Monday, July 20, 2015

THE STREETWALKER aka LA MARGE

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.

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