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.

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