Born in 1923 in western Poland, director Walerian Borowczyk made more than 40 films between 1946 and 1988. Like fellow directors Roman Polanski, Andrzej Zuławski, and Jerzy Skolimowski, Borowczyk was forced to relocate in 1959 — moving to Paris, where he made most of his films — and can thus be considered more of an international talent than a strictly Polish one. Borowczyk got his training as a painter at the Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków and produced some celebrated work as a designer, perhaps ironically, of film posters, essentially founding a whole movement of Polish poster art. This painterly sensibility is evident throughout his work and his training as an artist led to some innovative techniques in his short films, including animation, stop-motion (and reverse stop-motion), and cut up photographs.
By and large, Borowczyk’s films fall into three categories: his experimental work, namely his short films and first animated feature, Mr. and Mrs. Kabal’s Theater; his tragic melodramas with social and political themes including Goto, Island of Love, Blanche, The Story of Sin, The Streetwalker, and Lulu; and his irreverent erotic works like Immoral Tales, The Beast, Behind Convent Walls, Immoral Women, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne, Art of Love, and Love Rites.
His body of work includes common themes. For instance, he was fond of historical settings, ranging from Ancient Rome to the Middle Ages and the 16th and 19th centuries — only a handful of his films were set in present day, such as The Streetwalker. He also used a wealth of literary adaptions from Guy de Maupassant to Stendhal, Prosper Mérimée, and Frank Wedekind, though he most faithfully returned to the work of contemporary French novelist and Surrealist André Pieyre de Mandiargues, who provided the source material for episodes of Immoral Tales and Immoral Women, as well as The Streetwalker and Love Rites.
While I wouldn’t directly call Borowczyk a Surrealist, his use of Dadaism, unexpected humor, social criticism, and a disdain for cultural conventions at least places him in the same church, in a nearby pew. His early films like Goto, Blanche, and The Streetwalker appealed to art house crowds and cinema snobs, while his luxuriant, often unconventional use of eroticism soon scared them away. Some of his films do feature extreme subject matter, such as incest, bestiality, rape, and murder, but above all he used sexual abandon as the symbol for ultimate freedom, albeit chaotic, potentially destructive freedom. As in the works of the Marquis de Sade, desire and its fulfillment often leads to torment and violence, a constant theme present in nearly every single one of Borowczyk’s feature films. Again like Sade, sex and death are inextricably linked with Borowczyk’s anti-bourgeois sentiment and his characters are often liberated from social mores and restrictions through death.
But this sense of tragedy and often outright nihilism is also redeemed by his use of humor, whimsy, and fantasy, and —above all — his celebration of the female form. Like fellow cult director Jess Franco, Borowczyk’s erotic films are often lumped in with other, lesser exploitation fare. But there is little about his work that is mean-spirited, judgmental, or openly exploitative of women. Instead, his protagonists and heroes are generally female, frequently played by his muses: first, his wife, Polish beauty Ligia Branice, and later fiery Italian actress Marina Pierro. Women’s passion and pleasure is often the name of the game in his films and there are occasionally anti-erotic moments where pleasure is denied the male characters — and the male gaze of the audience. Women are definitely exploited in his films, but only because they are inherently exploited by society. Many of his characters subvert this and/or use it to their advantage.
Though Borowczyk passed away in Paris in 2006, at the not quite ripe age of 82, his work has thankfully seen a revival in recent years. When I first discovered The Beast and Behind Convent Walls as a teen, it was difficult to find legitimate releases of his films with quality prints and legible subtitles. In part, this series was made possible by the tireless (and recent) work of some devoted Borowczyk scholars, and this month I’ll have the pleasure of interviewing writers and curators Daniel Bird and Michael Brooke.
Arrow Films, with the help of Bird and Brooke, released a fantastic box set comprised of shorts and early films late last year, the woefully out-of-print (though the individual films are available in single-disc editions) Camera Obscura: The Walerian Borowczyk Collection. This year they’ve put out an award-winning release of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne, and hopefully more titles will follow. And in April of this year, I had the pleasure of attending much of the Lincoln Center’s New York Borowczyk retrospective, Obscure Pleasures: The Films of Walerian Borowczyk.
This much deserved celebration is the culmination of gradual attention and critical acclaim that has grown steadily since the ‘90s. Cathal Tohill and Pete Tombs first wrote about Borowczyk in the excellent Immoral Tales: European Sex and Horror Movies, which was followed by mentions in other books and magazines. His films began to trickle onto DVD in the mid-2000s and, perhaps unsurprisingly, filmmakers like Terry Gilliam have discussed him as an influence. I’m just delighted that this beloved director is getting some more recognition and that almost his complete body of work is now available to fans. I hope, if you’re not already watching his films obsessively, that this series will inspire you to do so.
The Short Films:
If you’ve ever wondered where Gilliam got his hilarious, often brilliant mix of cut and paste, animation, and stop motion used in Monty Python, look no further. Borowczyk’s surreal, experimental early works are full of brief glimpses of his genius. Shorts like Dom, made with the collaboration of Polish artist Jan Lenica, Les Astronautes with the alleged collaboration (and at least support) of Chris Marker, and the devastating, WWII-themed Les jeux des anges are must-see works. While not all Borowczyk’s shorts, commercials, and later TV episodes are yet available, Arrow has included most of them in their fabulous box set.
Théâtre de Monsieur & Madame Kabal aka Mr. and Mrs. Kabal's Theatre (1967)
Strange, surreal, and often hilarious, Borowczyk’s first feature was this deeply personal and experimental animated tale. Though there is only a loose story structure, it follows the life of seeming opposites Mr. and Mrs. Kabal — and a whole lot of butterflies — in their very chaotic house and through a series of adventures to the beach, the movies, and a concert hall. Though all his features going forward were narrative-driven, live action works, Kabal’s themes of sexuality, the grotesque, and the difficulties of love would reappear again and again.
Goto, l'île d’amour aka Goto, Island of Love (1969)
Borowczyk’s first live-action feature is this tale of doomed love and tragic passion. Goto, the dictator of a small island, is obsessed with his beautiful wife (played by Borowczyk’s own wife, Ligia Branice). But tragedy strikes when he discovers she is being unfaithful to him with an officer of the court who manages Goto’s horses and gives his wife riding lessons. This is set in motion by Grozo, a worker on the terrifying, Kafkaesque island, who has his own designs on seizes power. It is no wonder Borowczyk relocated to France to make his films, as this grotesque, comic treatise on the evils of absolute power and totalitarian regimes would surely have gotten him sent to prison in communist Poland.
This beautiful yet melancholic medieval tragedy was the director’s third feature film and the second to star his wife, Ligia Branice, as an elderly lord's innocent young wife and prized possession. She becomes the object of amorous attentions when the visiting King and the King’s wily servant set their designs on her. But Blanche truly loves the lord’s son — an honorable man close to her own age — but tragedy strikes after a series of miscommunications and unfortunate events. This poetic tale lacks the eroticism or violence of Borowczyk’s future films, but this poetic melodrama garnered him critical acclaim with the art house crowd.
Contes immoraux aka Immoral Tales (1974)
Borowczyk’s breakout erotic hit was this lush, gorgeous anthology film that relates the sexually explicit stories of four women in different historical periods. In “The Tide,” set in modern day France, two teenage cousins take an amorous trip to the beach. “Therese Philosophe” follows a Belle Epoque-era teen who discovers her sexually while locked in her bedroom with some old books. The final two, “Erzsebet Bathory” and “Lucrezia Borgia,” are sexually-focused adaptations of the two controversial historical women. While Borowczyk was critically panned for this release, it did well in the box office — the only other erotic film to outrank it during the period was Emmanuelle — and set the tone for several of his future films.
La bête aka The Beast (1975)
The film that nearly ruined Borowczyk but also put him on the cult film map is this irreverent, humorous, and unabashedly sexual classic. A young heiress agrees to marry the son of a failing aristocratic family, unaware that he is a poor match. She is determined to proceed if only to gain freedom from her restrictive family and she fantasizes about tales of a menacing beast that ravishes ladies in the countryside. A subversive, modern fairytale, it is similar to Immortal Tales, if far more daring, and remains his most iconic film thanks to lush shots of the French countryside, elaborate period costumes, and shots of a hairy beast with an enormous prosthetic penis having its way with a fresh-faced, nude young woman who resists at first, but soon gives in to her own desires and conquers the beast.
Dzieje grzechu aka The Story of Sin (1975)
Borowczyk returned to Poland to make this unexpected masterpiece that was nominated for a Palme d’Or (but lost to Algerian film Chronicle of the Years of Fire). Based on a novel by Stefan Żeromski, this film about a young woman’s forbidden love for her parents’ married boarder — which leads her to run away from home, wander Europe, and turn to prostitution and infanticide — touches many of the director’s major themes. This beautifully shot period piece is a tragic exploration of unfettered passion, the female drive for personal and sexual freedom, and the violent reprisal of an unforgiving world.
La marge aka The Streetwalker (1976)
The themes of The Story of Sin are continued in this little seen masterpiece. Andy Warhol protege and cult icon Joe Dallesandro (Blood for Dracula, Flesh for Frankenstein) stars as a family man on a business trip in Paris who falls for a prostitute — played by the glorious Sylvia Kristel of Emmanuelle fame — before events descend into tragedy. Thanks to a fantastic soundtrack that includes songs from 10CC, Elton John, and Pink Floyd, I’m sure it won’t see the light of day on region 1 or 2 DVD or Blu-ray anytime soon, which is a real crime, as this is my new favorite of Borowczyk’s films.
Interno di un convento aka Behind Convent Walls (1978)
A personal favorite, Borowczyk’s nunsploitation film is among his most beautiful — and his most banned. Based on Stendhal’s Promenades dans Rome (aka Roman Walks), the film follows the goings on at an Italian convent. A bevy of often naked, horny nuns enact their inevitable desires to the chagrin of the controlling Mother Superior, while political intrigue brews and a poisoner is afoot. Fascinatingly, this marks the last performance of Borowczyk’s stunning wife and muse, Ligia Branice, and the first performance (for Borowczyk) of his second and final muse, Marina Pierro.
Les héroïnes du mal aka Immoral Women (1979)
This film is the second of Borowczyk’s erotic anthologies and includes three somewhat uneven tales of women throughout history. In Renaissance-era Rome, the painter Raphael’s muse sets in motion a Machiavellian and ultimately violent plot to gain her freedom. The second story, set in 18th century France, follows a teenager and her pet rabbit. When her parents permanently separate her from the beloved creature, she gets her revenge. Finally, in a modern day city, a woman is kidnapped and held for ransom. When her husband does little to save her, her dog springs into action. Unlike Immoral Tales, this trio is concerned with more than just sex, as each woman enacts bloody revenge at the end of her particular story.
This largely ignored film is an adaptation of a two-part play from German writer Frank Wedekind, Erdgeist (1895, aka Earth Spirit) and Die Büchse der Pandora (1904, aka Pandora’s Box), more famously adapted by Pabst as Pandora’s Box (1929). The central character, known as Lulu, makes her way through husbands and romantic partners, falling from the heights of German society to the gutter, where she has a fateful meeting with Jack the Ripper. Though not one of Borowczyk’s classics — and hard to find for English-speaking audiences — this film has some enjoyable surprises, such as the appearance of Udo Kier as Saucy Jack. And frankly I'm just delighted that there's another Wedekind adaptation out there in the world, let alone one from one of my favorite directors.
Docteur Jekyll et les femmes aka The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne (1981)
Borowczyk’s last masterpiece and one of his best films is this loose adaptation of Robert Louis Stephenson’s classic horror novel. Udo Kier stars as the young, handsome Dr. Jekyll, who is celebrating his recent engagement to Miss Osbourne (Marina Pierro). But he keeps disappearing from the party to tend to his recent experiments, where he transforms into a violent, sex-crazed being that leaves behind a rising toll of victims. And instead of succumbing to the horror, Miss Osbourne is determined to join in on the fun herself in this poetic celebration of unrestrained lust and human perversion.
Ars amandi aka Art of Love (1983)
In ancient Rome, the poet Ovid teaches a class on love and seduction. One of his students, Cornelius, has his eye on Claudia, the bored young wife of a centurion. While the soldier is away at war, she and Cornelius begin an affair with the assistant of her housemaid, though things take a tragic turn. I really wanted to love this film, but it is admittedly a bit of a clunker, particularly after the heights reached by The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne.
Emmanuelle 5 (1987)
And speaking of clunkers, this Emmanuelle sequel is easily the worst thing with Borowczyk’s name attached to it, though it would be a stretch to really call it his film at all; he only directed a few sequences before wisely abandoning ship. Absolutely terrible actress Monique Gabrielle stars as Emmanuelle. She is chased — and stripped nude — by adoring fans at the Cannes film festival, and is rescued by the chance intervention of a billionaire aboard a yacht. They begin a passionate affair, but Emmanuelle follows her whims to a third world country, where a totalitarian dictator promises to further her career. Cue the same dated sex scene over and over and over again. Zzzzzzzzzzz.
Cérémonie d’amour aka Love Rites (1987)
The director’s final film is this interesting tale of a vain man who aggressively pursues a beautiful woman (Marina Pierro in her final role in a feature, though she has recently begun directing short films) on the subway. They soon begin a sexual relationship, but it is far more than the man bargained for. This surreal, dreamy, S&M-fueled film is fortunately in line with Lulu and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne. It’s a solid note for the end of a great career and includes many of Borowczyk’s themes about female agency, social repression, and the freedom — and violence — that comes with abandoning all restraint.
In my opinion, the writer who best sums up Borowczyk's works -- though he's not actually writing about the director at all -- is literary critic, novelist, and philosopher Georges Bataille. I'll leave you with a quotes from Eroticism: Death and Sensuality:
“In essence, the domain of eroticism is the domain of violence, of violation. Not only do we find in the uneasy transitions of organisms engaged in reproduction the same basic violence which in physical eroticism leaves us gasping, but we also catch the inner meaning of that violence. What does physical eroticism signify if not a violation of the very being of its practitioners? — a violation bordering on death, bordering on murder?” --Georges Bataille