Sunday, July 19, 2009

The People Vs. Walerian Borowczyk

Anatole Dauman's search for seat-filler began probably sometime around 1970. Dauman and Argos films had been reliably packing in the crowds at art houses for most of the 60s but I feel like the paucity in memorable titles around the dawn of the 70s bearing the Argos name means that Dauman was beginning to think that money lay in other places than experimental filmmakers and concerned documentarians. He saw that the growing trend of pornography was sweeping the continent (the films of Just Jaeckin being the obvious example; his Emmanuelle remains the most financially successful French movie of all time as of this writing) and he sought to take a bite out of it. He was sneakier than most, you see, instead of just churning out smut with no tact, he went to Walerian Borowczyk and together they sort of skirted the whole business of being pigeonholed by making one of the most weird and pretentious skin flicks of the 70s. I guess no one could call you out on being artless (which was the resounding problem with most pornographic films) if you're movie was really artfully done but just happened to feature scads of naked women. Fellini had gotten away with it a number of times, after all, and the French were already notorious for their sexually adventurous art. I just kinda wished that Dauman and Borowczyk weren't filthy misogynists.

Immoral Tales
by Walerian Borowczyk

The film is told in four chapters, each containing a story where increasingly weird sexual fantasies play out, some based on real events. The first concerns a young man and his cousin. They ride to a secluded spot beach on their bikes and the young man starts to talk about tides and the moon and such, saying that something must happen at just the right moment. When he grabs her head and stuffs it in his groin, things become frighteningly clear. The next story...well, I won't lie, none of these can really be called stories, so much as they are glimpses into fifteen or twenty minutes of wandering semi-erotic strangeness. The next one has to do with a girl who's been violated (offscreen) by a tramp who needs to be cleansed of her wickedness. She gets locked up by a matronly type, but first chance, her urge to be cleansed in the eyes of god turns into lust and she spends the night pleasuring herself. Scenario three is eventually about countess Bathory, but first we follow a bunch of naked girls as they strip, pray, bathe and then after what seems like an eternity join the countess for an orgy. The fourth one is about the family Borgia having an incestuous orgy; this is intercut with Girolamo Savonarola (the Borgia family's strongest public opponent) delivering a sermon and then getting arrested.

If Borowczyk had approached any producer in the world and told them what I've just told you, I'd bet he'd have gotten laughed or hounded out of every office in Europe that didn't have the words "Flora Film" or "Eurocine" on the placard out front. My guess is he was a little slicker about synopsizing the film when he pitched it (either that or it was all Dauman's idea). Either way, when you look at it factually like, this is a pretty despicable film; look at it anyway and it's most certainly misogynistic. Immoral Tales is the sort of movie that Nagisa Oshima probably would have hated, as his In the Realm of the Senses is basically a comment on modern pornographic films. Every segment contains men taking advantage of women or of women engaging in truly demeaning sexual practices. In the Bathory segment, Borowczyk has her bath in blood, which was a requirement for any bit of fiction involving the countess (and it actually does look like blood for a bit, until you remember that blood doesn't foam) and then has one of the girls insert a pearl into her urethra. It's about as uncouth as it sounds and it, like many of Immoral Tales' set pieces, feeds misconceptions about women, the mythologizing of the debauchery of ancient times, and the idea that all french films are heedlessly trashy. They aren't and I can't really see the point in trying to sexualize incest, rape, statutory rape, religious punishment and sex slavery or even make them seem marginally appealing (oh and the fact that there is no male nudity, which is either because of standards at the time, or the squeamishness of the film's creators. Either way, it's wholly unbalanced). Not that these subjects hadn't been tackled before (Abel Gance did it as early as 1935 with his film Lucrezia Borgia) but that Borowczyk had Dauman and the clout of Argos films behind him meant that Immoral Tales was treated like an art film instead of pornography. The idea that the sexual content of the first segment would be appealing to some people, to the art and raincoat crowd alike, makes me sick.

That's not to say everyone lavished it with praise; it received as much criticism and obscenity complaints as anything. Immoral Tales was popular enough to warrant further collaboration between Dauman and Borowczyk. La Bête followed and cemented both men's place in film history; there's a black mark next to both names, sure, but I defy anyone who's seen La Bête to ever forget it. Of course, there's more than one reason why Borowczyk films were treated with respect, and that's because he really was an excellent director. That's the only reason I didn't entirely hate Immoral Tales. It's message and content? Sure, those are odious but Borowczyk's direction is actually really stunning. From the very start there's something dreamlike about the film; Borowczyk presents everything voyeuristically and refuses to comment on anything. We never get a word of inner monologue or a clue about anyone's feelings (it makes segment one extra repulsive, but I digress). Thus the film is a little like a realistic court painting from the 17th century, something by Rembrandt or Velázquez, say. It coolly floats around the action without commenting on it; he simply paints a picture of debauchery. It's really easy to get lost in the film as Borowczyk fills the screen with oceans of naked figures and Freudian images so that even when we're not watching something overly sexual, it still feels like we are and all of it drifts in and out of the frame.

I really really want to watch some of Borowcyzk's minor films in the hopes that I don't have to watch cavalcades of men taking advantage of women or of women willfully submitting to male fantasy because as direction goes, his is expert. So that is why, despite my hatred of the subject matter, I have to give this an actual grade instead of the usual Z that goes to pornographic film.

No comments: