In my review of La Grande Bouffe, I noted that Arrow Films is second only to Criterion in creating masterful productions of interesting and obscure films. With their release of Immoral Tales and The Beast, I could easily add "obscene" and "pornographic" to that description. Or perhaps, "erotic arthouse" would be more suiting.
I’m being intentionally flippant here which isn’t fair to the films (especially Immoral Tales which has its moments of artistic flair and depth of meaning behind its sex and rampant nudity) but after seeing two films back to back featuring enormous fake ejaculating penises, I can't help but be flippant. There is a striking difference between the generally well praised and critical darlings that come to the Criterion Collection and the much more wanton and gratuitous films that Arrow is releasing.
Not that I’m complaining, as I’m all for gratuitousness in all its forms getting major releases with improved image quality and scholarly extras.
Both of these films come from controversial Polish director Valerian Borowczyk. Immoral Tales is a French anthology film consisting of five stories (though only four were officially released, a controversy we’ll get to in a moment). They each deal with human sexuality in a variety of forms.
"In the Tide" is set in the present (or the present of the 1970s) with a young boy (Fabrice Luchin) who takes his cousin (Lise Danvers) to a secluded beach where he seduces her. Using the incoming tide as a trap and an eroticism, he convinces the girl to perform fellatio on him while he tells her all about the science behind the tide and refuses to climax until they are covered in water.
"Therèse Philosophe" consists of a virginal, religious young woman (Charlotte Alexandra) who is locked in a room by herself as punishment but instead finds sexual bliss by experimenting with herself whilst studying religious iconography.
"Erzebet Bathory" tells the story of the notorious 16th century Hungarian countess and serial killer (played by Paloma Picasso, Pablo’s daughter). In it, Bathory lures a bounty of beautiful virgins to her castle where she forces them to bathe, ingest some sort of drug, and then bathes in their blood.
"The Beast" is the fourth story in the anthology and it was so controversial that it was initially taken out of the movie and not seen for many years. Arrow gives you the option of seeing the film with this story or not. It is a ribald version of the classic fairy tale of the Beast of Gevaudan. In it, a hairy beast (obviously a man in a rubber suit) attacks and rapes a young woman until she changes heart and devours him over and over again. It is pornographically graphic with numerous images of the beasts enormous erection ejaculating (or rather more like oozing semen) on a near continual basis.
The final story, "Lucrezia Borgia" tells the rather infamous tale of Pope Alexander VI and his rather un-Christian like attraction to his daughter.
The stories in Immoral Tales are undoubtedly disturbing and often explicit but they are not without their artistry. Beautifully shot and told, Borowczyk does have something to say between the violence and nudity. For example, in the first tale he intertwines the images of sex with the rolling tide demonstrating the curious symbiosis between nature and mankind. And in the second he’s clearly questioning the hold religion has over our sexuality. He’s using controversial images to ask larger questions about ourselves.
But let's not get carried away here, he’s also giving us lots of titillation for the sake of titillation. "The Beast" is the best example of this as its not much more than furry pornography. The film suffers for it and it's easy to see why it was initially removed (beyond the censorship issues).
What does one do when one of the stories in your erotic anthology is torn apart by the censors and you are forced to remove it all together? Why make a full length picture of it of course. This is exactly what Borowczyk did with The Beast in 1975.
Expanding a raunchy bestiality-fueled short into a coherent full-length film must have been difficult and it shows. Borowczyk wisely turns the explicit beast sex scenes into a dream sequence and pushes them to the end of the film. Otherwise, anyone with any sense would have walked out long before the closing credits. Not that what we get at the beginning is much to look at either.
The plot consists of a young woman, Lucy being forced into wedlock with a dim-witted and deformed man named Mathurin in order to receive her inheritance. Muthurin’s people do what they can to make the marriage acceptable (including having him baptized by the local pederast priest) but Lucy and her aunt are not impressed. Upon visiting the estate, Lucy witnesses two horses copulating and a variety of drawings depicting bestiality all of which seem to turn her on. Even more so when she hears the tale of Romilda, who was attacked in the nearby woods by a mythological beast.
The families get drunk and Lucy dreams she is raped, and ravaged by the beast until she begins to like it. The scenes with the beast are lifted wholesale from Immoral Stories but interspersed with scenes of her waking up and wondering if perhaps Mathurin hasn’t been having his way with her while she slept.
Seriously that’s it. The Beast contains none of Immoral Tales artistry nor its interest in the human condition. It's a bit of a chore to get through even with goofy scenes of the servants trying to get it on at every opportunity and that ridiculous beast. It's interesting only in the sense of being curious about how far 1970s erotica was willing to go.
Both Immoral Tales and The Beast come in very nice packages. Immoral Tales looks quite wonderful. The stories were all shot under varying conditions but they look very clear and pretty. The exception being "The Beast," which contains quite a few scratches, but considering it was essentially missing for decades, one can over look that.
The Beast feature likewise looks good. Not as nice as Immoral Tales, but it's mostly clear of debris and scratching and the colors are sharp.
Likewise, both films contain a number of extras including some documentaries about the films and interviews with the director, plus a curious documentary about Borowczyk’s collection of erotic memorabilia.
Immoral Tales is sometimes shocking, and often gratuitous film that nevertheless intrigues the audience and questions our values and thus its well worth searching out. The Beast, however, ought best be left to the bargain bin of your local cult video store. Arrow Films gives them both a terrific release.