Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger will never look at Little Bunny Fu Fu the same way again.
"Right now we consider ourselves 'The Criterion of Smut,' but by this time next year Criterion will be known as 'The Severin of Pretension.'"—John Cregan, Severin Films
The problem with most erotica is that it doesn't take risks. Like uptight couples who have fallen into a rut of "missionary style, in the bedroom, lights off," erotic movies tend to favor the same basic shots of the same basic action in the same basic lighting.
Walerian Borowczyk takes risks. This can be a problem. It's easy to admit you like movies where oiled-up, blonde triplets gang up on regular guys during a crazy party. No one will blame you for liking that one with the line-crossing cop going undercover to find out whether the good wife or the naughty housemaid did the nylon stocking job in the boardroom. But when you admit to being turned on by a scathing social satire featuring a werewolf-like plushie with a goo-spewing phallus, you're in murky waters. And that's how Walerian Borowczyk rolls.
Facts of the Case
Three women with unlikely lovers leave seven corpses in their wake during these bedroom tales:
Margherita (featuring Borowczyk muse Marina Pierro) centers a bawdy tale of Renaissance love gone awry. Lusty Margherita falls in with the Bishop's favorite painter, becoming his model and lover. Either role has her prancing about in diaphanous, easily removable clothes, which arouses the cretinous son of the local moneylender. Margherita plays the painter and the banker against each other until the game turns deadly.
Marceline (Gaëlle Legrand, Heads or Tails) has simple needs: grass, sunshine, and lots of free time with her pet bunny. Her class-conscious, uptight parents are appalled at Marceline's free-spirited ways. They conspire with the maid to teach Marceline a lesson. When they do, Marceline dishes out her own hot, bloody revenge.
Modern-day Marie (Pascale Christophe, Disneyland) seems like a nice enough wife. She's kidnapped outside of a bookstore by a sharpshooting rapist. Is her husband doing enough to save Marie? Or will her nice pooch Cujo…er, Cesar…have to rescue her?
Though it doesn't reach the insane, werewolf-phallus-spewing heights of Borowczyk's opus La Bête (The Beast), Immoral Women is plenty depraved enough to give any erotica fan pause. In my opinion, such moral excess is a necessary component of great erotica. If there's nothing objectionable in the plot, there's no illicit thrill. At the same time, you don't want your eyeballs seared with horrific psychosexual imagery, nor want to stamp a first class ticket to Hell (payable as soon as breath leaves your porn-loving body).
Walerian Borowczyk straddles that delicate divide with rare skill.
His opening tale features the odd murder and ocular dismemberment, but otherwise is a joyous, lusty tale of Renaissance-era pratfalls. It's all there, from depraved Bishops fronting cold cash for secret lust chambers to nude male models suspended for long periods of time in awkward, gravity-defying, Cirque Du Soleil-like poses. Okay, so that's not the erotic part. For eroticism, look no further than saucy tart Margherita, played by the beguiling Marina Pierro. Her face is refined, yet unmistakable sin smirks behind it.
Borowczyk takes an unorthodox approach to filming Pierro. The short has a gauzy, ethereal air with sparkling gold and vivid reds set against a backdrop of gossamer whites and golds. Pierro's dark hair and olive skin stand out against this backdrop. Borowczyk shows her nude, but not gratuitously so. At the same time, he highlights her earthy, carnal nature through precise framing. For example, one sex scene is shot almost entirely in a tight closeup on Pierro's hip. Her hip cocks in the frame, jaunty and inviting, then slowly bends horizontal over a granite table. Her hip moves back and forth to reveal her gauze-covered bottom; the gauze is slowly lifted upward while the pace increases. Strictly speaking, all we see is a side view of a hip. Yet Borowczyk turns this staid shot into a lewd reveal that is more erotic than a wider view would have been.
While Margherita is a masterwork of the gauzy, soft-focus school of erotica, Marceline is more explicit. For one thing, Gaëlle Legrand wastes no time getting naked and staying naked, and Borowczyk's depiction of her curves and hollows is breathtaking. For all its forthright nudity, however, Marceline is a nasty tale of repression, bestiality, murder, and revenge.
Where Margherita is a subtle condemnation of the church, Marceline is a scathing stab at bourgeois culture. The surreal, exaggerated failings of Marceline's shrill mother and crude father evoke similar feelings as François Ozon's Sitcom (which not coincidentally is another French satire of bourgeois culture juxtaposed against shocking carnality). When the trio of Marceline's parents and housekeeper craft their cruel prank, they bubble over with high-pitched glee that is as taught as a piano wire. Marceline literally rips that laughter out of their throats; one cannot help but interpret the symbolic swipe at society.
But that's not what we're here to talk about. No, you're probably more interested in the voluptuous woman and her bunny. The scene is painted so well you can smell the freshly cut grass and feel the nibbly whiskers moving up Marceline's thighs. I'm not a bestiality man myself, but again Borowczyk's masterful camerawork makes all the difference. He twists otherwise unappealing shots into high erotica.
Bestiality isn't the only vice in this grim short, however. There's a violent black man raping a white virgin, disembowelings, menstrual blood, and lots of death. This tale of an immature young woman and her erotic fixation on the bunny spirals so out of control that I was left reeling.
In contrast to the sultry first short and the scathing second, the third short in this trio seems like an afterthought. Marie is unmemorable, ill-focused, and never makes much of a point. The only thing it has going for it is brief nudity from a one-time Disney actress, so people with a naughty Disney fetish will have something to hold onto.
Marie's shortcomings highlight similar flaws in the preceding chapters. Each segment suffers from unclear editing that makes the story hard to grasp. Even the clearest middle chapter has gaps in logic and narrative that take a few moments to recover from. If Walerian Borowczyk is a masterful eroticist, he is a less successful narrator and his themes get buried at times. It's a small price to pay for his loving eye and audacity.
Severin's DVD treatment is up to the material. When I first encountered Severin in the form of Jess Franco's Mansion Of The Living Dead, I was decidedly unimpressed. The U-turn with this release is absolute. Borowczyk's ethereal camerawork is captured on a sparkling transfer with plenty of detail. Reds threaten to weep in one particularly challenging sequence, but the threat is likely inherent in the film stock. Otherwise, Immoral Women is a visual feast. The audio has some minor distortion, but never enough to make the track stand out. Music and dialogue subtly reinforce the electric happenings onscreen. The best part is an English track that gets those pesky subtitles out of the way.
The extras don't seem like much on the surface: a trailer and director bio. Yet the trailer is haunting and Richard Harland Smith's bio is comprehensive. It was several pages of well-written prose detailing the director's early career as an illustrator and through the tribulations he suffered to become a notorious director of erotica. All told, I'm willing to buy Severin's 'The Criterion of Smut' claim.
Good erotica infects you with a feverish rapture. Borowczyk's subversive images, fetishistic eye for the naked human form, and willingness to push the boundaries of narrative into surreal satire and farce are infectious. His stories don't always unfold smoothly, but his tactile camerawork and twisted sensibility make up for it. This DVD is definitely worth picking up if eurotica is your cup of tea.
These women are found guilty of delicious moral transgressions.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Severin Films
• Theatrical Trailer
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