Walerian Borowczyk (1923-2006) was a Polish filmmaker who was, in the early years of his career, the creator of astounding stop-motion animations. Nightmarish and surreal in nature, animated short films such as Renaissance (1963) and Jeux des anges (1964) brought Borowczyk critical acclaim in the rarefied world of avant-garde filmmaking. Commercial success, however, eluded him until his venture into live-action cinema with his infamous art-house-meets-softcore films of the 1970’s. A consummate provocateur, Borowczyk challenged his audience with Contes immoraux (‘Immoral Tales’, 1974) and La bête (‘The Beast’, 1975) — films which some critics derided as “contentless pornography” due to their wholesale preoccupation with nudity and sexuality. While the charge of “pornography” is not entirely unwarranted, I would maintain that Borowczyk’s meticulously-detailed set design, careful art direction and signature surreal style elevate films such as Contes immoraux from mere “sexploitation” to softcore cinema with considerable artistic merit.
Now, don’t get me wrong — from a straightforward “is this movie good or not?” perspective, Borowczyk’s Contes immoraux is not an especially good film. What dialogue there is — and there’s mercifully little — is completely inane. The action is glacially slow, due in part to a camera that lingers incessantly over the bushy nether regions of naked girls. It is ironic, then, that as a purely softcore film Contes immoraux also falters. By the standards of contemporary pornography, Borowczyk’s film is rather too tame to satisfy current erotic appetites. It’s all breasts, bums and bush, and precious little sex. Thus, we are left with a paradoxical film that is neither artful enough for the art-house, nor raunchy enough to function as pornography.
What the films of Borowczyk do possess, however, are stunning visuals that perfectly synthesize elements of the erotic with the grotesque. Given his early animations, which were bizarre and nightmarish, it is not at all surprising that Borowczyk would continue his exploration of the grotesque in later work like Contes immoraux and La bête. A primary example of this is the Erzsébet Báthory segment of Contes immoraux, the third and most accomplished segment of his four-part erotic anthology. Set in 1610, this segment stars Paloma Picasso (the daughter of Pablo) in the role of Countess Elizabeth Báthory, the notorious 15th-century Hungarian noblewoman legendary for her cruelty and sadism. Amongst her many reputed atrocities were the infamous ‘bloodbaths’, in which the Countess would soak in her victim’s blood in order to retain her youth and beauty. Borowczyk downplays the savagery of the Báthory legend, and instead offers up a positively demure Countess. The segment opens with the round-up of the nearby village girls by the Countess’s henchmen. The next several minutes are dedicated to extended scenes of the girls bathing and generally frolicking in the shower stalls of the Báthory castle. There’s virtually no dialogue, focusing all of our attention on the sumptuous colour palette and beautifully-composed camera shots. After the frivolity of the showers, the naked girls are lead en masse into a large bedchamber. Elizabeth Báthory reappears, wearing a gossamer white dressing-gown, adorned with lace and pearls. The crowd of girls approach the Countess and stroke her pearl-encrusted gown admiringly. Rapidly, however, the scene transforms from sultry to savage, as the girls begin to violently tear at the dress, ripping it to shreds. They fight amongst each other over the pearls that fall, and the once sexy scene of nubile young girls turns into a bloody, animal rampage.
The scene quickly cuts to a close-up of the bloodbath of the Countess. The white limbs of Paloma Picasso fill the screen as she luxuriates in her bath, twisting back and forth in the frothy red. The heightened aestheticism, with the rich, vibrant red blood against white skin, cleverly undercuts the grotesque/horror aspects of the ‘bloodbath’ and the mass-murder that occurred (off-screen) in the previous scene.
The films of Walerian Borowczyk are not widely available, but cinephiles and film geeks can likely find these in the better “alternative” video stores or at midnight screenings in rep cinemas.