Many who acquaint themselves for the first time with the bawdy joys of Walerian Borowczyk’s Immoral Tales will take a mental note of the title’s echoing of Eric Rohmer’s “Moral Tales,” a striking similarity that would nonetheless be like comparing a Harvard valedictorian to a pay-by-the-hour prostitute. That said, these two otherwise binary—in style, tone, and intended audience—objects share something more than just a naming convention and episodic strategies: If Rohmer’s series of chatty comedies use the word “moral” less as a value judgment than as a circumstantial fact, the same can be said of Borowczyk’s period-spanning provocation with regard to the use of “immoral.” Rohmer’s archetypal narrative is of a male protagonist rigorously questioning his own moral compass in the midst of a romantic tangle, his own perspective never to necessarily be confused with that of the director. Immoral Tales, meanwhile, tells four short stories depicting acts considered immoral within their respective milieus, even as the overriding worldview of the film is that morality is relative.
In other words, Immoral Tales doesn’t take a discernible stance on the rightness or wrongness of its subject matter, and that’s a bold move given the panoply of societal transgressions on display: rape, religious sin, homosexuality, polyamorousness, mass murder, and incest. Scored to buoyant medieval music that would seem more at home in a children’s folk tale than a pornographic sampler platter, the film descends backward in time from a 1970s French coastline to the 15th-century Borgia papacy, matter-of-factly detailing each erotic escapade with a special focus on the deviant female in each scenario.
Borowczyk begins with a contemporary tale in which a horny teenage boy eggs his younger cousin into blowing him on a rocky beach by lyrically comparing the fellatio to the force of the incoming tide. A finger enters a mouth in extreme close-up, the boy mutters grandiloquent validations of his pleasure, the girl hesitantly undresses; this uncomfortable foreplay leads to an orgasm both oceanic and sexual, as well as the cawing of seagulls to rudely soundtrack the awakening of the sexual self. Woozy first-person close-ups of each character in the heat of the moment hint at an attempt to value no particular perspective over another, but the careful penis concealment and full-blown spectacle of female pubic hair—enough of a constant throughout these episodes to qualify as a motif—suggest a selective male gaze that does little to complicate the protagonist’s acted-upon fantasy.
From here, Borowczyk visits the bedroom of a teenage girl in a 19th-century countryside, her dwelling a kind of claustrophobic tomb of ideology with its plethora of Catholic objects and framed paintings of unspecified royal patriarchs crowding the walls. The discovery of an ancient book of erotica plants unmentionable ideas; one thing leads to another, and soon enough the girl’s rabidly masturbating with a cucumber and undergoing bodily spasms on her bed. For a moment, she owns her sexuality (a royal portrait defiled by the splattered vegetable of choice implies a triumphant rebellion), but in this rigid male-centric milieu such a thing is never fully possible, hence the episode’s sickly ironic ending featuring a predatory male waiting on the horizon.
Nudity reaches its pinnacle in the third episode at a sinister Hungarian bathhouse, and the movie’s curtain call is a (literally) stripped-down spectacle of three-way incest between the pope and his son and daughter scored to blaring church a cappella. That Immoral Tales gradually siphons out narrative until all that’s left is a stylized sex scene might be a helpful hint toward Borowczyk’s real predilections, but then again, the film remains obstinate in its prioritization of sex over story throughout.
Mild assistance as to the nature of this provocateur’s thematic intentions comes in the form of his no-less confrontational follow-up, The Beast, which plays more straightforwardly as erotic farce and political critique. Originally intended as another installment in Borowczyk’s prior project (and, to be sure, often bearing the marks of undercooking), The Beast suggests on the surface any number of late-Buñuel bourgeois smack-downs: Two families gather at a palatial rural estate on the occasion of a marriage, where carnal appetites and genetic secrets gradually spoil the party.
Overlong attention to the social awkwardness and out-of-touch pretensions of the royal family make it clear that Borowczyk is raising a point about the deformed social and sexual habits generated by a puritanical lifestyle, so when the patriarch’s daughter’s frantic fantasies of bestial sexual submission start to dominate the film’s second half, it’s a logically extreme end point. Dubious upper-class mockery notwithstanding, it’s evident that the mere realization of this garish series of scenes was the real impetus behind The Beast, so boldly does its frenetic handheld camerawork and exaggerated detailing (the erect cock of the titular costumed figure alone is an absurd image that, regrettably, cannot be unseen) stand apart from the reserved chattiness of the film’s comparatively chaste first half.
From the stuffed vulture watching over the ethereal blonde beauties in Immoral Tales to the explicitly mating horses in The Beast, nature is a deadpan counterpoint throughout these films—Borowcyzk’s reminder that we’re all animals after all. Immoral Tales’s parting shot of a smiling baby giggling at indecent acts off screen reminds us that we’re all born with such desires and that it’s only through social and ideological conditioning that we learn to tame them, or in some disastrous cases repress them entirely. Accuse Borowczyk of perpetrating a pervy male gaze, of having only aims of shocking the audience’s complacency, of offering a banal visual style that’s more about what’s being shown than how it’s being shown, but never accuse him of repressing anything.
Follow Carson Lund on Twitter at @lund_carson.