Immoral Tales (French: Contes immoraux) is a 1973 French anthology film directed by Walerian Borowczyk. The film was Borowczyk’s most sexually explicit at the time. The film is split into four erotic-themed stories that involve the loss of virginity, masturbation, bloodlust, and incest.
After the release of Immoral Tales, Borowczyk began to fall out of favor with film critics. Modern critical reception to the film is that it is not one of Borowczyk’s strongest works.
The film is separated into four stories. The first story involves André (Fabrice Luchini), who takes his 16-year-old cousin (played by Lise Danvers) to the beach to perform fellatio on him in tune to the waves of the incoming tide. The second story is titled Thérése Philosophe and involves a teenage country girl (Charlotte Alexandra) who intermingles sexual desires in her imagination with her dedication to Christ after being locked in her room. The third story features Elizabeth Báthory (Paloma Picasso) as a countess who murders young girls in order to gain eternal youth by bathing in their blood and a girl (Marie Forså) putting pearls inside her vagina. The final story involves the daughter of Pope Alexander VI, Lucrezia Borgia (Florence Bellamy), having sex with her male relatives.
By 1972, Walerian Borowczyk was known predominantly for his various short films which were made to support feature-length releases. Borowczyk’s feature films had made very little income from their theatrical releases while short films were not in demand as much as supporting features in cinemas. At this time, Borowczyk met with producer Anatole Dauman, who suggested that because France’s film censors had relaxed the laws concerning censorship, Borowczyk should make an erotic feature to gain an audience.
The film’s stories are taken from various sources, including surrealist writers and poets. The first story in the film is taken from surrealist writer André Pieyre de Mandiargues. The title of the second story is taken from an anonymous sacrilegious novel from the 18th century. The third story is a re-telling of the case of Elizabeth Báthory from the study of surrealist poet Valentine Penrose.
A fifth story in the Immoral Tales was originally planned, but was taken out of the film and developed into the feature film La Bête (1975).
In 1974, Immoral Tales won the Prix de L’age D’or, an award intended to commemorate the spirit of surrealism. After the release of Immoral Tales, Borowczyk began to fall out of favor with film critics. New York Magazine wrote an unfavourable review, referring to the film as “episodic and disjointed, but also written with a great deal of stupidity” and describing the story-telling, directing, acting and photography in the film as “wretched.”
Among modern reviews, Allrovi gave the film three stars out of five, feeling that first two stories did not work as well as the second two as well as saying that it was Borowczyk’s move from “art house material and toward softcore; as such, the material displays its director’s characteristic intelligence but lapses into exploitation a little too often.” In an overview of Borowczyk’s work in the film magazine Senses of Cinema, Immoral Tales is referred to as his weakest amongst his first five feature films and that “an unsensational approach to the material and detached gaze of the camera make it closer to a surrealist text than a pornographic movie.” David Kehr wrote a review for the Chicago Reader praising that the film “contains some very elegant images” but compared it negatively to Borowczyk’s followup Story of a Sin, which Kehr proclaimed “avoided the trap of superficiality by adopting an ironic mode. Here, he seems entirely too sincere—and more than a little dull.”
In his 2014 review for The Guardian, Peter Bradshaw praises the film, citing the influence of Ken Russell and Pasolini.