The Walerian Borowczyk Collection
Reviewed by Travis Miles
Love Rites/Cérémonie d’amour
Produced by Philippe Guez; directed by Walerian Borowcyzk; written by Walerian Borowczyk and Andre Pieyre de Mandiargues; edited by Florence Poulain, Guila Salama, Lili Sonnet, Marie-Helene Zirisch; cinematography by Gerard Monceau, Jean-Paul Sergent, Michel Zolat; music by Johann Sebastian Bach; starring Marina Pierro and Mathieu Carriere. Color, 90 mins./100 mins., 1988.
The Beast/La Bête
Produced by Anatole Dauman; written, directed, and edited by Walerian Borowczyk; cinematography by Bernard Daillencourt, Marcel Grignon; music by Domenico Scarlatti; starring Sirpa Lane and Lisbeth Hummel. Color. 97 mins., 1975.
Goto, Island of Love/Goto Lile d’amour
Produced by Louis Duchesne, Rene Thevenet; written and directed by Walerian Borowczyk; edited by Charles Bretoneiche; cinematography by Guy Durban; music by Georg Friedrich Handel; starring Pierre Brasseur and Ligia Branice. Black and White/Color, 93 mins. 1968
All titles distributed by Cult Epics, www.cultepics.com.
“However enjoyable love may be, it is enjoyable more for the ways through which it manifests itself, than for itself alone.”—La Rochefoucauld
Taken as a sort of manifesto on erotic art, La Rochefoucald’s quotation suitably encapsulates the artistic concerns of the late, controversial Polish/French director Walerian Borowczyk. Borowczyk, who died in 2003, used the quotation as the epigram to a pivotal film in his career, his first truly ‘erotic’ work, Immoral Tales (1974). Never one to shy away from the explicit, at the same time he refused to present sexuality as simple or purely carnal. For this misunderstood, or at least mislabeled artist, sex is an engine that propels the bizarre mechanism of human sociality, and he is fascinated with its trappings, its effects, its attendant rituals. Borowczyk is interested in the corset rather than the breast, the shoe rather than the foot, the antique sex toy rather than the genitals.
Borowczyk’s stylistic fetishism found its first expression in the graphic arts. He studied painting at the Academy of Fine Arts in Cracow, and as his reputation as a film-poster designer grew, he decided to translate his esthetic into animated short films, which quickly became celebrated fixtures of the international film festivals and cine clubs that flourished in Europe in the 50’s and 60’s. Often made with the collaboration of Jan Lenica, another Polish graphic designer who was to become one of the greatest surrealist animators, Borowcyk’s short films ran the gamut of modernist technique. Collage, stop-motion, traditional cel animation, and reverse-motion photography were employed toward the same esthetic end, the destabilization of quotidian environments, and a menacing focus on hermetic ritual. Objects are alive because of the systems we impose on them, inscribing their existence with private ceremonies of utility and decay—a teacup, an orange, a wig.
As an animator, Borowczyk can be seen to be the progenitor of an esthetic school that includes not only Jan Svankmajer and the Brothers Quay, but also a legion of MTV-associated animators such as Alex Proyas and Fred Stuhr. But perhaps the most notable inheritor of one of Borowczyk’s methods is (self-admittedly) Terry Gilliam, who used a rudely photo-collaged Borowczykian technique for the segue sections of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. The Astronauts (1959), included as an extra on the disc of Goto, Island of Love, is filmed in this collaged style and is rather lighter than his usual subjects, no doubt due to the influence of the perennially witty Chris Marker, who contributed a loose scenario to the project. An attic inventor builds a spaceship out of newspaper, taking his pet owl on a nocturnal adventure through an outer space populated by enormous hats and sleeping drunks. The villain of the piece, a reoccurring laughing red face, is the film’s producer, Anatole Dauman, a little-known but important figure in French film. Dauman, producer of films as diverse but epochal as Hiroshima, mon amour, Masculin feminin, La Jetee, and Ai No Corrida, provided the backing for Borowczyk’s most ambitious and controversial projects, Immoral Tales and The Beast.
In a telling moment of Borowczyk’s first feature film, the animated Theatre de Monsieur et Madame Kabal (1967), a pitch-black absurdist comedy heavily influenced by Jarry’s Ubu plays, Madame Kabal cajoles Borowczyk himself into the film and tries to seduce him. He responds with nervous fear to this grotesque invitation, as if realizing that the brutal sensuality of his animated subjects was only a replacement for the flesh itself. Borowczyk’s next film was Goto, Island of Love (1968). The monochromatic Goto is very much a live-action film as envisioned by an animator, a technique echoed in Institute Benjamenta by the Brothers Quay, who have ranked Goto as one of their primary influences. All of the mechanistic, hermetic qualities of the animated shorts are present, and the human figures do not so much act as provide the bodies for a series of arcane and ludic set pieces.
The Island of Goto is, like Kafka’s penal colony, a self-contained, totalitarian nation, ruled by an all-powerful Governor. All individuals on Goto have names that begin with the letter “G” and are forced into obscure social practices that reinforce sterility and hierarchy. The catalyst that will cause the erosion of the society is the sexual jealousy that surrounds the Governor’s wife Glossia (Borowczyk’s actual life-partner Ligea Branice). Glossia is lusted after by both a soldier and Grozo, a convict who dreams of her in color. When the soldier is killed, Glossia commits suicide to avoid Grozo’s advances. Most of Borowczyk’s esthetic is to be found in Goto—voyeurism, onanism, a deliberate focus on objects, sex-unto-death, and the confinement of the body. It is a remarkable debut.
After Goto, Borowczyk made what many consider to be his masterpiece, the medieval court drama Blanche (1971). The film is essentially a Rube Goldberg mechanism wherein the first evidence of sexual feeling will lead inexorably to death. Although the films that follow expand on this death/sex duality in increasingly fascinating ways, Borowczyk’s decision to include imagery normally deemed pornographic caused a scandal, and then precipitated a startling decrease in his critical standing.
Immoral Tales was Borowczyk’s first extreme exhibition of his interest in exploring sexual ritual on-screen; The Beast (1975) proved to be more abidingly controversial, and as such is seen as the true turning point of his career. Culled from a segment of the originally longer Immoral Tales (which had been screened at the London Film Festival in 1973 as an unfinished work), The Beast is undeniably sensationalist, including bestiality, priestly pedophilia, interracial sex, masturbation, and the suggestion of incest in its somehow rather languorous ninety-six-minute running time. The film is also undeniably poetic, however, rivaling Buñuel and Bataille in its employment of sensational elements that to generate an oneiric tissue of suggestion and correspondence.
Borowczyk expanded on his short film by concocting a framing story involving the introduction of Lucy, a young Englishwoman, into a French family of somewhat mysterious ill repute. The film begins with an extraordinary sequence of mating horses, composed of close-ups of rolling eyes, throbbing genitals, flaring nostrils, and steamy hides. It is an extraordinary and somewhat brutal opening. The young scion of the French family, Mathurin de l’Esperance, watches the horses with pointed but not lascivious interest. Later, we learn that the untamed but gentle Mathurin may or not be the bearer of an ancient curse that turns its victim into a beast. As Mathurin’s father, the Marquis de l’Esperance, tries to secure the blessing of a Vatican Cardinal, a relative, for the union of Mathurin and Lucy, Lucy herself is having increasingly erotic fancies involving the household legend.
The kernel of The Beast—and its original, shorter, manifestation—is a florid fantasy of complicit rape. Couched in the feature film as Lucy’s fantasy, it is split into three parts that span the film’s final third. An aristocratic woman is playing the harpsichord in her summer pavilion when she notices that a lamb has escaped from her yard. Chasing it into the woods, she stumbles upon a legendary beast, who has devoured the lamb and is now intent on ravaging her person. A lengthy chase ensues, during which the lady loses all of her clothes but a corset, and the viewer is introduced to the beast’s prodigious phallus and his useless struggle against premature ejaculation. The frenetic harpsichord music of Domenico Scarlatti plays continually. When the beast eventually corners mademoiselle, she surrenders, only to find the true beast aroused inside herself. She begins to respond over-enthusiastically, eventually fucking the beast to death.
This sequence is undoubtedly the litmus test of Borowczyk’s mature esthetic. It is, all at once, ridiculous, elegant, gratuitous, erotic, and questionable. One feels these qualities not in sequence or one by one, but in a single delirious mélange. It is far too composed to be exploitative, and too culturally outlandish to be bluntly pornographic; but it is suggestive, and it is disturbing. Without doubt, it’s certainly singular filmmaking.
After The Beast, Borowczyk was perceived to have hit rock bottom, while in reality he continued to produce troubling, masterful, and increasingly gorgeous works that continued to combine the hodgepodge of affects described above. Films like La Marge (1976) and Dr. Jekyll and the Women (1981) are exciting accomplishments, mining the same vein of art and eroticism as Harry Kumel and André Delvaux. Dr. Jekyll, in particular, clearly anticipates works by Claire Denis (Trouble Every Day) and Gaspar Noé (I Stand Alone). The Borowczyk-like protagonist of Bertrand Bonello’s The Pornographer, once a serious director and now forced to make low-production-value porn, dreams of completing his pet project, a fantasy film that appears virtually identical to The Beast.
Love Rites (1988) is a more decisive return to form, and is certainly not the backward-looking flop that some reviewers found it to be on its release. Instead, the film now seems a Rosetta stone for the frank, sexual, and violent focus of much recent French cinema. In tone and theme quite similar to Catherine Breillat’s Anatomy of Hell, Love Rites is also markedly reminiscent of Haneke’s The Piano Teacher and Bruno Dumont’s Twentynine Palms. Not since Blanche had Borowczyk so clearly linked the sex drive with the being-unto-death at the heart of human motivations. Based on a novel by Borowczyk’s frequent collaborator, the French surrealist novelist Andre Pieyre de Mandiargues, Love Rites is one of his strongest, most unified films. Marina Pierro, a Visconti discovery who became a Borowczyk regular in his late career, is revelatory as a Parisian streetwalker who seduces a conceited and bookish esthete, Hugo (Euro-sleaze regular Mathieu Carriere), in the metro. The film is strikingly modern, displacing Borowczyk’s customary focus on antiquities and objects (although these remain) with fluid and engaging location shooting, and a surfeit of dialog. For the first half of the film, the couple flirt, chat, and play at being tourists, moving from the metro to the street to an empty church, as if in a Desplechin film.
This breeziness is a set-up for the claustrophobia of the second half, as Pierro takes her prey to a specially-appointed love shack in an upscale apartment building. At first surrendering herself to Hugo’s desires, she slowly begins to turn the tables; telling him of the brothel’s cruel Cambodian man servant, and of her own subservience to the mysterious Sara Sand. As her tales become more and more threatening, she eventually fits a series of metal talons to her fingers, and proceeds to shred her victim’s skin at the same time as his masculine bravado. Turned out and violated, Hugo moves like a sleepwalker toward the inevitable conclusion of his adventure.
Cult Epics have produced a remarkable DVD box set that serves as both a suitable overview of Borowczyk’s career and a fine collector’s item for the burgeoning fetishist. The set includes not only four extraordinary films, but a collection of four glossy postcards so that the buyer can add to their own “collection particulière.” The discs themselves provide above-average transfers (a miracle for this material) and informative essays on each film. There is, however, one caveat… The disc of The Beast has severe timing problems with its English subtitles, which disappear altogether for the most of the film and reappear out of sync in the final ten minutes. This forces the English speaker to resort to the English-dubbed soundtrack, not altogether a disaster, but a mode that reinforces the film’s few weaknesses. Its qualities survive, but how are we to take a character seriously when a voice actor does not?
One can only hope that this collection will begin both a renewed and reevaluated interest in Borowczyk’s career. While there are murmurs that Cult Epics may release an essential collection of Borowczyk’s animations and shorts (which will undoubtedly be an event when it does emerge), I am also holding my breath for humane editions of Borowczyk’s bona fide masterpieces Blanche, Dr. Jekyll and the Women, and the stunning La Marge.
Copyright © 2006 by Cineaste Magazine, Inc.