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.

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Goto, Island of Love (1969)

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First time with Walerian Borowczyk. Nice Klimtian Polish poster.

Looks very artificial: frequent use of stages as a set, performance (musicians, capital punishment, horse lessons). There are some flashes of colour that interrupt the greyscale consistency – imaginative glimpses of a world beyond Goto, the tinpot island dictatorship? (“We may not have light or air,” says the King, “but we have security.”) Also obviously allusive: Hitchcock in the tragedy, the shapes; Buster Keaton in the physical comedy and the square mise-en-scène (silent film is a touchstone more generally); also thought of Stalker‘s opening in the square shots, the austerity, the cart transport, Eadweard Muybridge’s animal studies with the frequent anatomically blank images of horses, dogs, flies.

But if it looks artificial it has a ring of truth. It’s an appealing story: somewhere between Kind Hearts and Coronets and A Brave New World. There’s an earthy and flat physicality to the characters (a bumbling energy – lots of people falling over) which made me think of Hard To Be A God and even Pictures Of The Old World, but the unburnished texture is presented through that cinematic lens and charged with a kind of wonky surrealism that gives it an Arthurian feel: the dialogue is amusingly bald and obtuse, attesting to the broader national stupidity and the pathetic irascibility of our doomed protagonist.

At its brightest it has the indie playfulness of Wes Anderson, but there’s a cracked horror behind the smile (there are two funeral scenes: the first is pretty horrifying and elemental, the second is a complete farce). Guards will nap in the street while their colleagues investigate the scene of a murder, or they will enforce orwellian regularity with total obedience. An unruly classroom is the seat of brainwashing, the incubation chamber for the narrative about the island having been frozen in time after a devastating earthquake in 1887 (HTBAG eh).

Buñuelian fun in a sad grey world poisoned by lust and ignorance, viewed through binoculars the wrong way around.

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Ashes and Diamonds (1958)

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First time with Wajda.

Harrowed ground crossed to get to town at the beginning – desperately traversed by Maciek at the end. Uprooting, confusion; attempts to pick out a progressive through-line among the chaos are tragic or comic. (dissolution of wartime unification both in the military split and the political disavowal of “governing”: “Everyone carries his own burden”) “Here’s to the Five Year Plan” – AaD poignant as historical document. (“At least we’re out of the forest” says thankful surviving officer) Summative line from the Home Army Major:

“The war years have taught us that we must approach these complicated situations unequivocally.”

The war has “complicated” life, but so does love. M desires simplicity; claims he is a student first as cover and then as a real desire to return to the past, to relive adolescence. Definite feeling of Ivan’s Childhood: disappeared youth, (“Nowadays boys of 17 are grown men,” Szczuka irreconcilable with his son) the Beckettian waiting, (not to be confused with the sinful Becketian opening) M and Andrzej laughing over the flaming vodkas standing for their dead associates.

The tenuousness of our connection to life: In Bruges mistake and the transient view of the grieving fiancée, M watching, a boss telling her that the policeman probably misidentified the victim in a bid for a favour. S telling the townsfolk (striking proximity of officials and citizens) that they will simply have to do their duty while alive and pray that the rest of us will enjoy the future when it comes.

Very 50s American feel; thought of Touch of Evil – certainly a noir angle. A telling M not to be so theatrical; the romance bursting through procedure, life vs duty.

The sadness of Poland wedged between belligerents; the mistaken target (hanging over the film) only recently returned from a German forced labour camp. Most memorable single images often capture this emotional aspect: a dead politician in the arms of his killer beneath fireworks; a hotelier dusting off a furled Polish flag and taking it out into the dawn. And that crypt conversation with the blocking Christ hanging like Mussolini.

Pretty hilarious at points: the cleaner gleefully anticipating a busy night; the off-key celebratory polonaise like a drunken march into the future; (the cleaner: probably somebody’s birthday) the fantastic culmination of Drewnowski’s career-suicide disruption of the banquet in him stamping up and down the table spraying a fire extinguisher into everyone’s faces. Pacing is excellent: dodging between political satire, thickening intrigue, romantic core, slapstick comedy. Apparently AW ordered condensation of the plot into a single day, and AaD does feel like a singularity, a staggering messy dawn.

So often, are you as a blazing torch with flames
of burning rags falling about you flaming,
you know not if flames bring freedom or death.
Consuming all that you must cherish
if ashes only will be left, and want Chaos and tempest
Or will the ashes hold the glory of a starlike diamond
The Morning Star of everlasting triumph.

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