Walerian Borowczyk, 1987
Starring: Marina Pierro, Mathieu Carrière, Josy Bernard
On the Paris Metro, Hugo, a snobby antiques dealer who is quite full of himself, becomes entranced with the beautiful Myriam. It turns out that she’s a prostitute and typically looks for clients on the train. She takes him back to an apartment owned by a strange woman, where they have sex — but it seems that the insufferable Hugo has broken off far more than he can chew with her.
Based on a story by surrealist Andre Pieyre de Mandiargues, whose work Borowczyk frequently returned to throughout his career, Love Rites is not a particularly linear or developed story. There are plenty of flaws, though they don’t actually prevent the film from being compelling. The worst part is Mathieu Carrière’s Hugo, who takes Borowczyk’s standard unlikable male character to a new level. There are many men in Borowczyk’s films who are arrogant, selfish, and disturbingly demanding of the female characters, but Hugo lacks charisma, charm, or seemingly any humanizing elements. Much of the film’s dialogue between he and Myriam has a staged, self-conscious feel, though perhaps something was lost in translation. Their scenes of extended dialogue are in part unenjoyable because Hugo is just so unlikable.
Also known as Queen of the Night, there are elements of horror and violence that link this film to Borowczyk’s ‘80s masterpiece, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne. Unlike other cult directors he can loosely be grouped with — Jess Franco, Jean Rollin, Joe D’Amato — Borowczyk didn’t make films that could be primarily classified as horror, but Love Rites and Dr. Jekyll come the closest. Surreal and disjointed, the horror elements are mostly to be found in the second half of the film. Myriam brings some S&M into her relationship with Hugo, which suddenly develops into her donning long claws like Marvel Comics’ Lady Deathstrike (an enemy of Wolverine) and slicing up Hugo’s naked torso.
SPOILER: As unexpected as that scene was, things take an even stranger twist at the film’s conclusion. A dazed, violated Hugo wanders around Paris, when he encounters a young woman in the Seine. She swims towards him and climbs out of the river, only to unexpectedly stab herself. Hugo is naturally held responsible. While revenge is common element of many of Borowczyk’s films — particularly women revenging themselves against men as seen in Behind Convent Walls and Immoral Women — this is an unsettling, disoriented example of the theme.
Unfortunately Borowczyk’s other typically notable elements — eroticism and beautiful visuals — are not much to write home about. Though a lot of time is spent talking about sex, the actual sex scenes are tame moments that pale in comparison to much of his earlier work. Borowczyk’s fixation on inanimate objects seems to dissipated here and the cinematography is blurry and out of focus, a bit like Dr. Jekyll and Lulu. Though some of this is incredibly striking, the film would really benefit from a restoration. Ultimately the visuals are little more an interesting look at ‘80s Paris. Though I can’t help but feel affection for any film partly set on a train, it reminds me too much of the third tale in Immoral Women, a drab, urban story of kidnapping, rape, and revenge.
Love Rites comes recommended, but only for Borowczyk devotees or fans of very odd erotic cinema. It’s not a perfect effort, but is far from embarrassing for a final film and is fittingly surreal and weird enough that it will be pleasing to some. You can pick it up from Cult Epics, as part of their Borowczyk set with The Beast and Goto, Island of Love. I feel like I have much more to say about Borowczyk and I’m sorry that my series has to end here.