Tuesday, July 28, 2015


Walerian Borowczyk, 1981
Starring: Udo Kier, Marina Pierro, Patrick Magee, Howard Vernon, Clement Harari

Dr. Henry Jekyll and his beautiful fiancee, Miss Fanny Osbourne, hold a party in his home to celebrate their impending union. Just before the party begins, a raped and murdered girl is found outside the house, which foreshadows things to come. The stuffy guests, lulled into complacency with food, drink, and discussions of their own importance, soon find themselves under siege by an alien-looking figure — Mr. Hyde — who rapes, tortures, and murders his way through the house. It seems that Jekyll has discovered a chemical formula that unleashes the beast within and Jekyll transforms back and forth into Hyde, while searching the house for objects of his desire — particularly the lustful Miss Osbourne.

Director Walerian Borowczyk’s only film that could truly fit into the horror genre is this masterpiece, a bizarre, phantasmagorical delight. With a score from avant-garde composer Bernard Parmegiani and some impressionistic cinematography from Borowczyk’s regular collaborator, Noël Véry, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne is both the culmination of Borowczyk’s themes and his last great work. This French-West German coproduction is based on The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but is one of the few filmic adaptations of this famous horror tale to recreate Robert Louis Stevenson’s many moments of violence and sexual terror.

Though the producers gave the film the title Docteur Jekyll et les femmes (Dr. Jekyll and the women), there is only really one femme of importance here — Fanny Osbourne — which is reflected in the title Borowczyk desired, Le cas étrange de Dr.Jekyll et Miss Osbourne. Like his earlier films, Borowczyk focuses on female sexuality, particularly in it escaping the bounds of restrictive bourgeois society. Here Fanny as shown to be aroused by Jekyll — their passionate kissing in his laboratory suggests a pre-existing sexual relationship — but this smooth, charming scientist is played with aplomb by the handsome Udo Kier (one of the few actors I know of to play Dracula, Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll, and Jack the Ripper), so I can’t really blame her. Marina Pierro, who stars as Fanny, was one of Borowczyk’s two muses and the director often captured some fantastic representations of unrestrained sexuality when she was on screen.

Fanny and some of the film’s other female characters are perhaps inexplicably aroused by the alien-like Hyde. With a shaved head, dilated pupils, and an enormous (almost comical) penis, he’s a terrifying figure and a welcome departure from Hollywood’s traditional depictions of an ape-like, devolved Hyde. Here he suggests an unsettling sort of evolution and the film’s gloriously Sadeian elements imply that sexual freedom is inherently violent, chaotic, and asocial. Though I think Kier could have commanded the role (just look at him in Flesh for Frankenstein), Gérard Zalcberg (Jess Franco’s Faceless) is brilliant and, like the beast in Borowczyk’s La bête, is a convincing combination of monstrosity and all-consuming sexuality.

Compared to all of Borowczyk’s other films, this is the most closely related to the little seen Lulu, which features Udo Kier as Jack the Ripper in the film’s final scene and is another adaptation of a Victorian-era text. Like Dr. Jekyll, Lulu is concerned with a morally uninhibited character (the titular Lulu) violently rupturing the constraints of Victorian society. Like Lulu’s lovers, all of whom are driven to death soon after having sex with her, several of Hyde’s victims are willing participants in his rituals of sex and slaughter. But what that film lacks in sex and violence, Dr. Jekyll delivers in spades, challenging the viewer at every turn.

But this is more than a horror film. Like Pasolini’s Teorema or Buñuel’s Exterminating Angel, this is also a social farce. Borowczyk mocked Victorian sensibilities repeatedly throughout his career, but this theme reached its height here. The characters include uptight family members, a clergyman, and a scientist, and the majority of the film is set inside a small Victorian mansion that is at once labyrinthine and claustrophobic. Mr. Hyde’s rampage reveals scenes full of mirrors, oddly angled doorways, and murky, candlelit chambers.

Obviously The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne will alienate a lot of viewers — including even the staunchest gore fans — but it comes with the highest possible recommendation. And luckily Arrow Video has given it a mind-blowing Blu-ray release, which came out earlier this year. While their box set dedicated to Borowczyk’s earlier career, Camera Obscura, is a thing of collector dreams and fantasies, Dr. Jekyll is actually able to give it a run for its money. In addition to an audio commentary featuring everyone from Borowczyk himself (from archival material) to Noel Very, other crew members, and Daniel Bird, the disc is packed with interviews from stars Udo Keir and Marina Pierro, among others. There are a handful of fascinating featurettes of varying length, short films, and more. If Camera Obscura was the release of 2014, this surely takes the cake for 2015.

And really, the world could do with a few more films that involve a manic running around with a bow and arrow.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Interview with Michael Brooke on Walerian Borowczyk

I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Michael Brooke, a writer, editor, and Blu-ray/DVD producer who has done some great work with Arrow Films and the BFI. Alongside Daniel Bird, he was instrumental in putting together Arrow's fantastic recent Borowczyk set, Camera Obscura, and was kind enough to talk about Arrow's ongoing Borowczyk releases (including some future hopefuls.

Satanic Pandemonium: How did Arrow settle on the titles included in the Camera Obscura set? 

Michael Brooke: The original plan was just to release the titles owned outright by Ligia Borowczyk (his widow aka the star of Goto, Island of Love and Blanche).  In other words, the shorts from Le Concert (1962) to The Phonograph (1969) and the features Theatre of Mr. & Mrs. Kabal and Blanche. But then we discovered that the UK rights had expired on the three Argos features, and Immoral Tales and The Beast were clearly the most attractive titles in the entire collection, so we added those -- and having licensed the features, it made sense to get the shorts too.  Handily, the bulk of the first half of Borowczyk's career is represented by just two rights holders, so it all slotted very neatly into place.

SP: I'm particularly interested in the shorts. It's fantastic to have so many of them together, but what prevented the collection from being complete?

MB: The major omissions are the Polish shorts from 1957-8.  We originally planned to include them, but as of 2013-14 they were only available in standard definition masters, and had been earmarked for restoration by the Filmoteka Narodowa in Warsaw -- so it made sense to wait.  In a completely ideal world, a future Arrow project would be an all-Polish disc with those shorts and his only Polish feature Story of Sin (which is also being restored), but that hasn't been formally green-lit yet.

There are other titles listed in his filmography as "short films", but they're mostly things like Holy Smoke and The Museum -- TV commercials and similar sponsored films made as rent-paying jobs.  It's the six Polish films that are the most important omissions as far as "films de Borowczyk" go.

SP: The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne is an absolutely amazing release. How did Arrow settle on this title and why wasn't it included in the set?

MB: Dr. Jekyll had to be released separately because the project was so expensive to develop in its own right -- we had to go back to the original negative by necessity, since there wasn't a suitable video master. And the only way of justifying the cost was to make it a dual UK/US release, which wasn't true of the box set (Arrow doesn't have the US rights to those titles).  I'm also very glad we waited on that title because it meant that we could pull all the stops out in a way that we simply wouldn't have had time to do if it had been part of the box.  Even as recently as February, I doubted that we'd be able to bring it off with absolutely no compromises, but we managed it!

SP: Can we expect any more Borowczyk releases in the future?

MB: I hope so, but nothing has been formally green-lit as yet.  I'd say the most likely followup would be The Story of Sin and the Polish shorts.  We'd love to do The Margin (aka The Streetwalker) but the rights are a nightmare.  But in all honesty the only title we've absolutely ruled out is Emmanuelle 5 because it's crap (and Borowczyk didn't even direct most of it).

SP: And last, but not least, do you have a favorite Borowczyk film?

MB: I think his most perfectly achieved film is Blanche, but my favourite will always be Dr. Jekyll -- and not just because it was my first.

Thanks Michael! I hope winter 2015 and 2016 will bring plenty more Borowczyk releases from Arrow. If you haven't you should pick up the existing Blu-rays as soon as possible (or as soon as your wallet allows). For more, read Michael's articles about Borowczyk's five best films and 10 great Polish films (plus find more on his Arrow page, linked above) -- he is a fount of knowledge.

Friday, July 24, 2015

LULU (1980)

Walerian Borowczyk, 1980
Starring: Anne Bennent, Michele Placido, Jean-Jacques Delbo

Lulu, a beautiful young girl, is married to a jealous older man who has commissioned a portrait of her. The painter, Schwarz, is obsessed with her and tries to rape her, but she turns the tables and consents to an affair. Her husband discovers the couple in flagrante delicto, has a heart attack, and dies. She marries the increasingly successful painter and inherits her first husband’s wealth, but Lulu continues to sleep around, resulting in the Schwarz’s suicide. Working her way up the food chain, she next marries another older man, Schön, a wealthy newspaper mogul, but also begins having an affair with his son Alwa. Schön confronts her and she kills him (sort of) in self-defense. She goes on the run from the law, falls into poverty, and succumbs to prostitution. Unfortunately, her final client is Jack the Ripper.

Based on the two plays of German writer Frank Wedekind, Erdgeist (1895) aka Earth Spirit and Die Büchse der Pandora (1904) aka Pandora’s Box, Lulu is little more than a forgotten curio in Borowczyk’s career, but it holds a special place in my heart for the sheer fact that it’s an adaptation of Wedekind. While it isn’t as powerful or historically important as G.W. Pabst’s Pandora’s Box (1929) with ingenue Louise Brooks, Borowczyk’s adaptation is much more faithful to the original plays. I can’t pretend that this essay will be pithy or casual, as exactly ten years ago I was busy writing my undergraduate honors thesis on Erdgeist and Die Büchse der Pandora.

In many ways, these plays feel tailor made for Borowczyk, who routinely made films about women rebelling from the shackles of society through sexual expression, which occasionally leads to outright sexual revenge. In his previous work, Immoral Women, a series of women use their sexuality to get revenge on men who would oppress them, but Lulu takes this one step further. She is the architect of her own destruction and stubbornly betrays and cuckolds every man who falls in love with her. On one hand she can be seen as a femme fatale, a sociopathic gold digger and social climber. But her various lovers and husbands do not regard her as a person, rather as a prize to be won, an attractive possession, and status symbol.

From the beginning of Erdgeist, Wedekind routinely presents two contrasting images of Lulu: her sexualized physical body and a portrait of her dressed as Pierrot, a stock clown figure of the Commedia dell’Arte. Pierrot symbolizes innocence and childhood, melancholy, and social freedom. He evolved from an asexual pantomime character into a melancholy being that cuckolds married men, but himself remains a bachelor. Pierrot became an enormously popular figure of nineteenth century art and literature. Explored by painters such as Picasso and Klee, and by poets like Rimbaud and Baudelaire, the figure of Pierrot was a house-hold name by the end of the nineteenth century.

The most popular nineteenth century version of Pierrot, which Wedekind was most familiar with, was the Pierrot adapted by the famous pantomime actor Jean-Gaspard Deburau. In Pierrot: A Critical History of a Mask, Robert F. Storey writes: “Deburau created a stage Pierrot that eclipsed all previous interpreters of the zanni and hung, like a white shade, over most of his pantomimic successors. This actor has often and justly been acknowledged as the godparent of the multifarious, moonstruck Pierrots who gradually found their way into Romantic, Decadent, and Symbolist literature” (94). Storey also writes that Deburau enhances Pierrot’s qualities of freedom and appetite “almost to the point of tragedy” (70). Deburau also gave Pierrot a sense of sadness and a sense of violence and cruelty that Storey describes as “a naïve and clownish Satan” (97). 

Baudelaire wrote that Pierrot was as “pale as the moon, mysterious as silence, supple and mute as the serpent, thin and long as a gibbet.” The poet Gautier described Deburau’s Pierrot in a way that echoes Lulu and the tragedy of Erdgeist and Die Büchse der Pandora: “Is he not the symbol of the human heart still white and innocent, tormented by infinite aspirations toward the higher spheres? The ease with which the blade enters the body of its victim shows how effortless it is to commit a crime, and how a single action can cost us our immortal soul. When Pierrot took the sword, he had no other idea than of pulling a little prank!”

The painting of Lulu as Pierrot also calls to mind tropes of French and Italian comedy: costumes, masks, artifice,  pantomime, physical farce, and sexual comedy. In some ways, Erdgeist is a perversion of classical French and Italian comedy, where foul-tempered, controlling husbands are frequently cuckolded, abased, and made foolish. Like Beaumarchais’ revolutionary French comedy, The Marriage of Figaro (1786), a bourgeois household actively works toward the ruination of the dictatorial husband. Schön, in an equivalent role, is put in a situation straight out of French comedy when he confronts Lulu in a room that conceals a series of friends and lovers hiding behind furniture. In The Sexual Circus: Wedekind's Theatre of Subversion, Elizabeth Boa writes, “The logic of farce where every table, screen, or curtain conceals another lover is the logic of the nightmare in Schön’s head” (85).

Borowczyk loved to skewer Victorian attitudes about sexuality, which he did in nearly all of his films and Wedekind’s two plays unite powerful sexual themes also present in the work of his contemporaries. Like Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), a highly symbolic portrait is tied up with the protagonist’s fate and gives evidence of a sharp moral decline. Like Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House (1879), the female protagonist is little more than her husband’s doll for the first half of the story, playing dress up, dancing, and acting like a little girl in a sexualized adult body. The male characters of Lulu and Wedekind’s plays are all Victorian stock types — a conservative professor (the same type that would later be ruined in Sternberg’s 1930 film The Blue Angel, based on the 1905 novel Professor Unrat), an emotionally unstable artist, a wealthy business man, and a naive young lover — that are not only cuckolded, but also killed.

Like The Beast and episodes of his erotic anthologies Immoral Tales and Immoral Women, Lulu is a period piece set at in fin de siecle Europe. It is a somewhat unsatisfying bridge between two of his best films also set in this time, The Story of Sin (1975) and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne (1981). The Story of Sin also follows a young woman through turn of the century Europe, where she leaves her bourgeois family behind to pursues a lover. This results in a tragic fall from grace — albeit a more sympathetic one than Lulu’s — and she turns into a murderess and prostitute. Lulu sadly lacks this emotional depth. While Borowczyk tightens up Wedekind’s two plays, presenting the entire story as five acts, much of his signature style is absent in favor of lengthy stretches of exposition and a boxed in, stagey feeling.

And like The Story of Sin and another of my favorites, La marge, the end of Lulu relates the tragic ending of an unhappy prostitute, but Borowczyk again loses mileage with the final scenes. Udo Kier (who would return to star in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne) is given a few scant minutes on screen as Jack the Ripper, the client who claims Lulu's life in a poorly lit and visually underwhelming scene. This is a depressing contrast to the end Die Büchse der Pandora, where all Lulu’s lovers are dead or ruined and she becomes so desperate for attention that she has turned to prostitution and eventually offers herself for free to the last man that will have her: Saucy Jack. 

This results in Jack the Ripper disemboweling her and taking her uterus as a trophy. Her body that was so desired in Erdgeist is now cut up and cast aside as a heap of bloody trash alongside the bodies of her last husband, Schön’s young son, and her exploitative father. While the appearance of a serial killer may seem trite, or even random, keep in mind that Wedekind was one of the earliest writers to include Jack the Ripper in fiction — the Whitechapel killings occurred in 1888, just seven years before Erdgeist’s debut. After the heart attack, suicide, and murder of her first three husbands, as well as other deaths, Lulu’s sudden murder at the hands of a psychopathic client provides for an incredibly down beat ending.

The frenzied sexuality and violence of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne — another works based on Victorian literature — is thematically present in Wedekind’s work (not only in the final scene) but is sadly absent from Borowczyk’s film. Though Anne Bennent’s Lulu is frequently nude, the sex is almost clinically soft core and lacks the sense of eroticism found in Borowczyk’s other films. Perhaps the most perverse element is the fact that Lulu’s husband Schön was played by the amazing Heinz Bennent, Anne's real-life father.

Lulu is not for everyone and will really only attract Borowczyk (or Wedekind) completists, particularly because the moving cabaret song that opens and closes the film has lyrics from Borowczyk himself. The film feels far too staged to compete with The Story of Sin or The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne, despite so many themes in common, and it even pales beside another art house adaptation of a classic play from the same time, Fassbinder’s captivating Nora Helmer. I still think Lulu is worth tracking down — if you can find a version with English subtitles, that is — though hopefully a restoration will come around sooner or later.

Thursday, July 23, 2015


Walerian Borowczyk, 1979
Starring: Marina Pierro, Françoise Quéré, Jean-Claude Dreyfus

This erotic anthology is comprised of three stories about the sexual experiences of different women. The first, “Margherita" follows the painter Raphael and his rise to fame in Rome. He’s aided by his beautiful, but secretly ambitious mistress, the titular Margherita. She is only using Raphael to steal his money, so that she can go off with her real lover in the countryside. She sleeps with one of his wealthy enemies and causes his death, though it looks like an accident. 

In the second story, “Marceline,” a pretty young teenager in turn of the century France loves only her pet rabbit. Her cruel bourgeois parents, trying to make her grow up, kill the rabbit and serve him in a stew for dinner. Marceline gets her revenge by killing them in the middle of the night and then she travels to the slaughterhouse, where she is deflowered by the young butcher, which ends in yet more violence. In the final tale, “Marie,” the wife of a Parisian art gallery owner is improbably kidnapped by a thug on the street. He calls her husband, demanding ransom, but her husband is reluctant to pay the sum (even though he can afford it). Meanwhile, Marie’s dog, an enormous doberman pinscher, is determined to find her.

This follow up to Borowczyk’s first erotic anthology, Immoral Tales, is not a sequel, though the similar titles seems to imply this. While Contes immoraux does translate to “Immoral Tales” or “Immoral Stories,” Immoral Woman’s title is actually Les héroïnes du mal or “Heroines of Evil” with the central characters’ names all cleverly beginning with “M.” Written by Borowczyk and French author André Pieyre de Mandiargues, Borowczyk had previously adapted one of Mandiargues’ novels for La marge. Here the author apparently penned the second tale, “Marceline,” which is the best of the bunch.

I can’t say that I disliked Immoral Women or that it’s in any way a bad film, but it simply doesn’t stand up to previous efforts like The Beast, The Story of Sin, La marge, or Behind Convent Walls. The film’s finest moments are also unable to live up to the best of Immoral Tales, but it still has plenty to offer for seasoned Borowczyk fans and anyone interested in more transgressive ‘70s erotica. “Margherita” has the most elaborate plot, but is overly long at almost 50 minutes. It’s incredibly beautifully shot with a mixture of sex scenes split between a painter studio’s and all kinds of Roman era props and outdoor ruins. Dark haired beauty Marina Pierro is what makes this so compelling and it’s a pleasure to watch her on camera whether she’s stripping off her clothes or quietly scheming.

While I think Borowczyk’s reputation as an exploitative director is misguided, he does have some troubling sexual politics at work in his films — troubling, but oddly liberating. Margherita is an example of the sort of atypical character he seems to favor. She happily consents to be Raphael’s mistress and muse and has sex with others for financial gain — but she isn’t doing this to fulfill any specific masculine fantasy or because she has been driven to prostitution. She actually winds up the short film’s hero (without needing any man to rescue her) and kills two of her sexual partners convincingly enough that it looks like an accident, steals their money, and escapes to the ruins to reunite with her real lover. In other words, she enjoys sex and is able to easily separate it from love — but is a the rare promiscuous female character to also feel love.

The second segment, “Marceline,” succeeds because it is a plenty of visual poetry, black humor, and surrealism. Marceline engages in sex with rabbit, Pinky, who nibbles at her lady bits with she lays in the grass, moaning. Like The Beast, Borowczyk uses themes of bestiality in the second and third tales, where the female protagonists are more devoted to their pets (sexually as well as emotionally) than any other character. The curly haired Gaëlle Legrand is convincing as an Alice in Wonderland type figure who wanders through her bourgeois life totally disconnected and absorbed in her fantasy world. Her parents are comically cruel and their deaths are slightly surprising, but feel justified within the vengeance-fueled universe of Immoral Women.

The film takes a strange twist when Marceline heads to the local slaughterhouse and is deflowered by the young black butcher — similar to The Beast, where a young black servant has a sexual relationship with the daughter of the bourgeois family that employed him. This moment is particularly complicated, because it’s difficult to discern whether Marceline is being raped or has simply put herself in a positive to lose her virginity. She seems to receive a mix of pleasure and pain from the experience — something else it has in common with The Beast, where a woman overcomes her rape by finding it pleasurable (and vanquishes her rapist by making him orgasm to death…).

In “Marie,” the sexual violence is equally troubling, as Marie (Pascale Christophe) is raped by her kidnapper. This does not turn into a moment of pleasure for her, but she honestly seems more put out that her husband is ignoring her than that she’s been attacked. It’s hard to say whether the kidnapper is even really a villain, because he is portrayed as being so over the top and ridiculous — he kidnaps her by standing inside a box on the street, like some sort of Monty Python skit. The husband, who is selfish and passive, has enough money to rescue her immediately, but just drags his heels. Only her dog comes to her aid. It’s a shame that this last segment feels like a tacked on after that. It’s neither as beautiful nor as entertaining as the first two stories.

Immoral Women is visually sumptuous and has plenty of entertaining moments, but it is not among Borowczyk’s best films. Find it on DVD from Severin Films. It comes recommended for hardcore Borowczyk fans and anyone who enjoys erotica, though unlike many films in that genre, Immoral Tales feels like a series of stories that just happen to include sexual elements rather than loose plots shaped around sex scenes — and that’s definitely a positive.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015


Walerian Borowczyk, 1978
Starring: Ligia Branice, Howard Ross, Marina Pierro, Gabriella Giacobbe, Rodolfo Dal Pra, Loredana Martinez

Inside a convent, a dictatorial Mother Superior tightly controls her nuns — or at least attempts to. This loosely plotted film is an adaptation of Stendhal’s novel Roman Walks and spends much of its running time following scantily clad nuns as they succumb to desire. The Mother Superior tries to suppress the girls' inevitable sexuality, frequently catches them in the act, and then punishes them. This is mostly presented as a series of vignettes featuring different ways to misbehave: masturbating with a violin, naughty yoga, a dildo with Jesus's face painted on the end, and so on. There is also a romantic subplot and a murky twist where a disturbed sister poisons several people, including herself.

Walarian Borowczyk is, perhaps, an acquired taste. The type of crowd drawn to his early arthouse films was inevitably alienated by his later erotic works like Immoral Tales and The Beast. And then many cult film fans delighted by those two were perhaps confused by his follow up films, The Story of Sin and La marge, two gloomy, arty classics about doomed love. While he seems to have jumped back on the cult film train with Behind Convent Walls, anyone expecting a run-of-the-mill nunsploitation film is likely to be quite shocked, though hopefully pleased -- though I don't expect anyone to approach the same levels of rapturous enthusiasm that I feel for the film.

Behind Convent Walls is nunsploitation at its core, but it is also so much more. Where some of the genre’s directors like Joe D'Amato focus on the sex, violence, and sacrilegious material inherent in erotic nun movies, Borowczyk somehow transcends this to effectively recycle one of his beloved themes: the inevitably and irresistibility of human sexuality. Like La marge, the film has a deceptively simple plot that conveys a surprising amount of emotion through the passions of some loosely sketched minor characters. With some sort of directorial sorcery, Borowczyk emphasizes the emotional aspect of natural, innocent sexuality seeping (OK, gushing) through the cracks of a disciplined culture like Roman Catholicism -- fittingly, this is his only Italian production -- specifically in the physical and emotional pressure cooker of a convent. 

While the strict Mother Superior does all she can to suppress sexuality and sin in her young charges, the sisters innocently and exuberantly display a talent for fun, mischief and, unsurprisingly, masturbation. What sets Behind Convent Walls apart from other nunsploitation films is that most of these sexual acts are presented as natural, inevitable acts not associated with sin; even more shockingly, they are often committed out of love for Jesus. Yes, you heard me. They whack off for Christ. Which is, I suspect, why Behind Convent Walls has suffered extensively from some damaging censorship. Most Borowczyk retrospectives and film festivals have neglected it, I assume, because of this message. While it is one thing to say that corrupt, evil, immoral, or insane nuns can indulge in sex, it is another thing entirely to say that they commit the same acts in the name of innocence, affection, instinct, and, above all, love for God.

The casting here is also excellent. This marks the final appearance of Borowczyk’s dazzlingly beautiful first muse, his wife Ligia Branice, who is in fine form and gives one of her most lively performances. It’s also Borowczyk’s first time working with actress Marina Pierro, the Italian beauty who would star is most of the films in the second half of his career. Also keep your eyes peeled for cult movie figures like Howard Ross as the priest's charming nephew — he also happens to be the man with the missing finger from New York Ripper. I'm probably the only person who cares about this, but there he is alongside Gabriella Giacobbe (Keoma), Mario Maranzana (Lady of the Camelias), Alex Partexano (And the Ship Sails On, Zeder), and many others.

I'm reviewing the uncut, PAL region 2 disc, though I really hope something better (and fully restored with lots special features) gets released sometime soon. There are some extras here, such as a nice, though too short documentary from some of Borowczyk's biggest fans, most of whom seem to be other film critics. Regardless of the DVD edition, the film comes with the highest possible recommendations and it’s one of my favorites. Though I’m at the point where nearly half of Borowczyk’s catalog is on that list, Behind Convent Walls and I have had a long term romance. Having the opportunity to see it in the theater a few months ago at the Lincoln Center Borowczyk retrospective was one of the highlights of the last five years of my life.

P.S. I’ve seen the film a number of times over the years and I remember a particularly beautiful lesbian sex scene taking place in the convent’s garden. But when I saw the film at the Lincoln Center, it was missing. Did I imagine this? Or just splice in a memory of a scene from another film? If I find the answer, I will let you know.

Monday, July 20, 2015


Walerian Borowczyk, 1976
Starring: Sylvia Kristel, Joe Dallesandro

The improbably named Sigismond Pons is called away from his loving wife, adorable son, and their country abode for business in Paris. While he’s there, he takes in some local color in the form of Diana, a pretty if untrusting prostitute. He repeats his visits with Diana enough that the two develop a sensual romance, until Diana’s jealous pimp intervenes and tragedy strikes in Sigismond’s family life.

One of Borowczyk’s more obscure erotic films, La marge remains unreleased except for a Japanese disc and a bootleg floating around the internet. I didn’t have the opportunity to see it until earlier this year, when it played at the Lincoln Center’s Borowczyk retrospective. It was a late screening that I almost passed up, but I’m relieved I attended, as it’s become one of my favorite Borowczyk films — and probably one of my favorite films in general, though I can't quite explain why I fell so hard and fast in love with it. 

A lot about the film is obviously pleasing. The stunning cinematography from Bernard Daillencourt (The Beast) and an incredible soundtrack — with songs by 10CC, Elton John, and Pink Floyd — alone would make this film worth watching. This is also my favorite casting in any Borowczyk film, with two of the ‘70s most important cinematic sex symbols. Simply the participation of dreamy beautiful Dutch actress Sylvia Kristel was enough for me to want to watch it and, hilariously, her fame from the film Emmanuelle is responsible for La marge’s alternate title of Emmanuelle 77.  Borowczyk did go on to become involved with one of Emmanuelle sequels, a sort of rite of passage for many Eurocult directors, but the less said about that, the better. Sadly it did not involve Kristel, though she later claimed La marge was her favorite experience as an actress.

The film’s second star is Joe Dallesandro, an Andy Warhol protege known for Trash, Flesh for Frankenstein, Blood for Dracula, and many more. He’s subtly snuck into much of ‘70s culture — a line in Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side” refers to him (“Little Joe never once gave it away/ Everybody had to pay and pay”) and the iconic crotch on the cover of the Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers is believed to be his. To be honest, despite his beauty, I was never a huge fan because I found his New York accent incredibly jarring in Flesh for Frankenstein and Blood for Dracula, a double feature of which was my introduction to him. But this French language film did him perhaps the biggest (if underrated) favor of his career: he’s dubbed in French. And after a few viewings of this film, now I’m totally in love.

But the cinematography, soundtrack, and cast don’t quite explain why La marge is so breathtaking. There is something subtle but effective about its mood and tone. Out of all his films, it is the most similar to Borowczyk’s The Story of Sin, another tale of love, longing, and tragedy. While the latter film depicts a series of mistakes, poor decisions, and unrequited love that leads to disaster, there is something stubbornly surreal about La marge, where the tragedy is aimless and almost random. SPOILER: Sigismond receives a letter that his young son has fallen into the family pool and drowned, which resulted in his wife’s suicide by jumping to her death from an observation tower.

This conclusion — which, in a mind-blowing turn, uses parts of “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” — has an air of irony, or perhaps parody about it. Though the film seems to be leading up to a tense, unhappy ending, it is difficult to register the impact of the tragedy and Sigismond’s subsequent violent act. Similarly, at times La marge seems like a parody of the bevy of erotic films being released during the ‘70s: there are countless shots of lingerie, both old and young jaded whores, scenes of prostitutes washing, dressing, or applying makeup, a housekeeper who spies in keyholes, and a violent, controlling pimp who beats Diana for buying sexy new underwear. The location where much of the film is set is an odd amalgamation of traditional French cafe/bar, hotel, and brothel. Despite or perhaps because of this, it excellently captures a sense of ennui, endless waiting for someone new to walk in the door, and something indefinable to change. And though Sigismond is that something new, nothing really does change. At least for Diana, there is no conclusion or resolution to speak of.

This is one of Borowczyk’s few films to be set in present day and part of its charm is that it so elegantly captures a sense of time and place — something on enhanced by the incredible soundtrack. Though it’s unfairly ignored and underrated, it belongs with other transgressive erotic classics from the period, most of them French — Story of O, Emmanuelle, Last Tango in Paris, and Serge Gainsbourg’s equally neglected Je t’aime moi non plus (also starring Dallesandro). But unlike many of those films, La marge manages to be effortlessly emotive and resistant to exposition in a refreshing way. There is something sweet, romantic, and endearing about this film that captures the bumbling, often awkward nature of sexual (and romantic) love. 

Kristel’s Diana is bitter, angry, and vulnerable. In one of Borowczyk’s more genius moments, he plays 10CC's "I'm Not In Love” while she goes about her work as a prostitute. Cliched? Perhaps… or perhaps not. There is something both painful and beautiful about the moment. It perfectly expresses her strong sense of denied, repressed emotion. At first she refuses to kiss Sigismond and seems to insist on not taking pleasure in sex with him. Later, she charges him almost double for messing up her new hairdo, but he calmly, patiently accepts it all at face value. This, of course, wears down her resistance, leading to moments of deep reverie, longing, and ultimately love. 

This spectacular film is loosely based on the novel La marge (often translated as The Margin, another of the film’s alternate titles) by French writer André Pieyre de Mandiargues. Oneiric, Sadeian, surreal, and erotic, he is a strangely fitting match for Borowczyk, who adapted several of his stories over the years. All of these elements are at play in La marge, which I wish had a suitable release. You can find a bootleg with English subtitles online and it comes with the highest possible recommendation. The way that Borowczyk often richly detailed his films with inanimate objects is at its full glory here — I never get tired of his shots of letters, flowers, and telescopes — and his use of mirrors, glass, and windowpanes is equal to that of a more publicly celebrated art house director like Rainer Werner Fassbinder.

Do yourself a favor and watch this as soon as possible.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Interview with Daniel Bird on Walerian Borowczyk

If Daniel Bird’s name isn’t familiar to you, then you likely don’t know much about cult cinema, particularly of the Eastern European persuasion. This British-born cinephile has spent much of the last years living in Poland and he’s one of the world’s foremost experts on Polish expat directors like Walerian Borowczyk and Andrzej Zuławski. He wrote a book on Roman Polanski, has written for the illustrious Eyeball, and is all over plenty of DVD/Blu-ray special features, including Arrow’s Borowczyk box set, which he helped produce. Bird also recently curated the Borowczyk retrospective at the Lincoln Center this April, which is where I had the pleasure to meet him. He let me pick his brain for a bit about Borowczyk's fantastic work.

Satanic Pandemonium: What first drew you to Borowczyk? Not simply the first film you saw, but what about his directing style attracted you?

Daniel Bird: The way he conjures up atmosphere. Watching his films is like visiting new worlds.

SP: You’ve written/spoken about how you managed to track down Zuławski for an interview. What was it like trying to get ahold of Borowczyk?

DB: I took the plane to Warsaw, visited 61 Pulawska Street, where all the former Communist film studios are situated, entered the office of TOR, which produced Story of Sin, and asked for Borowczyk's number. Amazingly, they gave it to me. I immediately called him on a pay phone – this was 1997. I can't say he was thrilled.

SP: Do you have a favorite film of his?

DB: Story of Sin if I am in a good mood, Angels' Games if I am in a bad one.

SP: How did the Arrow project get started? Why were those films in particular included in the set?

DB: Ligia Borowczyk had the rights to nine shorts and two features. However, she did not have materials. I had approached a number of distributors over the years with the idea of distributing Ligia's titles but without success. In 2012 Francesco Simeoni contacted me about producing extras for some titles. I mentioned these Borowczyk titles to him, and he said that he was about to relaunch the Arrow Academy brand, and that this might be the project to announce what the new Arrow Academy was all about. These titles were then combined with those produced by Argos Films, which conveniently covered all of Borowczyk's work, excluding his work in Poland.

SP: Out of his remaining films, is there one in particular that you would really love to see get a special edition release?

DB: I would like to see Story of Sin and the Polish shorts released, as well as La Marge.

SP: I have something of a fascination for male directors' and their relationship with their muses/wives, so I was wondering if you could say anything about Ligia Branice? She seems to be Borowczyk's muse early on, but her appearances in his films trickles off, though I believe they remained married until his death.

DB: Ligia was Borowczyk's wife, muse and collaborator. She was born in Krasnystaw, a town in Eastern Poland, not far from the Ukrainian border. Ligia comes from a noble family. After the War, she moved to Krakow with her mother. They met in Krakow, when Borowczyk was studying at the Academy of Fine Arts and Ligia was still at school. During the mid 1950s they moved to Warsaw, where Borowczyk designed posters and Ligia studied acting. Ligia, of course, appeared in many of Borowczyk's early short films – Dom, Les Astronautes, Rosalie, etc. She also produced the drawings which form the basis of Le dictionnaire du Joachim. Ligia plays a key role in Goto, and Borowczyk conceived of Blanche as a film for her. Originally, she was supposed to play Ewa Pobratynska, the heroine of Story of Sin. However, the character in the book is around twenty, and Ligia was over forty, so she ultimately declined the role. Of course, this genre, if it can be called that, has trouble accommodating middle aged women. That said, Ligia's final film, Interno di un convento (Behind Convent Walls), is one hell of a swan song.

Thanks Daniel!

If you want to be a fraction of the Borowczyk and European cinema scholar Daniel is, check out the following:
A written interview on Borowczyk with CineOutsider and a video interview
An interview with Spectacular Optical on Borowczyk
A great interview with Moon in the Gutter on a number of topics
Slant Magazine’s article on Bird’s short Borowczyk documentaries
His essay on Goto, the Island of Love for Vertigo

Snippets from Borowczyk’s archive on Bird’s blog

Thursday, July 16, 2015


Walerian Borowczyk, 1975
Starring: Grazyna Dlugolecka, Jerzy Zelnik, Olgierd Łukaszewicz

The young, beautiful Ewa falls in love with one of her parents’ boarders, Lukasz, an anthropologist who is already married. He is attempting to divorce his wife, which is difficult in the current religious climate. After a duel, he is wounded, and she moves in with him to nurse him back to health, at the expense of her social standing. But soon he leaves her behind, pregnant, to attempt a divorce in Rome, and she drowns her newborn baby in despair. One of his acquaintances, a nobleman, helps her pursue Lukasz through Europe. She learns he has married again and returned to Poland, where she follows, sinking further into misery.

Based Stefan Żeromski’s classic novel, Story of Sin marks Borowczyk’s return to Poland and is his only feature-length film made there. Though it does contain some sexual content and nudity, it’s a far cry from his previous two films, Immoral Tales and The Beast, and is closer to art house melodrama than it is to exploitation. A sort of inverse morality play, it does include Borowczyk’s themes of moral hypocrisy and the evils of sexual repression, but it is his loneliest and most somber film to date — and certainly one of his masterpieces. Like a more European, more sexual version of the women-in-moral-peril novels of the 19th century — Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Madame Bovary, The Scarlet Letter, and even Bleak House or Mansfield Park — Borowczyk seems to be judging those around Ewa even though she is the one who suffers relentlessly. 

Ewa becomes a sort of holy figure, a martyr doomed to die not for her transgressions, but for the cruel, uncaring, and immoral behavior of those around her. Not accidentally, The Story of Sin begins with her confession to a priest and follows her through a series of misdeeds. Even though she is a sympathetic figure, she commits crimes and makes terrible decisions on the behalf of a man who seems to love her only briefly and forgets about her when it is convenient. There is something innocent about her even when she sinks to her lowest depths — infanticide, prostitution, and murder — but don’t be fooled into thinking this is a Romeo and Juliet kind of tale. This is not a tale of innocent lovers who are separated by circumstance, but a one of inevitable damnation.

Like so many of Borowczyk’s other films, Ewa suffers from both family/social and church hypocrisy. In odd parallels with Borowczyk’s more famous film made in the same year, The Beast, the female protagonist is expected to uphold the rigid social mores of her family. Her father and stepmother belong to a fading aristocratic family, but are forced to take boarders because they are nearing poverty, a fact they don’t want to accept. Like the bridegroom of The Beast, they are hoping she will make a match above her financial station rather than marrying for love. Though Ewa’s father does seem to feel affection for her, she is ultimately driven out of her home. And, as in The Beast — where the central couple is unable to marry until a baptism occurs and they locate the right cardinal to perform the ceremony — the church is at the root of everyone’s problems.

And unlike many of the 19th century novels or ‘70s erotica films, Ewa, played by the heavenly Grazyna Dlugolecka, is not a temptress or a woman who suffers from a personality flaw like pride or arrogance. Though she falls prey to passion, she is also pursued by the film’s many male characters, some of whom clearly intend violence. This sense of claustrophobia is enhanced by Ewa’s fundamental loneliness and isolation, which continues throughout the film and is not alleviated by Lukasz, with the exception of one time he interrupts a creepy landlord trying to impose himself on her. 

Though this is not one of Borowczyk’s erotic films, it has some of the most beautiful sex scenes of his career, and in ‘70s cinema in general. The director’s reliance on objects — such as a letter, a corset hanging on a bed frame, and a bouquet of flowers — only serves to enhance the occasional erotic moments and imparts a sense of longing, fantasy, and reverie. The scene of Ewa naked and alone in bed, covered in rose petals, is one of the film’s most melancholic and poetic. The most tragic scenes are, importantly, also sexual. When Ewa and Lukasz hole up in their room and passionately make love, it is clear that he does have feelings for her, maybe even love, but he soon abandons her, while her more tenacious love never fades... to her ruin.

The Story of Sin comes with the highest possible recommendation and is one of Borowczyk’s masterpieces. You can find it on a region 2 DVD, but rumors have been flying around that Arrow will release this soon as part of their ongoing Borowczyk series and I’m hoping this will be the case. If you’re skeptical of Borowczyk’s use of sexually explicit material and you long for something akin to Goto, the Island of Love or Blanche, The Story of Sin is in a similar vein, but is in every way a superior film to his first two tragic melodramas.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015


Walerian Borowczyk, 1975
Starring: Sirpa Lane, Lisbeth Hummel, Marcel Dalio

The young Lucy Broadhurst has recently inherited her father’s fortune — as long as she goes through with a planned marriage to Mathurin, the son of her father’s friend, the Marquis Pierre de l’Esperance. Mathurin’s dysfunctional family has an aristocratic heritage but they are very short on funds and desperate for the match with Lucy. Unfortunately Mathurin is slovenly and awkward, obsessed with mating his prized horses and little else. His father's attempts to clean him up fail, but Lucy is determined to go through with the marriage if only for a degree of personal freedom. She becomes fascinated by the tale of Mathurin's ancestor Romilda, a headstrong woman who dallied with a strange beast in the forest 200 years ago…

Borowczyk’s best known and most infamous film is something of a fairytale — though it is not a retelling of Beauty and the Beast — and is a surreal, darkly comic examination of sexual mores. This mixture of elegant visual style and biting humor was intended to be a chapter in Borowczyk’s previous film, the erotic anthology Immoral Tales, and it was inspired by Prosper Mérimée’s novel Lokis, itself an adaptation of a popular French werewolf legend about the Beast of Gévaudan. The genesis of the film was Lucy’s dream sequence, where she imagines Romilda de l’Esperance running after a lamb into the woods. There she encounters a wolf/ape-like beast with an enormous erection. It chases her through the forest, where she loses her clothes, and rapes her — though the assault turns into pleasure for Romilda, who engages in such passionate sex with the Beast that he orgasms to death.

The Beast has more explicit sexual content than Immoral Tales, which is really saying something as the latter included underage fellatio, masturbation with a cucumber, bloodlust, orgies, and incest. Here there is implied bestiality, equestrian sex (I’ve never recovered from seeing that sudden shot of giant horse dick for the first time as a teenager), a priest who is likely a pedophile, a nymphomaniac whose continual lack of fulfillment causes her to hump the bed frame, and plenty of the Beast’s oozing semen, apparently a recipe of Borowczyk’s making. These graphic sexual elements ensured a mixed reception, though it’s obviously survived as one of the great cult films of the ‘70s.

What sets Borowczyk’s work — and The Beast in particular — apart from average exploitation fare or some of the more stylish erotica available during the decade is that this film is both smart and funny. It borrows heavily from surrealist traditions and is perhaps the ultimate blend of art house and exploitation. Borowczyk skewers aristocratic (and as a result, bourgeois) morality and openly mocks the religious and social repression of sexuality, female desire in particular. Controversially, this is not the last time that Borowczyk would depict a rape scene that turns into an act of consensual pleasure — but this isn’t as misogynistic as it seems and is actually not at all if you take Borowczyk’s career as a whole. His running theme seems to be that sexuality is irrepressible and its restriction will only lead to violence. Of course, the sudden release of pent up female sexuality also results in chaos, which here takes the form of humor.

The specter of Romilda as the symbol of constricted sexuality looms large over the proceedings and this becomes sort of a parlor room comedy of errors. For the wedding (and its consummation) to come to fruition, Mathurin has to be baptized, attempts are made to hide his deformed arm, and the couple must be married by the Cardinal di Balo, though no one can get him on the phone — he is estranged from the family presumably because of their immoral behavior. This foreshadows one of Borowczyk’s later masterpieces, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne, in the sense that sexuality leaks out all over the aristocratic manse — Lucy even finds hidden pornographic drawings on the backs of paintings around the house — and ultimately dissolves the social and familial structures. Despite the aggressive sexuality, this is a beautiful film (like all of Borowczyk’s work) and it does have some more slowly paced moments. Lucy’s frenetic dreams and fantasies are offset by the family melodrama, a measured harpsichord-based score from 17th/18th century Baroque composer Domenico Scarlatti, and many shots of the lush forest. Even some of the sexual moments are softer and more painterly, like a famous scene where Lucy masturbates with a rose. 

The Beast comes with the highest possible recommendation. It was my first Borowczyk film and remains one of my favorites. Though the Cult Epics 3-disc set has been one of my treasured possessions, the Arrow Films restoration blows it out of the water like a wad of Beast come shooting through the forest. It comes with an orgasm-inducing amount of special features, including an introduction from esteemed critic Peter Bradshaw, Borowczyk’s short film Venus on the Half-Shell, documentary The Making of The Beast with cameraman Noel Véry, another documentary Frenzy of Ecstasy, and so on. Finnish actress and exploitation star Sirpa Lane has certainly never looked as glowing or lovely as she does here — Arrow should feel immensely proud. Though their Borowczyk collection is region B, they will be releasing this title later this year for US audiences — but the entire collection is worth picking up a region-free player, if you haven’t already.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015


Walerian Borowczyk, 1973
Starring: Lise Danvers, Paloma Picasso, Charlotte Alexandra, Fabrice Luchini, Florence Bellamy

Walerian Borowczyk’s fourth feature — and his most commercial project at that time — is this anthology film comprised of four erotic tales. In “The Tide,” a teenage boy takes a bike ride through the French countryside with his cousin with aim of initiating her into the world of adult sexuality. Her directs her to give him oral sex on the shore, in time with the ocean tide. The second tale, “Thérése Philosophe,” follows a teenage girl who is locked in her bedroom as punishment. She uses the objects around her — including books, a portrait, and a cucumber — to explore her budding sexuality. The third story is focused on legendary historical figure Countess Elizabeth Báthory, a beautiful, if licentious woman who murders girls and bathes in their blood. The final tale is also based on a historical woman, Lucrezia Borgia, and follows her incestuous sexual encounters with her father, the Pope, and her brother.

His first really sexually explicit film, this marked the introduction of heavy erotica that would appear in every single one of his subsequent films. While the previous two efforts, Goto, the Island of Love and Blanche garnered him attention from film critics and art house audiences, this was an early black mark on Borowczyk’s career. Borowczyk was encouraged to make Immoral Tales by famed producer Anatole Dauman. Also a Polish-born French emigre, Dauman was known for his work with Chris Marker, Godard, Tarkovsky, Resnais, Oshima, and many other prominent European directors. He suggested that Borowczyk take advantage of the change in French censorship laws that occurred during the ‘70s, which also resulted in films like Emmanuelle (1974) and Story of O (1975).

Considered uneven and somewhat inferior even by modern critics, I can’t help but enjoy Immoral Tales. Admittedly, in a perfect world, “The Tide” and “Thérése Philosophe” belong elsewhere. Based on a story by surrealist writer André Pieyre de Mandiargues, “The Tide” is the only story in the film to be set in the present day — throughout Borowczyk’s catalog in general, very few of his films have a contemporary setting. “The Beast of Gevaudan” was intended to be placed third in Immoral Tales but was removed to become Borowczyk’s next film and most notorious, The Beast, and I can’t help but wish “The Tide” had also met this fate. Writer André Pieyre de Mandiargues inspired Borowczyk several times throughout his career, including the plot for The Streetwalker, one of Borowczyk’s few feature films set in (then) present day, and I’m sure he could have helped to flesh out the story of André (Fabrice Luchini) and Julie (Lise Danvers).

With its plot loosely inspired by an 18th century novel, “Thérése Philosophe” is the most flawed of the set and drags a bit, though it's still absolutely beautiful to look at. While the other segments respectively deal with underage sex, fellatio, incest, murder, and sacrilege, this segment can’t help but feel a little tamer and paler in comparison, as the subject is solely masturbation and teenage sexual exploration. It also lacks the visual and stylistic heights reached by the other three tales, though it is undeniably lovely. Curiously, Borowczyk hired separate cinematographers for each tale, all of whom he would work with again: Bernard Daillencourt, who shot The Beast, The Streetwalker, and Immoral Women; Guy Durban, who shot some of Borowczyk’s shorts and early films like Goto and Blanche; Noël Véry, who shot some short films, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne, and Art of Love; and Michel Zolat -- apparently a pseudonym for Borowczyk himself, which he would use again on one of his last films, Love Rites.

My favorite of the three tales is the third, based on surrealist Valentine Penrose’s fictionalized account of the life of Elizabeth Báthory. Played by Picasso’s daughter Paloma in her only performance, this is perhaps Borowczyk’s finest examination of sexual cruelty — instead of Báthory ordering someone to slaughter the young women she has chosen, they tear each other apart in a frenzy. The film’s fantastic tagline, “You Don't Have To Go To A Museum To See An X-Rated Picasso,” promises a bit more than it delivers on, but you do get to see Paloma sit in a bathtub full of some very convincing pig’s blood.

Immoral Tales comes highly recommended, particularly for anyone interested in artistic explorations of sexual transgression. Like Borowczyk’s most famous film, The Beast (1975), which found its genesis here, Immoral Tales is beautifully shot, has a sense of irreverent humor, and a complicated use of sexuality. The more I watch it, the more I've come to love it. After Goto and Blanche’s focus on the tragically disgraced wife, Immoral Tales’ gleeful if somewhat ironic study of female sexuality marks the introduction of the theme that would obsess Borowczyk throughout the rest of his career.

The high-definition Arrow Blu-ray also comes highly recommended and includes a hefty dose of extras, as well as English subtitles. In addition to an introduction from Danel Bird, there are two cuts of the film — the short, four-story version and the L’Age d’Or cut, which includes a section from The Beast. You’ll also find interviews, Borowczyk’s short film A Private Collection (1973), and footage from a reunion of Borowczyk’s crew. And despite all the erotic European vampire films of the ‘70s (many of which I love), where else are you going to see a beautiful naked woman almost fully immersed in pigs blood? I know I’m not the only hematolagnia enthusiast in the world.

Friday, July 10, 2015


Walerian Borowczyk, 1972
Starring: Ligia Branice, Michel Simon, Georges Wilson, Jacques Perrin

The young, beautiful Blanche seems happy with her much older husband, an indulgent nobleman who spoils her. But a visit from the King and his handsome page, Bartolomeo, changes the dynamic of their castle irrevocably. The King and the page both pursue Blanche and her husband’s son, Nicholas, feels compelled to protect her. But Nicholas and Blanche, who are the same age, are secretly in love with each other. The nobleman refuses to believe that she has remained faithful and is convinced a lover is hiding in her chambers, resulting in tragedy and violence.

For anyone introduced to Borowczyk through such irreverent, sexually explicit works as The Beast or Behind Convent Walls, you might be shocked to find yourself watching this gorgeous medieval fantasy with elements of the fairytale, morality play, and the tragic melodrama. Yet Borowczyk’s beautiful yet simple rendering of the Middles Ages is far more than just a historical costume drama. It makes a fascinating pair with its predecessor, Borowczyk’s first live action feature, Goto, Island of Love. Like Goto, Blanche takes place in an isolated community that exists in an imaginary time and place, a netherworld that mimics medieval France. And like Goto, it focuses on the relationship between a beautiful young woman and her much older husband, a man who also happens to be an absolute ruler, and includes the theme of infidelity.

But the totalitarian themes of Goto are absent in Blanche. The King, though ultimately powerful, is a droll man more inspired by his appetites than a thirst for dominance or control. In another filmic universe, Blanche would be honored by the attentions of a King — or at worst she would be raped with the begrudging consent of her husband in the alleged droit du seigneur. But here, Blanche is not tempted by wealth or power (symbolized by the King) or by male beauty and sexual prowess (the King’s rather saucy page), but by true love. In a perhaps less perverse twist on Racine’s classic Phaedra (itself based on a Greek myth), Blanche loves her own stepson, the King’s honorable, handsome son.

Blanche does not, however, go in the direction you may suspect. Like Goto, this is about suppressed and unfulfilled desire. Though there are only brief moments of nudity, Blanche constantly threatens to spill over into the erotic pseudo-exploitation films of Borowczyk’s later career. He deftly suggests the flood of sexual excess without allowing any of the characters to act on their desires — though they are all punished for the thought, if not the deed. The nobleman, once a confident, tolerant, and utterly paternal husband, is revealed to be insane with jealousy and even walls up Blanche’s bedchamber, convinced he has caught her in the act. Her husband is certainly not the only one affected; her unveiling as a sexual being alters all of the film’s male characters, leading ultimately to their deaths. In this way it foreshadows Borowczyk’s future films, most of which are about the consequences of bridling female sexuality, which, once released, is revealed to be chaotic and often violent.

Considered an art house masterpiece upon its release, this deceptively pale-looking film has a painterly sense of light and color and an unusual soundtrack that was allegedly recorded on medieval-style instruments. As I said, don’t expect The Beast or anything resembling a ‘70s-style sexploitation film, but it is well worth your time and would make an excellent double feature with Goto, Island of Love. There are some great performances — particularly from Borowczyk’s wife Ligia Branice as Blanche and classic French actor Michel Simon (L’atalante) as her husband — but the shining star here is undoubtedly Borowczyk’s direction.

There is something familiar but unknowable about Blanche. While the story initially seems like a repetition of established myths, tragic drama, or epic poems, something about it is alien and unexpected. Borowczyk’s unusual reliance on objects and animals may play into this sense and the film is definitely worth a repeat watch just to see exactly how the director manipulates each scene.

Thankfully Blanche was recently restored by Arrow Films and you can pick it up individually or as part of Arrow Video's (sold out) set, Camera Obscura: The Walerian Borowczyk Collection. There are a slew of great extras, including the 30-minute documentary Ballad of Imprisonment: Making Blanche, the archival interview Obscure Pleasures: A Portrait of Walerian Borowczyk, a short that Borowczyk shot and edited, and more. The film comes recommended and it is, at the absolute least, a rewarding visual journey.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015


Walerian Borowczyk, 1968
Starring: Pierre Brasseur, Ligia Branice, Jean-Pierre Andréani

On the island of Goto, the few remaining survivors of an apocalyptic event exist under the crushing rule of their King, Goto III, and his military society. His daily entertainments include watching executions and punishing the islanders for the slightest of infractions. Meanwhile, his beautiful young wife, Glossia, is having an affair with her riding instructor, who she is planning to run away with. But an ambitious man who barely escapes execution worms his way into Goto III’s good graces and begins to set in a motion a crude plan to claim the tiny empire for himself.

Goto, Island of Love was Borowczyk’s second feature film and his first live action effort, which was made ten years after he relocated from Poland to Paris, but Goto exists in a realm all its own. Like his follow up, Blanche, this is a pre-Industrial world with both medieval and fantastic elements. Though nothing supernatural occurs, this universe hovers on the border of the surreal, partly thanks to a stark, gray landscape contrasted with Borowczyk’s obsessive attention to detail. If I had to compare it to anything, it would probably be to the disoriented later works of Buñuel or Fellini. Goto does have a concrete storyline, but it is told unconventionally with plenty of surreal trappings and bizarre misnomers. 

Admittedly, Goto was not what I was first expecting, but it’s grown on me with time. Borowczyk’s first three films are all personal, if somewhat abstruse works that revolve around an absurd, central marital relationship. While the animated couple in Mr. and Mrs. Kabal’s Theatre are comically and somewhat cruelly mismatched, Goto and Blanche provide more serious, tragic examples of the same theme. Older men, corrupted and befuddled by their own power, are married to lovely younger women — both played by Borowczyk’s own younger wife, the distractingly beautiful Ligia Branice. 

And unlike Borowczyk’s later films, there is nothing overtly sexual about Goto. There are some erotic elements, but mostly the characters are strangled by a claustrophobic sense of repressed desire. Glossia longs to escape with the handsome Gono (Jean-Pierre Andréani of The Story of O), while the slimy Grozo (Guy Saint-Jean of Shock Treatment) lusts after Glossia. Goto (the wonderful Pierre Brasseur of Eyes without a Face and Children of Paradise), meanwhile, is blunt and childish, treating Glossia as a possession rather than a source of sexual interest. There is a particularly heart-breaking moment when Goto and Glossia escape the daily squalor to go to the beach. She had been hiding a row boat on the shore, hoping to use it to escape with her lover, but Goto idly pushes it out to sea where it rapidly sinks. Shattered that her means of escape is certainly impossible, she still shows her husband a sort of maternal tenderness when he falls down in the water and becomes distraught.

Borowczyk proves his skill as an avant-garde filmmaker quite early on here, particularly with the sense that Goto’s themes of betrayal and tragic love are neither more nor less important — nor more or less interesting —than the overarching story about totalitarian repression. It is easy to see why Goto was banned in Poland and why, if Borowczyk had remained in his home country he wouldn’t have survived long as a filmmaker. The fetid island is populated with mud, filth, and insects. Grozo is the royal flycatcher (and boot-cleaner) who uses his repressed intellect and sense of ambition to device clever insect traps, proving that even though the community has limited technology and seemingly few private or public amusements, it is mostly from lack or caring or trying. There is a sense of paralysis, that things and people are frozen in time, and like Borowczyk’s short films, there is the sense that objects, set pieces, and animals nearly overshadow their human counterparts.

This Kafkaesque hell is not a prison for innocent men caught up in an oppressive, infernal bureaucracy, but its totalitarian, military-based regime is a breeding ground for ugliness and moral deterioration. While punishment — execution in particular — is treated a state sport, the only art practiced on the island seems to be voyeurism. There is the sense of being watched not only by Goto’s military government, but by other citizens, and Borowczyk gives the impression that Grozo will be victorious because more than any other character, he excels at watching, prying, and invading space.

Goto, Island of Love was recently the subject of a successful Kickstarter campaign, where it was expensively and painstaking repaired to its full glory. Though there is an earlier Cult Epics release, the Arrow restoration makes that almost offensively unnecessary and if you’re going to see it, pick up the absolutely fantastic Arrow disc. It includes some great special features, such as an introduction from artist Craigie Horsfield, The Concentration Universe which is a series of interviews, and the documentary The Profligate Door. It’s wonderful that this important, but oddly ignored film has finally seen the light of day and it comes highly recommended.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015


Walerian Borowczyk, 1967
Starring: Louisette Rousseau, Pierre Collet, Louis Jojot

Director Walerian Borowczyk’s first feature film and his last animated one is this French-language tale about a mismatched married couple, the short, round, and voyeuristic Mr. Kabal and his tall, stately, and pushy wife who may also be a robot. This blackly comic, surrealist film is intentionally devoid of a linear plot structure, so it’s a bit difficult to summarize. Borowczyk combines animation and live action. He even briefly appears himself at the film’s introduction and conclusion, where he has amusing conversations with Mrs. Kabal. She is revealed to be proud and controlling and rebukes Mr. Kabal’s sexual advances. She is often cruel to him and seems to find him ridiculous — after all he is a rotund little figure with a huge, sloping mustache — though it would be difficult to imagine the film with just one of the Kabals and not the other.

While Mr. Kabal remains in a fairly fixed form throughout the film, Mrs. Kabal occasionally changes. In the film’s opening, she is given a series of different heads — presumably to see which one will be the best fit — and is shown to have robotic parts (including a large, singular bosom in the middle of her chest). Though there is little dialogue in the film, her voice is like a distorted, mechanical imitation of a human voice and is subtitled. She is often a figure of fun and in one scene, she grows to a large size after swallowing a butterfly. Mr. Kabal climbs down inside her, where she shouts orders to him to relieve her discomfort. The humor is slapstick, often physical, and revolves around the domestic disarray and discomfort frequently found in marriage. Borowczyk has excellent comic timing, but his humor is often sad or at least bittersweet.

The two characters originated in the short film, Le concert de Monsieur et Madame Kabal (1962), and I’ve read that this was initially intended to be a short television series. The couple does have a variety of adventures — in addition to the butterfly-swallowing incident, they go to the beach, the movies, and to a concert hall. Mrs. Kabal watches TV and has some (literally) colorful dreams. Sexuality is a common theme throughout all Borowczyk’s films and it is certainly not absent here. There’s a funny running gag that Mr. Kabal is always trying to spot ladies in bikinis (models shot in live action cut into the film) through his binoculars, but he’s always caught in the act and disturbed by either Mrs. Kabal or an old man. 

This absurd, flat world is largely empty and devoid of life, though there are occasional splashes of color and butterflies are a constant. In the recent Arrow release, an essay on the film states, “To describe Theatre of Mr & Mrs Kabal as ‘animated’ risks giving the wrong impression. Whilst the film features live-action, not to mention clips from Corps Profond (a 1963 documentary in which the inside of a living body is filmed using micro-photography), it is no Mary Poppins.” It is decidedly absurdist, in line with writers like Gogol, Ionesco, Kafka, and Beckett. These elements would appear again in varying forms in Borowczyk’s later works — though all of his live action films have relatively linear narrative structures — as well as in the films of other Polish exiles, like Roman Polanski and Andrzej Zuławski.

Obviously Mr. and Mrs. Kabal’s Theatre is not for everyone, but this is a must-see for film fans who like absurdist, experimental cinema, and/or anyone who loves Monty Python. Terry Gilliam actually provides an intro for the Arrow release this film is included with, Walerian Borowczyk: Short Films and Animation. The disc is an absolute treasure and is full of additional special features, including many of Borowczyk’s short films, the approximately 30-minute long documentary Film is Not a Sausage, and a visual essay from Daniel Bird on Borowczyk’s non-film art, including paintings, posters, and more. As a whole, the release comes so highly recommended that you really should pick it up immediately.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Walerian Borowczyk: Short Films

Between his early career as an artist and illustrator and his later work as a feature-length filmmaker, director Walerian Borowczyk made a series of imaginative short films — first in his home country of Poland and later in France — that helped transform animation into a more serious art form. He experimented with cut out paper, images clipped from magazines, illustrations, photographs, short bursts of live action, over-exposed film, and bits of news reels. Borowczyk’s deceptively simple use of already existing techniques is deeply surreal and introduced an obsession with ordinary objects that would continue in his feature films. The themes of these humorous and/or absurdist shorts include love, sex, domestic life, and the transformation of the mundane to the utterly strange and alien.

A note: While I generally use IMDB as my primary source, I also consulted Jan Strekowski’s article for Culture.PL for more about the short films, which offers some contradictory information and titles that don’t appear on IMDB. Any films that I could find online, I’ve linked to it in this essay, though be forewarned these seem to come and go pretty quickly on Youtube.

While the majority of Borowczyk’s shorts and commercials were made in France, his early films were Polish endeavors. Many of these are hard to find, such as Sierpień (1946, aka Mois d’août), Głowa (1949, aka The Head), Magik (1949, aka The Magician),Tłum (1950, aka The Crowd), and Jesień (1955, aka Autumn). Hopefully these will make their way onto Blu-ray as special features sometime soon, alongside his early short documentaries like French-Polish efforts Żywe fotografie (1955, aka Photographies vivantes) and Atelier de Fernand Leger (1955), about the French painter and filmmaker.

He soon teamed up with fellow Polish artist Jan Lenica for shorts and commercials like Dni Oświaty (1957, aka Education Days) and Strip-Tease (1957), a crude but amusing cut and paste clip. They further explored this technique with the whimsical, award-winning Był sobie raz (1957, aka Once Upon a Time), where a spider-like blob interacts with shapes and figures cut out from magazine and goes through a series of transformations. In Nagrodzone Uczucia (1957, aka Love Requited), they used a series of static illustrations and captions to convey a young man’s love for a woman. They followed this with Sztandar młodych (1958, aka Banner of Youth), which sets frantic music to a series of overexposed film clips, and Dom (1958, aka House), their most famous work together. This surreal 11-minute short uses cut out images of a house and miscellaneous objects, photographs, altered film clips, and the first shots of Ligia Branica, Borowczyk’s beautiful wife, who seduces a mannequin head before it decays.

Their last work together, and I believe Borowczyk’s final short film in Poland, was Szkoła (1958, School), which features animated photographs of a soldier performing a drill. It was made before his permanent relocation to Paris, where resulted in greater works like Les astronautes (1959, aka The Astronauts). He worked with artist, writer, and experimental filmmaker Chris Marker, though i’ve heard that Borowczyk did most of the work and Marker merely offered his name to help support the Polish newcomer. An astronaut and his owl travel to space in this fantastical, humorous blend of animation, photographs, and cut out techniques.

These first years in France were among some of Borowczyk’s most productive and he made a wide array of short films, including Terra incognita (1959), La foule (1959), Les Stroboscopes: Magasins du XIX siecle (1959), L’ecriture (1960), La Boite a musique (1961), Solitude (1961), Les bibliotheques (1961), and La fille sage (1962). Some of his lauded and award-winning works from this period include L'Encyclopedie de grand-maman en 13 volumes (1963, aka Grandmother’s Encyclopedia in 13 Volumes), where a series of Victorian cut-outs are animated. In the mesmerizing Renaissance (1963), animated live objects are destroyed and then put back together. This was followed by shorts like Holy Smoke (1963), an animated film about a cigar smoker, Gancia (1963), and Le musee (1964).

Perhaps Borowczyk’s greatest short film is the grim yet beautiful Les jeux des anges (1964, aka The Game of the Angels). This is a nightmarish, impressionistic look at life inside a concentration camp. I’ve read the images compared to the works of Francis Bacon and while this film doesn’t offer up anything quite so gory, it’s not a far stretch. Borowczyk captures the terrifying element of industry at work in the Holocaust, a subject taken up ten years later by Pasolini with Salo, though Borowczyk’s much vaguer factory of death is offset with melancholic winged beings and the suggestion of impending violence.

He followed this up with Le dictionnaire de Joachim (1965), similar to L'Encyclopedie de grand-maman en 13 volumes and Rosalie (1966), the latter of which foreshadowed Borowczyk’s later feature films. Based on a story by Guy de Maupassant, this live action short stars Ligia Branice as a woman who has killed her own child after being seduced — not unlike the protagonist of his later masterpiece, Story of Sin. Branice narrates the tragedy while crying, as Borowczyk inserts stills of different related objects, such as a bunch of rags and a shovel. Rosalie was obviously a turning point and marks the beginning of the end for his career as a director solely of shorts.  He also made Le petit poucet (1966), Dyptique (1967), and Gavotte (1967) before directing his first feature, the animated Théâtre de Monsieur & Madame Kabal (1967).

Even though his feature career took off, he still occasionally produced shorts, such as Le phonographe (1969), made in the same year as his first live action feature, Goto, l'île d’amour, and he also began making short documentaries: L' Amour monstre de tous les temps (1977, aka The Greatest Love of All Times), a surreal glimpse of painter Ljuba Popovic; Une collection particuliere (1973), a catalog of erotic drawings, photographs, and vintage toys; Escargot de Vénus (1975, aka Venus on the Half-Shell), about erotic painter Bona Tibertelli de Pisis; and Brief von Paris (1975, aka Letter from Paris).

In 1979, Borowczyk contributed to anthology film Collections privées (1979, aka Private Collections) along with French erotica director Just Jaeckin (The Story of O, Lady Chatterly’s Lover) and Japanese director, playwright, and poetic extraordinaire, Shuji Terayama (The Boxer, Fruits of Passion, Emperor Tomato Ketchup). In Jaeckin’s segment, "L'île aux sirènes,” a sailor becomes shipwrecked on an island and decides to stay, thanks to some attractive and friendly native women. Terayama’s middle segment, “Kusa-Meikyu,” is a far more surreal tale involving a nursery rhyme, dreams, lots of hopping people, and some rather ribald sexual fantasies. Borowczyk’s “L’armoire” is somewhat similar to his final film, Love Rites (1987), and follows a man who hires a prostitute and winds up strangely bonding with her. Though Borowczyk made more commercials and a few TV episodes, he did not release many shorts in the ‘80s, outside of Hyper-Auto-Erotic (1981), Hayaahi (1981), and the entertaining animated short Scherzo infernal (1984), about the dalliances of demons and demonesses in Hell. 

I can’t say that Borowczyk’s short films are recommended for the casual filmgoer more interested in live action, feature-length cinema, but if you like more experimental works, then this is for you. Anyone interested in Jan Svenkmajer, the Brothers Quary, or Monty Python is honor-bound to at least watch some of these fantastic little slices of genius. If you’re looking for a good collection of the shorts, pick up Arrow’s Camera Obscura box set or the individual release, Walerian Borowczyk: Short Films and Animation, which includes Les astronautes, Le concert de M. et Mme Kabal, L'Encyclopédie de grand’maman, Renaissance, Les Jeux des anges, Le Dictionnaire de Joachim, Rosalie, Gavotte, Diptyque, Le Phonographe, L'Amour "monstre" de tous les temps, Scherzo Infernal, and some of Borowczyk’s commercials. A Private Collection is an extra on the Immoral Tales release, Venus on the Half Shell is included with The Beast, and Jouet Jouyeux comes with The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne. I assume this means that any future Borowczyk releases from Arrow will include more of the missing shorts.