld’s Maxims, quoted in Borowczyk’s Immoral Tales.
The deviant diptych of 1973’s Immoral Tales and 1975’s The Beast may well be the apex (or, for some, the nadir) of Polish auteur Walerian Borowczyk’s career of cinematic carnality. The wildman of Wielkopolskie – described in his 2006 New York Times obituary as “a genius, a pornographer, and a genius who also happened to be a pornographer” – had graduated through making short films such as the fourteen-minute 1959 animation Les Astronautes (which he co-helmed along with Chris Marker, later director of La Jetee and Sans Soleil) to features with the 1969 Goto, Island of Love.
The latter film perhaps began Borowczyk’s exploration of the themes of carnality, passion and lust as it tracks the journey of the character of Grozo (very much the proxy Steerpike of this particular Gormenghast-style entropic and solipsistic society) as he ascends through the social strata from lowly flycatcher to ruler of the isle, all the while fuelled by his insurmountable, impossible and unrequited lust for an unreachable woman. Relatable content.
Unbridled and unrequited passions would again simmer to the surface in the director’s next full-length feature (1969’s short The Phonograph notwithstanding), the 1971 tragedy Blanche – in which a mediaeval castle becomes a pressure cooker environment of hatred born of frustration as three men compete for the affections of a fair lady who remains steadfastly loyal to her husband.
‘Immoral Tales’ (1973)
Sexuality and sensuality are never far from the surface in these early works, but they would come roaring out like an unbound beast forged of animal passion – like the warm jets of lust -with Immoral Tales and The Beast. Immoral Tales (originally Contes Immoraux, and released in the United States under the title Three Immoral Women – indicating an incomplete version of the film, as it consists of four stories of ‘immoral’ women. This alternate cut consisted of the fourteen minute short A Private Collection – a narrated tour through Borowczy’s private collection of vintage erotica – the first story of the final cut, entitled The Tide, and The True Story of the Beast of Gevaudan: a story that would wind up excised from the completed release, but expanded upon later – more on which anon) is a tetraptych of erotic stories that aims to be provocative in more than just the sexual sense.
The opening story, The Tide (La Maree), is based upon a story by the French novelist and Surrealist associate Andre Pieyre de Mandiargues (with whom Borowczyk would again collaborate when he adapted his 1967 novel La Marge [The Margin] for the screen in 1976), and concerns cousins Andre and Julie – who presumably, being French, don’t meet at Waterloo Underground every Friday night – as they take a bike ride together for a day out at the beach. As they cycle through the bucolic pastoral landscapes, the beauty of nature seems to suddenly take on a slightly wilder, more sinister aspect as we notice that Andre (Fabrice Luchini – the titular Grail knight in Eric Rohmer’s 1978 Perceval le Gallois) is hanging back in order to ogle Julie’s (Lise Danvers, in a role originally offered to and turned down by Isabelle Adjani) pedaling posterior – her swimsuit clad derriere visible through the diaphanous fabric of her light summer dress – in a predatory rather than a cousinly fashion. The feeling of queasy unease grows as they arrive at la plage and Andre’s mood changes at Julie’s mention of the five (or perhaps six – there is a discrepancy between the English language soundtrack and the subtitles, presumably indicating a numerical difference in the French version) boys that Julie tells him that she has kissed over the summer since they last met; his jealousy becoming quite clear.
Andre’s premeditated predatorial plan unfolds as he lures Julie to the rocks below the cliff face just before the turn of the tide. As the sea comes in, his possession of the tide table and knowledge that they would become stranded for hours (“We’ve come too far to turn back”) reveals his pre-planned ploy to gain domination over his cousin through isolation and control, first ordering her to come over to him on her hands and knees across the rocky shale and then telling her that “for a long time I have thirsted for your mouth like water in a desert” – which Julie initially misapprehends as meaning he desires to kiss her before his meaning of fellatio comes clear.
“There I shall stay,” he tells her, “while the tide rises – for more than half an hour” as he explains his own physical ‘tidal mechanism’ to her and his craving to achieve full ‘CIM’ – as, uh, I believe ’tis known – at precisely 11.27: The turn of the tide. One does find oneself wondering if this was Gandalf’s meaning when he told the hobbits that he too would come to them at the turn of the tide. After much lingering of the camera upon Julie’s lips and tongue interspersed with shots of the rolling and tempestuous ocean she acquiesces and l’acte est accompli as they lie enfolded and entwined midst the foam and spurt of the surf like Lancaster and Kerr in From Here to Eternity as the seagulls scream in the sky above.
Story deux is Therese the Philosopher (Therese Philosophe), adapted from the hedonistic 1748 novel penned by the rationalist and critic of Catholicism the Marquis d’Argens. Starring Charlotte Alexandra, who had made her debut in Jack Guy’s Jailbait and would go on to star in Catherine Breillat’s second directorial feature A Real Young Girl, our action unfolds in 1890 with a young girl lingering longingly in church after Mass enraptured and fetishising the sacraments – handling the candlesticks and organ pipes (that’s what I’ve always called them anyway) as if ’twere proud male members of the congregation.
Locked up and interned for a period of three days by her shrewish auntie who doesn’t believe that she (like the proverbial gorilla) kinda lingered in the houses of the holy, she makes her own philosophy in the boudoir after coming across a stash of vintage pornography that presumably belonged to mon oncle – dodgy daguerreotypes of vile bodies entwined in flagrante dilecto lie amid corsets and other feminine undergarments inside a suitcase also bearing relics of the reign of Napoleon III. Spending her warm summer days indoors, she switches betwixt her newly discovered grot and her Stations of the Cross and takes advantage of the cucumbers she has been left to eat, but not with the mouth intended, as her desire and devotion intertwine.
“I am coming to you, Jesus! My heart is open!” she cries and performs her own masturbatory Mass, in the realm of the senses. Freed from desire, her mind and senses are purified as she shudders to climax in her bricolage of the agony and the ecstasy. Now reborn after three days like an Easter rising Christ from the womb of the tomb, she emerges into the fresh air a new woman and walks proudly into the green bucolic countryside, whereupon she is immediately raped by a tramp. You can’t have everything, now.
The consolation of philosophy indeed.
The third segment of this tetraptych is Erzsebet Bathory, starring painter’s progeny Paloma Picasso is the titular personage of historical significance. Based upon the book by surrealist poet, author and artist Valentine Penrose Erzsebet Bathory la Comtesse sanglante (Elizabeth Bathory the Bloody Countess, published in English translation as The Bloody Countess: the Atrocities of Erzsebet Bathory) the story is set in 1610 as the eponymous Countess patrols her Hungarian homeland with her retinue of soldiers in tow surveying the rolling hills dotted with Christian relics both Catholic and Orthodox. Shrouded in a cloak atop her steed and wearing a black feathered head dress, she looks every bit the carrion crow, almost indistinguishable from the birds of prey that wheel and cry in the sky.
Her troops enter the nearby village and scour it for “simple, honest girls” to take back to the Countess’ castle of Cachtice with the promise that they will be rewarded with payments fit for a king. Any who fail to volunteer – or be volunteered by their family – are pursued and snatched by the soldiers, leading to a scene of a half-naked young man trying to defend his paramour from abduction being assaulted and strangled by an armoured trooper, a tableau of violence almost Jarman-esque in its homoeroticism. In fact, much of this vignette is reminiscent of Jarman: from the anachronistic modern shower fittings and bathtub of the castle to the gender-bent casting of actress Pascale Christophe as the Countess’ right hand man Istvan, we are seeing historical events through a surrealist filter a la Caravaggio.
Back at the castle, les jeunes femmes are stripped and ordered to the showers where they gambol and frolic as the scrub each others’ bodies with a pastoral innocence – the literal lambs to the slaughter that they are. Abluted, aroused and unabashed, the naked throng of fillies are led through the labyrinthine corridors to the ballroom where the Countess makes her entrance clad only in a diaphonous mesh pearl-bedecked gown – adorned and imperious – which the girls have been promised the opportunity to touch and be blessed. This leads to a frenetic orgy as the girls go wild, crowding round to tear shreds of the dress from her body – some swallowing the pearls and at least one (Swedish actress Marie Forsa) inserting them up her cunnus. As this Sapphic bacchanalia reaches its climax, we suddenly cut to Istvan wiping blood from a sword as the Countess climbs into a bathtub filled with fresh blood, her body writhing and rolling into the crimson liquid starkly contrasted against the blank white of the porcelain; imagery to which Borowczyk would return in 1981’s Bloodbath of Dr Jekyll.
After emerging refreshed and reborn from her sanguineous Lazarus pit, the Countess has Istvan ritualistically strip off the masculine armour and uniform to reveal the feminine form beneath, before clothing her in a sheer bridal gown and taking her to her bed in a Uranian alchemical wedding as the birds continue to wheel and cry in the sky oblivious to the actions on the Earth below.
The closing chapter, Lucrezia Borgia, stars Florence Bellamy as the flaxen-maned vixen of the title – the historical debauched daughter of Pope Alexander VI (né Rodrigo Borgia) – as she pays a visit in 1498 with her husband Giovanni Sforza to her father’s Vatican palazzo. Intercutting betwixt the hedonistic luxury of the Borgias’ manse and the impassioned preaching from the pulpit of the zealous Girolamo Savonarola (memorably portrayed in TV’s The Borgias by Steven “I’ll stand where I like during this take, thanks” Berkoff, played here by Philippe Desboeuf) about the degeneracy of the papacy, both the Holy Father and his son Cardinal Cesare Borgia join with Lucrezia in humiliating her husband. Sforza is accused of impotence, and stands meekly by as il papa and his girl rapper gigglingly peruse erotic art of stallions with erect members (imagery that Borowczyk would soon use again to personify animal lust in The Beast) before being bundled away by le guardie Svizzere. Cucked by the Pope. Man, that’s got to hurt.
Noting that her brother dear is beneath his crimson robes Miles Standish proud, she congratulates him by stripping naked and then sitting upon the curule chair draped in the papal cloak and wearing the crown before engaging in a familial three-way in the name of the holy spit-roast, her father proving himself a true papal bull. As the impassioned Savonarola is dragged away from his pulpit and burned at the stake for heresy, the Borgias lie entwined in each others’ limbs in the centre of the Holy Mother Church. Speaking of mothers, we then cut to months later as the Pope and his children celebrate the birth of Lucrezia’s twin babies and she genuflects as her son-brother-nephews are baptised and aneled with chrism: the little anointed abominations. Happy smiles.
‘The Beast’ (1975)
Two years later, Borowczyk expanded and expounded upon The True Story of the Beast of Gevaudan – the segment deleted from the final release print of Immoral Tales – by turning it into a full length 98 minute feature. This altered Beast was unleashed upon the unsuspecting French public in the late summer of 1975, but not seen in the US until April 1977 and in the UK almost not seen at all after the BBFC refused to certify even a cut version for release; when London’s Prince Charles Cinema held a showing of this truncated form of the film in the September of 1978 the dreaded DPP (that’s the Director of Public Prosecutions, or ‘Double Penetration Pricks’ as some of us may have termed them during their iron fisted clampdowns during the Nineteen Haties after the passing of the dreaded Video Recordings Act) came close to invoking the Obscene Publications Acts.
The Parisian Romantic writer Prosper Merimee’s 1969 novella Lokis – an example of the short novel form of which he had been a trailblazer, published just a year before his death – had been adapted to film twice before Borowczyk considered it as a source for filmic inspiration, most recently in 1970 by his fellow countryman Janusz Majewski as Lokis: Rekopilis Doctora Wittenbacha.
The original tale’s subject matter of a Lithuanian nobleman suspected of being half human and half bear would be co-opted by Borowczyk and combined with The True Story of the Beast of Gevaudan; the novella’s were-bear (certainly not as cute as the 1980s range of toys of the same name: I still own Grizzler) Count Michel Szemioth would be transliterated into the form of the animalistic Mathurin de l’Esperance – a man descended from the union of a woman and the immense wolf-like creature of Occitanian legend.
After setting the sweat-flecking animalistic tone by opening with first simply the sounds and then the images of a carnal carnivale of rutting horses – and if the vision of a semen-flecked and throbbing mare’s vagina doesn’t prepare you for the film to come then perhaps nothing will – we follow the young Englishwoman Lucy Broadhurst (played by Danish actress Lisbeth Hummel) as she accompanies her prim and fussy Aunt Virginia (Elisabeth Kaza) to the crumbling French chateau of the de l’Esperance family to confirm her engagement to Mathurin (Pierre Benedetti) – only son of Pierre, the Marquis de l’Esperance and scion of that ancient family.
The Marquis’ uncle, the Duc Rammendelo de Balo (Marcel Dalio, simply credited under the mononym ‘Dalio’) disapproves of the union, leading Pierre to accuse him of harbouring a morbid hatred of women and wishing for the extinction of the family line (“[Mathurin] is not stupid, he knows what you want: to wipe us out. That your predictions are just a way to achieve your goal of destroying our family”). As with Poe’s accursed Ushers, the house itself mirrors the state of the family ensconced within: once proud and noble, now decaying and filled with an oppressive atmosphere of primal instinct: the household’s sole remaining servant Ifany (Hassan Fall) is constantly nipping away from his duties to engage in job-with-benefits rutting sessions with the Marquis’ daughter Clarisse (Pascale Rivault, who would go on to star alongside Emmanuelle herself, Sylvia Kristel, in Just Jaeckin’s 1981 adaptation of D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover) – and when he is called away from her bed as she resorts to satisfying herself Lina Romay Female Vampire-style, by rubbing her crotch against the ornate wooden bedpost clad only in knee-length leather boots.
Constantly presiding over these proceedings is the spectral presence of their ancestor, Romilda de l’Esperance, whose portrait watches over her degenerating descendants and intrigues the ingenue Lucy who has already begun to be affected by the aura of the abode – masturbating over the Polaroids she took on arrival of the sweaty steed sex. Falling asleep, Lucy dreams a dream of times gone by – of the bygone ages of wanking about harpsichords when the Lady Romilda (the late Finnish-born porn star Sirpa Lane, described by Roger Vadim as “the next Bardot” [and he would know], who would later parody her role in this movie in Alfonso Brescia’s 1980 space-bound re-setting Beast in Space) ventures from the 18th-century chateau in search of a little lamb lost in the wood – and I’m sure she could really be good with someone to watch over her. Alas, the one thing watching over her as she heads into the wild, wild wood is a certain big bad wolf with carnal intent.
Pursued through the undergrowth by the priapic wolfman with the pulsating and pre-cum-dripping penis and gradually divested of her vestments – gown, bustle and petticoat all torn away by the beast’s talons – until she is crawling through the brush with bush on display clad only in her stockings and corset (oh yeah), Romilda attempts to escape by climbing a tree only to find herself hanging suspended clutching a branch as the lustful lycanthrope with the smell of her sex in its nostrils buries his snout betwixt her legs as her swinging feet give him an accidental foot-job. Dropping from the tree and fleeing, her Marie Antionette powdered hairpiece is snatched up by the creature who proceeds to… uh… get wiggy with it, big willy style. When finally catching up with her and pumping her full of its animal nitrate, the at last sated animal seems confused to find that the lady is not yet satisfied and wishes to continue their bestial tryst in this budding grove: continuing to manipulate his member with her breasts and mouth until the wolf passes away bleeding from its nose and foam-flecked muzzle like Attila the Hun on his wedding night.
Waking from her vivid dream/vision, Lucy feels herself compelled to pay a prenuptial visit to Mathurin in his room, only to find him mysteriously dead. As his body is carried to his father’s room, the ever-present cast upon his right arm is accidentally shattered to reveal the hairy and dew-clawed paw that it has long hidden. The hysterical Aunt Virginia then tears away at the corpse’s clothes to reveal his vestigial tail – like his hand a legacy of the bloodline of the Beast of Gevaudan – before fleeing with her weeping niece in tow from the chateau.
The man is dead. Long live the beast.
“There is much to be learned from beasts”, said Gary Oldman’s Count in Bram Stoker’s Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula.
“Troubled dreams are, in fact, a passing moment of madness” – Voltaire.
❉ Glen McCulla has had a lifetime-long interest in film, history and film history – especially the genres of science fiction, fantasy and horror. He sometimes airs his maunderings on his blog at http://psychtronickinematograph.blogspot.co.uk/ and skulks moodily on Twitter at @ColdLazarou
❉ Header image: Lise Danvers in Immoral Tales, via IMDb.