The work of Walerian Borowczyk is perhaps not as well known as that of directors he is often said to have influenced or to be a contemporary of: Svankmajer, Oshima, Terry Gilliam and The Brothers Quay. This is at least partly due to the fact that after an extremely successful career as a maker of bizarre animated short films and a number of distinctive live action features, Borowczyk’s work became gradually more and more interested in cinema’s potential for the erotic. In this article, I intend to discuss Borowczyk as an underrated director of live action features (it seems he is still quite highly regarded in animation circles) as his films are undiscovered territory to most modern cinephiles who were not around in his early ’70s critical heyday.
Born in Poland in 1923, Borowczyk studied fine arts before becoming a lithographer (for which he won the Polish prize) and then an animator, often sharing directorial credit with compatriot Jan Lenica. He moved to France in the late ’50s and all of his major works were produced there except The Story of Sin (1975), made in Poland. Always acting as director and screenwriter, and often as editor and art director also, Borowczyk’s Goto, Island of Love (1968), Blanche (1972), Immoral Tales (1974), The Story of Sin (1975) and La Bête (1975) are remarkable for their formal design. Borowczyk’s cinema is one that resists pigeonholing due to his use of many different cinematic styles (juxtaposition is an integral part of his art). His use of music, photography and editing combine, in his best work, to produce a cinematic poetry much more earthy, human and relevant than anything in Tarkovsky’s or Godard’s filmography. His films generally concern the cruel power of obsessional love and the need for sensual pleasure. They depict how a repressive atmosphere can exploit those in it (Blanche) or lead to the abandonment of control (La Bête). They celebrate joy and show outright disgust at misery but are still endowed with an ironic sense of humour.
Before I go deeper into these films’ formal and thematic qualities I feel it is important to give a brief description of them (apologies to those who know them well). Goto, Island of Love was Borowczyk’s first live action feature film, a fable set in a mythical dictatorship. The plot concerns the ruler Goto (Pierre Brasseur)’s wife, Glossia (Ligia Branice, Borowczyk’s wife), and her plan to escape the island with a younger lover. While Goto’s chief flycatcher, shoe polisher and dog tender, Grozo (Guy Saint-Jean) longs for Glossia himself. Blanche and The Story of Sin are records of, in Tony Rayns’ words, “the misfortunes that befall an erotic innocent when she tries for love in a world committed to repressing or exploiting it” (1). Immoral Tales, Borowczyk’s most sexually explicit film at the time of its release, is split into four short stories, each of which breaks a sexual taboo – the loss of virginity, masturbation, bloodlust and incest. It has to be said that Immoral Tales is the least of his first five features, although the striking juxtaposition of sexual activity and religious iconography, an unsensational approach to the material and detached gaze of the camera make it closer to a surrealist text than a pornographic movie. La Bête is a comic farce set in a house of many perversions. The central story involves an historical erotic encounter between a woman and an ape-like beast returning in the dreams of her ancestor.
Each of these films is a lesson in directorial organization; Borowczyk’s utter control of his material is unique in its willingness to juxtapose and resist the dominance of a particular style. The brilliant opening sequence of Blanche uses long shots then quick cuts to close up, hand held and static camerawork. The fact that La Bête‘s narrative includes both a tangible eroticism and cartoon-like playfulness is proof of Borowczyk’s versatility. His attention to isolated objects and decor, photographing them with the same detail as if they were human beings, gives his films a sense of the cruel surroundings in which the characters often find themselves in. The grim interiors of Goto and, in Blanche, the open caskets and boxes full of archaic instruments and objects are good examples of this. The actors Borowczyk chooses for his films are another example of how willing he is to accept contradictions (in this case in performance style) that other directors may not. The theatricality of Pierre Brasseur and Michel Simon alongside the Bressionian flatness of the characters subservient to them is often strange to behold. The casting is often mindful of the actors’ physical attributes, for example, the stiff and imperious face of Brasseur, age and death in Simon, innocence and beauty in Ligia Branice and desperation in Guy Saint-Jean. Indeed it is the real sense of obsessional amour fou in Grozo’s pained expression that makes the ending of Goto, Island of Love so moving. Although a minor note, I have always found the depiction of the military’s force over the powerless interesting in Borowczyk films. The fully covered faces of the soldiers arrival with the king in Blanche or arresting Elizabeth Bathory in Immoral Tales seem very convincing despite the inability to see the actors’ faces, a contrast to all the other characters whose physical characteristics often establish their weakness and humanity.
As mentioned earlier, Borowczyk often cuts his own films, and his editing style is indeed unique. This ‘speed of thought’ editing is often used to startling effect: for example, the quick flashbacks that punctuate Grozo’s encounter with the prostitute in Goto where he fantasises over Glossia. These cuts sometimes present what seems to be the characters’ thoughts (the shot of the shoes cut into the sequence where Grozo receives his new responsibilities). In Blanche (as noted on the inside cover notes of the UK video release), the scenario is set up in the three cuts that form the credit sequence. First, the medieval chateau where the action is set, then a shot of a caged dove that Blanche keeps as a pet and then Blanche herself stepping from her bath. From this, one can ascertain that Blanche, like the dove, is a prisoner of the chateau (and as it turns out later, of a marriage and a society which is not interested in her freedom).
If this formal extravagance and these tales of doomed love sound heavy going, the films are lightened by a dark sense of humour. Particularly memorable examples include the mysterious godlike voiceover and horse sounds that accompany the sketches in the second and fourth Immoral Tales respectively, and the bizarre school curriculum in the classrooms of Goto, Island of Love. La Bête’s humour has often been overlooked because of the film’s shocking content; many mainstream critics didn’t even realise it was a farce!
Music in Borowczyk films is always carefully interwoven with the material. He usually draws from the high art canon of classical music (which itself produces interesting juxtapositions with the image), for example, he uses Mendelssohn in The Story of Sin, Handel in Goto and Scarlatti in La Bête. The oft talked about use of a Handel organ concerto helps give Goto an other worldly feel that sustains the believability of such an abstract concept. The striptease through the forest to Scarlatti in La Bête is a brilliant example of shot by shot construction of music and image.
Borowczyk’s post-1975 work is certainly more uneven than his work prior. La Marge (1976) is let down by poor performances and a clumsy narrative. Behind Convent Walls (1977) is a rather uninteresting and standard soft-porn story set in a convent, only enlivened in musical interludes where the editing and shot compositions combine to good effect, a nice touch of blasphemy and an a echo of that Borowczyk ironic humour. Heroines of Evil (1978) and Lulu (1980) (Borowczyk’s version of Wedekind’s play) are extremely hard to find copies of. The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Miss Osborne (1980) is notable for a dark unsettling poetry, stylish visuals and shock ending. Maybe not the equal of the earlier films but still thematically and visually a superior horror movie. I have not seen any of his films post 1980, and the critical consensus is that only Love Rites (1987) is of real interest.
If I have sounded overly positive and less than critical in this article it is only because Borowczyk’s work is so undervalued. He certainly deserves mention in cinema history for his formal innovation and bizarre imagination that is willing to tackle many subjects more ‘respectable’ directors would not touch. He is certainly more of an auteur than many directors who undeservedly receive that label. His personal obsessions, idiosyncratic editing, shooting style and dark wit recur in every film he has made. I would recommend Borowczyk to anyone who seeks the wonders of a true original of cinema; his filmography is full of many weird and beautiful delights. In my opinion, Goto, Island of Love, Blanche and The Story of Sin are at the forefront of ’70s cinema.