Immoral Tales (1973)

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Second time with Walerian Borowcyzk. Watched this after Goto, Island of Love as a Mubi double bill with M (her suggestion!).

Shares, with GIoL, a predilection for glimpsed detail, a fascination with facial closeups and human physicality (here again awkwardness but also pure beauty), a minds-eye for the surreal. Tentative connections with Bataille (initiations, eyes, lack of clear connectivity in the anthology structure) and a general Picnic at Hanging Rock vibe throughout, especially in the historical pieces (of which 2 and perhaps ‘5’ also evoke Valerie And Her Week of Wonders and The Duke of Burgundy, while 3 suggests a wacked-out Cries and Whispers).

1 has a stroppily authoritative young man attempt to teach his submissive cousin “the mystery of the tides”. There’s a textural and rhythmic beauty which is more focused than that of GIoL but still distinctively WB’s in its deceptive surreality; liked the bizarrely striking shots from the oncoming waves towards the couple onshore. Also earlier the feeling of estival germination, bikes on the road the boy weaving a predatory path behind the singing girl.  There was a disappointingly unrealised hint later that she was about to pick up a pebble and bash the guy’s brains in, but we’re spoilt for violence later on anyway.

2 contracts the expansive abandon of 1 into a post-gothic (M Lewis especially) sketch of puritanical suppression: a hyperimaginative girl is locked away by her mother superior but finds stimulation in a handbook of erotic tales. The petulant authority of the boy has vanished; here 2’s girl is suffocated by maternal authority, fantasising about christological male benefactors like the stern faces in a political portrait in her room. 2 has an intoxicating, Bressonian tactility: the girl feels her way through the room’s objects, engaging with the world primarily through this intimate but childlike sense. That dreamy Valerian (geddit) atmosphere pairs some gorgeous colours (bronze hair, oak, clerical shawls in red white and gold) with WB’s eye for movement and composed framing. Feels celebratory; there’s a shot of the girl escaping through a meadow that distinctively echoes one of a man escaping the town in GIoL, silent through binoculars (here she doesn’t make it).

3 tells the story of Countess Bathory, progressing from a comically bumpkin-ridden and cabbage-strewn Hungary countryside to a sinister palace of pleasures. There’s again something about authority in the peasant’s blinded eyes drinking in the marauding countess on horseback, the invocations of Jesus at an altar, the master/servant relationship, the surprising reassertion of masculine police rule after the debauched and dire project of the Countess. A whirling climax with atonal clattering in the score whisks away the fixated scenes of the sacrificial girls showering, glimpsed by the assistant in a mirror as if too intoxicating to be viewed directly; these led to a few direct shots suddenly intercut with a familiar eyes-closeup of the Countess – she has conceded to vampiric temptation. Perhaps a warning about the psychological unbalancing that results from the immurement inflicted in 2 (and on CB in real life as a form of execution, I believe).

There’s a uneasy realisation in the pastoral, innocent early sections of 3 that much of the female nudity has been of rather young women (the girl in 1 is explicitly 16, for example, while 2’s is treated like a schoolgirl, and no-one is too young for scrutiny, at least, in 3). 4 takes a reflexive turn by incorporating this into a quite bitter and surprisingly subtle critique of the catholic church. The ostensive focus is Lucrezia Borgia, whose incestuous indulgences backstage after mass are intercut with the soapbox ravings of a dissenting priest elsewhere. She is troubled by the presence of a bust of her mother, hailed as a paragon of beauty by her male relatives; she bristles when they adorn the statue with her lavish hats and call it queen. Her warped ascent to maturity is therefore figured as an attempt to emulate or supplant her maternal idol, leading into depictions of the Church’s fixation with youthful succession through obedient censer-carrying altar-boys and the inquisitive gaze of a newborn child at its christening. The dissenter side-plot plays out with his predictably linear condemnation; I think we’re therefore encouraged to be troubled by his words, and therefore also by the moral corruption onscreen.

Does test the distinction between erotic and pornographic at points – especially the interpolated middle section, ‘5’: this apparently intended for inclusion in IT, with one other lost segment, to make six parts; was instead adapted into La Bête (1975) but for some reason mubi’s screening left the short version in here between 2 and 3. Initially it segues nicely from 2, adapting that meadow-retreat shot into a discovery of immorality (rather than a graduation from it). But the rest of it is completely ridiculous, awkwardly attempting to combine passionate subsumption into nature (the snail on the shoe, the ribboned clothes in the pond and on branches) with a surrender to fantastical bestial pleasure, here in the form of a rampant half-bear-half-boar-thing. It thereby ditches the appealing Weirian/Stricklandian fairytale atmosphere for b-movie (even Chuck Tingle – seriously) titillation (cf. also the attractively ominous harpsichord motif which is run into the ground through untreated repetition). A complete batshit distraction for the rest of the film – 4 is much more successful as a superficially climactic closer with a troubling but understatedly moralistic takeaway.

Had to watch WALL●E after this to clean out my brains.

5

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