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.