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Polish-born filmmaker Walerian Borowczyk belongs to a small fraternity of directors that brought a unique, artistic, and often dream-like slant to erotic exploitation cinema. Like Jean Rollin, Tinto Brass, and (to a lesser extent) Jesus Franco, he was capable of elevating softcore pornography in a way that impressed otherwise unresponsive critics; though, to be fair, this critical praise ebbed as the content of his films became more explicit. Many were disappointed when he stopped making avant garde animated and live-action shorts. After being aware of him for many years, I finally discovered the uncommon value of Borowczyk’s work thanks, to Arrow Video’s Blu-ray release of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne. Now, Arrow has two more of the director’s most controversial and sexually-charged movies.

Borowczyk Double Feature

Immoral Tales

(1974)
Immoral Tales (aka: Contes Immoraux) was Borowczyk’s moment to break out of the arthouse and avant garde animation scenes and into the infinitely more lucrative realms of erotic exploitation movies. It was a big hit during the onset of the porno-chic revolution (opening around the same time as Just Jaeckin’s softcore harbinger Emmanuelle, 1974) and helped characterize the rest of his career. Even as a newcomer to his oeuvre, I can easily recognize the seeds of his favourite themes taking root – specifically the exploration of eroticism, hypocrisy, and obsessive rituals of the ruling class. Immoral Tales is starkly and beautifully shot in a crisp, surrealistic manner that serves its loosely-knit narratives.

Part one, The Tide ( La Marée, based on a story by André Pieyre de Mandiargues), is set in the then-present day. A young man and his 16-year-old female cousin take a bike ride to the beach, where they crawl among the rocks and are stranded by the tide. Concealed from adults and authority figures, their vaguely provocative discourse evolves into sexually-charged games and the boy reveals that this was his plan all along. This opening act is a rich visually rich primer for the anthology, especially as Borowczyk teases the subtext by inter-cutting images of rising waves with the rising sexual desires, but, on its own, there’s little more than sexy imagery to latch onto.

Part two, Therese Philosophe, is set in 1890. A pious girl, who seems to be convening directly with God, sees erotic potential in a number of church artefacts. She is locked in a room (her bedroom?) for three days for her ‘crimes,’ where she looks at 19th century pornographic renderings and continues exploring the sensual possibilities of the objects around her (including her only food source – cucumbers). Therese Philosphe is shot in a more intimate and abrupt manner than the other shorts (also in 16mm – see below). It’s a less delicate kind of art film and a more frantic story, told via sharp cuts and cramped close-ups. Despite its stylistic differences, it develops and fits the film’s themes better than The Tide and may have been a better place to start (I’m not sure The Tide should’ve been included at all, actually).

Part three, Erzsebet Bathory is set in 1610. It follows a day in the reign of the infamous Hungarian countess who was accused of torturing and murdering hundreds of young women, then bathing in their blood under the assumption that it would keep her young. The legend is also the basis of a number of vampire movies, including Peter Sasdy’s Countess Dracula (1970 – a Hammer production) and Harry Kumel’s Daughters of Darkness (1971). Borowczyk’s version avoids most of these fantastical trappings to present a gorgeously surreal, bite-sized costume drama, complete with rich production design, intricate photography, and cruel social satire. Erzsebet Bathory is easily the highlight of the set. There’s enough lush, avant garde visual storytelling here to have sustained a feature runtime. Note that Paloma Picasso, youngest daughter of Pablo, plays Bathory in her one and only film appearance.

Borowczyk closes out the film with the most blasphemous and disturbing entry, Lucrezia Borgia, which is set in 1498. In this final short, Pope Alexander VI shows his son Cesare Borgia, daughter Lucrezia Borgia, and Lucrezia’s suitor obscene drawings of horse penises, before engaging in a ritualistic and incestuous orgy. Meanwhile, a priest lectures the masses outside about righteousness, before being dragged away by royal guards and burned at the stake. The short ends with the christening of their bastard love-child. More delightfully weird production/costume design (in one gag, a breakaway wall is opened behind a marble bust of Vannozza dei Cattanei) and lewd (sometimes absolutely absurd) comedy fronts this grotesquely decadent final entry. It’s a disappointingly literalist indictment and a comedown from the previous episode, but also an effectively vulgar way to end the film.

Arrow has included the extended L'age D'or cut of Immoral Tales, which includes a fifth short, La Bête ( The Beast), which is set in 1765. It was eventually extended to feature-length and became the director’s next film (see below)

Immoral Tales’ only North American DVD release came from Anchor Bay Studios. It was non-anamorphic and included forced English subtitles. Arrow Video was beaten to the punch on a Blu-ray premiere by Bildstörung in Germany, but that release was region-locked, limiting the audience outside of RB. This new simultaneous RA/RB release has been given the typical Arrow shine. According to specs, it was scanned and restored from a 35mm InterPositive, except for the Thérése Philosophe section, which was shot on 16mm and transferred from a 35mm low-contrast print of the original elements (you can definitely see a difference in detail and graininess). The cinematography is credited to Bernard Daillencourt, Guy Durban, Noël Véry, Michel Zolat, and Borowczyk himself. I assume their efforts were divided between the four shorts, though the director’s influence makes for a relatively homogenous look. This means that it’s a foggy and soft picture, which doesn’t lend itself too well to crisp edges and fine textures. Yet, even the blurriest shot doesn’t match the soupiness of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne, so Arrow has more room to clean up this 1.66:1, 1080p transfer. Grain levels appear accurate and the smoothness of the soft photography is impressive. Colours are rich, natural, and nicely separated, despite the plushness – only the brightest reds appear to have problems with low-level noise.

The mono soundtrack has been transferred from the original magnetic reels and is presented here in LPCM 1.0. The effect is quite clean by including gentle environmental ambience and clear dialogue that is rarely affected by volume discrepancies or notable distortion. Maurice LeRoux’s medieval, renaissance, and church organ music (which I believe is mixed with traditional pieces from the eras) has a nice ethereal quality and an impressively deep-set presence. During Erzsebet Bathory, there is a particularly intense moment where LeRoux’s music practically goes to battle against a screaming horde of nude women and the dissonance becomes utterly terrifying.

Extras include:
  • Introduction by Borowczyk expert Daniel Bird (5:10, HD) – An impressionistic video essay breakdown of the film’s controversial reception from critics and audiences.
  • Love Reveals Itself (16:40, HD) – New interviews with production manager Dominique Duvergé-Ségrétin and cinematographer Noël Véry. It includes anecdotes from behind-the-scenes of the very long production (turns out the blood that Picasso bathes in was real), as well as footage of Véry in his workshop with the ‘special cameras’ he designed for the film.
  • Obscure Pleasures: A Portrait of Walerian Borowczyk (1:03:20, HD) – A re-edited archival interview from a 1985 UK Channel Four Visions documentary short. Parts of this extensive discussion appeared in brief during the Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne extras as well. It includes lots of montage images from his features and shorts, along with some raw, on-set footage from his productions (without sound).
  • Blow Ups (4:40, HD) – A visual essay by Daniel Bird, concerning Borowczyk’s paintings, drawings, cartoons, and other graphic art.
  • Theatrical trailer


Note that the UK version, which was released last year, also includes two cuts of the short film A Private Collection (1973), but does not include Obscure Pleasures.

 Borowczyk Double Feature

 Borowczyk Double Feature

 Borowczyk Double Feature

 Borowczyk Double Feature

 Borowczyk Double Feature

 Borowczyk Double Feature

 Borowczyk Double Feature



Borowczyk Double Feature

The Beast

(1975)
Bestial dreams interrupt the venal plans of a French aristocrat attempting to save a crumbling mansion by marrying off his deformed son, Mathurin, to a horny American heiress, Lucy. Yet Mathurin seems more interested in his horses than in his bride-to-be. Meanwhile, Lucy discovers the story of his 18th-century ancestor Romilda (Sirpa Lane) copulating with the titular beast. (From Arrow’s official synopsis)

Borowczyk’s career remains relatively obscure outside of cult and arthouse circles, but he did make one movie that was so outrageous and shocking that it transcended his limited audience – The Beast, aka: La Bête. The Beast is usually characterized as a porn version of Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont’s Beauty and the Beast. This is an adequate shorthand to get non-Borowczyk fans in the door, but it is, of course, not a completely accurate portrait. In truth, it is a Boro-centric adaptation of Prosper Mérimée’s 1869 novella Lokis, which itself is described as a parable-like subversion of Beauty and the Beast. Originally, it was going to be the fifth short in Immoral Tales – as seen in the expanded L'age D'or version – but was expanded into a full-bore spectacle that is, by some accounts, the director’s magnum opus.

I still think I’d prefer a feature-length version of Erzsebet Bathory, but the expanded The Beast flourishes in ways Immoral Tales does not, largely because it isn’t bogged down by split narrative focus. Despite an established and maintained though-line narrative, it is still an episodic exercise, one that loses itself in the savory qualities of mundane and obscene ritualism. Ordinary chores and basic household maintenance – the Marquis sweeping cobwebs from a frame, his son being groomed for presentation, a chef preparing a meal – are treated with the same obsessive-compulsive focus as scenes of amorous horses mating. Inanimate objects are again sexualized in a general sensual sense (pornographic renderings and fetishized set design, for example) and, in the case of a batch of bedposts, the literal sense. As I delve deeper into the director’s catalogue, I realize that even stories with specified timelines (such as those in Immoral Tales) are sort of visually anachronistic. Like Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne, The Beast seems to take place out of time, where Victorian and ‘70s aesthetics/fashions collide. These stories don’t take place during historical eras – they take place at different points in Borowczyk’s universe.

Borowczyk ensures that the celebrated/despised monster rape fantasy sequence stands out as particularly hallucinatory (it was shot for a different movie, after all), but the ‘real world’ is almost as surrealistic and certainly more ripe for the director’s patented social satire. The crumbling estate at the center of the plot is filled with deranged aristocrats and a sexually frustrated staff, and the characters correlate deformity and religious deficiency. One of the more telling moments zips by so quickly it makes me wonder how much more thematic texture I missed in this initial viewing. In it, a baptism occurs behind closed doors, as if it is a more intimate or obscene moment than any of the sexual acts. The actual obscenity on display doesn’t spread beyond the confines of the current softcore standard, but the bestial sex acts and the shots of the Beast’s throbbing rubber phallus leaking semen will certainly raise the eyebrows of more sensitive members of the audience. I’m not sure if I prefer the absurdity of the Beast’s scenes in the context of either film. Since it serves different purposes, I suppose there’s no reason to choose one over the other.

Unlike Immoral Tales, The Beast has enjoyed a healthy history on North American DVD, thanks to Cult Epics and their extensive three-disc limited edition release. But Arrow has beaten others to the HD punch with this brand new Blu-ray transfer. The 1.66:1, 1080p version of the The Beast was also transferred directly from the 35mm source and restored/graded/cleaned in HD. This transfer is less consistent than Immoral Tales (or at least less consistent than the parts of that film), due once again to the precise and dreamy photography that Borowczyk and cinematographers Bernard Daillencourt & Marcel Grignon employ. The dream sequence at the center of the film was filmed earlier (likely on different stock) for Immoral Tales and stands out as the most ‘different looking’ of the images (it is fuzzier/foggier than the other footage). There’s little notable print damage or compression issues, but increased grain and occasional pulsing between sequences. At the same time, the majority of the transfer is quite crisp with vivid colours, rich blacks, complex gradations, and, when required, the edges are sharp.
 
The original mono soundtrack was also transferred from the original magnetic reels and is presented in LPCM 1.0. The majority of the film is in French (with quite a few English scenes) and dialogue is quite natural with only occasional hints of distortion. Volume levels fluctuate a bit, usually during scenes with dialogue without losing any of the  important exposition. The presence of soft environmental ambience is, once again, welcome and does quite a bit to broaden the scope of the single-channel sound. There is no credited composer and minimal musical sound, aside from harpsichord melodies that are likely traditional baroque pieces. Where music is concerned, the sound quality is nice and warm.

Extras include:
  • Introduction by Guardian film critic Peter Bradshaw (1:50, HD)
  • The Making of The Beast (58:00, HD) – Following a collection of title cards and still images, camera operator Noël Véry supplies commentary for silent 16mm footage shot on location. Véry worked on nine of Borowczyk’s films and shares his unique insight into this particular project.
  • Frenzy of Ecstasy (4:20, HD) – A visual essay on the illustrated evolution of the Beast’s costume/make-up design and plans for a sequel that would’ve been entitled Motherhood.
  • The Profligate Door (13:20, HD) – A featurette about Borowczyk’s ‘sound sculptures’ hosted by Musée Chateau d’Annecy curator Maurice Corbet.
  • Boro Brunch (7:40, HD) – Footage from a reunion meal recorded in February 2014 reuniting members of Borowczyk’s crew, including costume designer Philippe d’Argila, editor (now director) Florence Dauman, actress Dominique Ruspoli, producer Dominique Duvergé-Ségrértin, camera assistant Noël Véry, and script supervisor Zoe Zurstrassen.
  • Borowczyk commercials, produced for Les Cinéastes Associés:
    • Holy Smoke (10:00, HD)
    • The Museum (1:50, HD)
    • Tom Thumb (1:50, HD)
  • Gunpoint (11:00, HD) – An anti-hunting documentary short by filmmaker Peter Graham that was produced and edited by Borowczyk (11:04)
  • Behind Enemy Lines: The Making of Gunpoint (5:20, HD)
  • Theatrical trailer


 Borowczyk Double Feature

 Borowczyk Double Feature

 Borowczyk Double Feature

 Borowczyk Double Feature

 Borowczyk Double Feature

 Borowczyk Double Feature

 Borowczyk Double Feature

* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray release and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


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