Tuesday, July 28, 2015

THE STRANGE CASE OF DR. JEKYLL AND MISS OSBOURNE aka DOCTEUR JEKYLL ET LES FEMMES

Walerian Borowczyk, 1981
Starring: Udo Kier, Marina Pierro, Patrick Magee, Howard Vernon, Clement Harari

Dr. Henry Jekyll and his beautiful fiancee, Miss Fanny Osbourne, hold a party in his home to celebrate their impending union. Just before the party begins, a raped and murdered girl is found outside the house, which foreshadows things to come. The stuffy guests, lulled into complacency with food, drink, and discussions of their own importance, soon find themselves under siege by an alien-looking figure — Mr. Hyde — who rapes, tortures, and murders his way through the house. It seems that Jekyll has discovered a chemical formula that unleashes the beast within and Jekyll transforms back and forth into Hyde, while searching the house for objects of his desire — particularly the lustful Miss Osbourne.

Director Walerian Borowczyk’s only film that could truly fit into the horror genre is this masterpiece, a bizarre, phantasmagorical delight. With a score from avant-garde composer Bernard Parmegiani and some impressionistic cinematography from Borowczyk’s regular collaborator, Noël Véry, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne is both the culmination of Borowczyk’s themes and his last great work. This French-West German coproduction is based on The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but is one of the few filmic adaptations of this famous horror tale to recreate Robert Louis Stevenson’s many moments of violence and sexual terror.

Though the producers gave the film the title Docteur Jekyll et les femmes (Dr. Jekyll and the women), there is only really one femmes of importance here — Fanny Osbourne — which is reflected in the title Borowczyk desired, Le cas étrange de Dr.Jekyll et Miss Osbourne. Like his earlier films, Borowczyk focuses on female sexuality, particularly in it escaping the bounds of restrictive bourgeois society. Here Fanny as shown to be aroused by Jekyll — their passionate kissing in his laboratory suggests a pre-existing sexual relationship — but this smooth, charming scientist is played with aplomb by the handsome Udo Kier (one of the few actors I know of to play Dracula, Frankenstein, and Dr. Jekyll), so I can’t really blame her. Marina Pierro, who stars as Fanny, was one of Borowczyk’s two muses and the director often captured some fantastic representations of unrestrained sexuality when she was on screen.

Fanny and some of the film’s other female characters are perhaps inexplicably aroused by the alien-like Hyde. With a shaved head, dilated pupils, and an enormous (almost comical) penis, he’s a terrifying figure and a welcome departure from Hollywood’s traditional depictions of an ape-like, devolved Hyde. Here he suggests an unsettling sort of evolution and the film’s gloriously Sadeian elements imply that sexual freedom is inherently violent, chaotic, and asocial. Though I think Kier could have commanded the role (just look at him in Flesh for Frankenstein), Gérard Zalcberg (Jess Franco’s Faceless) is brilliant and, like the beast in Borowczyk’s La bête, is a convincing combination of monstrosity and all-consuming sexuality.

Compared to all of Borowczyk’s other films, this is the most closely related to the little seen Lulu, which features Udo Kier as Jack the Ripper in the film’s final scene and is another adaptation of a Victorian-era text. Like Dr. Jekyll, Lulu is concerned with a morally uninhibited character (the titular Lulu) violently rupturing the constraints of Victorian society. Like Lulu’s lovers, all of whom are driven to death soon after having sex with her, several of Hyde’s victims are willing participants in his rituals of sex and slaughter. But what that film lacks in sex and violence, Dr. Jekyll delivers in spades, challenging the viewer at every turn.

But this is more than a horror film. Like Pasolini’s Teorema or Buñuel’s Exterminating Angel, this is also a social farce. Borowczyk mocked Victorian sensibilities repeatedly throughout his career, but this theme reached its height here. The characters include uptight family members, a clergyman, and a scientist, and the majority of the film is set inside a small Victorian mansion that is at once labyrinthine and claustrophobic. Mr. Hyde’s rampage reveals scenes full of mirrors, oddly angled doorways, and murky, candlelit chambers.

Obviously The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne will alienate a lot of viewers — including even the staunchest gore fans — but it comes with the highest possible recommendation. And luckily Arrow Video has given it a mind-blowing Blu-ray release, which came out earlier this year. While their box set dedicated to Borowczyk’s earlier career, Camera Obscura, is a thing of collector dreams and fantasies, Dr. Jekyll is actually able to give it a run for its money. In addition to an audio commentary featuring everyone from Borowczyk himself (from archival material) to Noel Very, other crew members, and Daniel Bird, the disc is packed with interviews from stars Udo Keir and Marina Pierro, among others. There are a handful of fascinating featurettes of varying length, short films, and more. If Camera Obscura was the release of 2014, this surely takes the cake for 2015.

And really, the world could do with a few more films that involve a manic running around with a bow and arrow.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Interview with Michael Brooke on Walerian Borowczyk

I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Michael Brooke, a writer, editor, and Blu-ray/DVD producer who has done some great work with Arrow Films and the BFI. Alongside Daniel Bird, he was instrumental in putting together Arrow's fantastic recent Borowczyk set, Camera Obscura, and was kind enough to talk about Arrow's ongoing Borowczyk releases (including some future hopefuls.

Satanic Pandemonium: How did Arrow settle on the titles included in the Camera Obscura set? 

Michael Brooke: The original plan was just to release the titles owned outright by Ligia Borowczyk (his widow aka the star of Goto, Island of Love and Blanche).  In other words, the shorts from Le Concert (1962) to The Phonograph (1969) and the features Theatre of Mr. & Mrs. Kabal and Blanche. But then we discovered that the UK rights had expired on the three Argos features, and Immoral Tales and The Beast were clearly the most attractive titles in the entire collection, so we added those -- and having licensed the features, it made sense to get the shorts too.  Handily, the bulk of the first half of Borowczyk's career is represented by just two rights holders, so it all slotted very neatly into place.

SP: I'm particularly interested in the shorts. It's fantastic to have so many of them together, but what prevented the collection from being complete?

MB: The major omissions are the Polish shorts from 1957-8.  We originally planned to include them, but as of 2013-14 they were only available in standard definition masters, and had been earmarked for restoration by the Filmoteka Narodowa in Warsaw -- so it made sense to wait.  In a completely ideal world, a future Arrow project would be an all-Polish disc with those shorts and his only Polish feature Story of Sin (which is also being restored), but that hasn't been formally green-lit yet.

There are other titles listed in his filmography as "short films", but they're mostly things like Holy Smoke and The Museum -- TV commercials and similar sponsored films made as rent-paying jobs.  It's the six Polish films that are the most important omissions as far as "films de Borowczyk" go.

SP: The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne is an absolutely amazing release. How did Arrow settle on this title and why wasn't it included in the set?

MB: Dr. Jekyll had to be released separately because the project was so expensive to develop in its own right -- we had to go back to the original negative by necessity, since there wasn't a suitable video master. And the only way of justifying the cost was to make it a dual UK/US release, which wasn't true of the box set (Arrow doesn't have the US rights to those titles).  I'm also very glad we waited on that title because it meant that we could pull all the stops out in a way that we simply wouldn't have had time to do if it had been part of the box.  Even as recently as February, I doubted that we'd be able to bring it off with absolutely no compromises, but we managed it!

SP: Can we expect any more Borowczyk releases in the future?

MB: I hope so, but nothing has been formally green-lit as yet.  I'd say the most likely followup would be The Story of Sin and the Polish shorts.  We'd love to do The Margin (aka The Streetwalker) but the rights are a nightmare.  But in all honesty the only title we've absolutely ruled out is Emmanuelle 5 because it's crap (and Borowczyk didn't even direct most of it).

SP: And last, but not least, do you have a favorite Borowczyk film?

MB: I think his most perfectly achieved film is Blanche, but my favourite will always be Dr. Jekyll -- and not just because it was my first.

Thanks Michael! I hope winter 2015 and 2016 will bring plenty more Borowczyk releases from Arrow. If you haven't you should pick up the existing Blu-rays as soon as possible (or as soon as your wallet allows). For more, read Michael's articles about Borowczyk's five best films and 10 great Polish films (plus find more on his Arrow page, linked above) -- he is a fount of knowledge.

Friday, July 24, 2015

LULU (1980)

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 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, falling into poverty and succumbing to prostitution. Unfortunately her final client is Jack the Ripper.

Based on the two plays of German writer Frank Wedekind, Erdgeist (aka Earth Spirit from 1895) and Die Büchse der Pandora (aka Pandora’s Box from 1904), 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, but as a prize to be won, an attractive possession, and status symbol. While I’ve heard that this is an adaptation of the film Pandora’s Box, it works far more closely with Wedekind’s themes.

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 Heinz Bennent, Anne Bennet’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.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

IMMORAL WOMEN aka LES HÉROÏNES DU MAL

Walerian Borowczyk, 1979
Starring: Marina Pierro, Françoise Quéré, Jean-Claude Dreyfus

This erotic anthology is comprised of three stories about the sexual experiences of different women. The first, “Margherita" follows the painter Raphael and his rise to fame in Rome. He’s aided by his beautiful, but secretly ambitious mistress, the titular Margherita. She is only using Raphael to steal his money, so that she can go off with her real lover in the countryside. She sleeps with one of his wealthy enemies and causes his death, though it looks like an accident. 

In the second story, “Marceline,” a pretty young teenager in turn of the century France loves only her pet rabbit. Her cruel bourgeois parents, trying to make her mature, kill the rabbit and serve him in a stew for dinner. Marceline gets her revenge by killing them in the middle of the night and then she travels to the slaughterhouse, where she is deflowered by the young butcher, which ends in violence. In the final tale, “Marie,” the wife of a Parisian art gallery owner is improbably kidnapped by a thug on the street. He calls her husband, demanding ransom, but her husband is reluctant to pay the sum (even though he can afford it). Meanwhile, Marie’s dog, an enormous doberman pinscher, is determined to find her and remains hot on her trail.

A follow up to Borowczyk’s first erotic anthology, Immoral Tales, is not a sequel, though the similar titles seems to imply this. While Contes immoraux does translate to “Immoral Tales” or “Immoral Stories,” Immoral Woman’s title is actually Les héroïnes du mal or “Heroines of Evil” with the central characters’ names cleverly beginning with “M.” Written by Borowczyk and French author André Pieyre de Mandiargues, Borowczyk had previously adapted one of Mandiargues’ novels for La marge. Here the author apparently penned the second tale, “Marceline,” which is the best of the bunch.

I can’t say that I disliked Immoral Women or that it’s in any way a bad film, but it simply doesn’t stand up to previous efforts like The Beast, The Story of Sin, La marge, or Behind Convent Walls. The film’s finest moments are also unable to live up to the best of Immoral Tales, but it still has plenty to offer for seasoned Borowczyk fans and anyone interested in more transgressive ‘70s erotica. “Margherita” has the most elaborate plot, but is overly long at almost 50 minutes. It’s incredibly beautifully shot with a mixture of sex scenes split between a painter studio’s and all kinds of Roman era props and outdoor ruins. Dark haired beauty Marina Pierro is what makes this so compelling and it’s a pleasure to watch her on camera whether she’s stripping off her clothes or silently scheming.

While I think Borowczyk’s reputation as an exploitative director is misguided, he does have some troubling sexual politics at work in her films — troubling, but oddly liberating. Margherita is a very atypical character in cinema. She happily consents to be Raphael’s mistress and muse and has sex with others for financial gain — but she isn’t doing this to fulfill any specific masculine fantasy or because she has been driven to prostitution. She actually winds up the short film’s hero (without needing any man to rescue her) and kills two of her lovers convincingly enough that it looks like an accident, steals their money, and escapes to the ruins to reunite with her lover. In other words, she enjoys sex and is able to easily separate it from love — but is a the rare promiscuous female character to also feel love.

The second segment, “Marceline,” succeeds because it is a plenty of visual poetry, black humor, and surrealism. Marceline engages in sex with rabbit, Pinky, who nibbles at her lady bits with she lays in the grass, moaning. Like The Beast, Borowczyk uses themes of bestiality in the second and third tales, where the female protagonists are more devoted to their pets (sexually as well as emotionally) than any other character. The curly haired Gaëlle Legrand is convincing as an Alice in Wonderland type figure who wanders through her bourgeois life totally disconnected and absorbed in her fantasy world. Her parents are comically cruel and their deaths are slightly surprising, but feel justified within the vengeance-fueled universe of Immoral Women.

The film takes a strange twist when Marceline heads to the local slaughterhouse and is deflowered by the young black butcher — similar to The Beast, where a young black servant had a sexual relationship with the daughter of the bourgeois family that employed him. This moment is particularly troubling, because it’s difficult to discern whether Marceline is being raped or has simply put herself in a positive to lose her virginity. She seems to receive a mix of pleasure and pain from the experience — something else it has in common with The Beast, where a woman overcomes her rape by finding it pleasurable (and vanquishes her rapist by making him come to death…).

In “Marie,” the rape scene is equally troubling, as Marie (Pascale Christophe) is raped by her kidnapper. This does not turn into a moment of pleasure for her, but she honestly seems more put out that her husband is ignoring her than that she’s been raped. It’s hard to say whether the kidnapper is even really a villain, because he is portrayed as being so over the top and ridiculous — he kidnaps her by standing inside a box on the street, like some sort of Monty Python skit. The husband, who is selfish and passive, has enough money to rescue her immediately, but just cools his heels. Only her dog comes to her aid. It’s a shame that this last segment feels like a tacked on after that. It’s neither half as beautiful or half as entertaining as the first two shorts.

Immoral Women is visually sumptuous and has plenty of entertaining moments, but it is not among Borowczyk’s best films. Find it on DVD from Severin Films. It comes recommended for hardcore Borowczyk fans and anyone who enjoys erotica, though unlike many films in that genre, Immoral Tales feels like a series of stories that just happen to include sexual elements rather than loose plots shaped around sex scenes — and that’s definitely a positive.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

BEHIND CONVENT WALLS aka INTERNO DI UN CONVENTO

Walerian Borowczyk, 1978
Starring: Ligia Branice, Howard Ross, Marina Pierro, Gabriella Giacobbe, Rodolfo Dal Pra, Loredana Martinez

Inside a convent, a dictatorial Mother Superior tightly controls her nuns — or at least makes an attempt. This loosely plotted film is an adaptation of Stendhal’s novel Roman Walks and spends much of its running time catching scantily clad nuns succumbing to desire. The Mother Superior tries to suppress the girls' inevitable sexuality, frequently catches them in the act, and then punishes them. This is mostly presented as a series of vignettes featuring different ways to misbehave: masturbating with a violin, naughty yoga, a dildo with Jesus's face painted on the end, and so on. There is also a romantic subplot and a murky twist where a disturbed sister accidentally poisons several people, including herself.

Walarian Borowczyk is, perhaps stubbornly, acquired taste. The type of crowd drawn to his early art house films was inevitably alienated by his sexploitation works like Immoral Tales and The Beast. Many cult film fans delighted by those two were perhaps confused by his follow up films, The Story of Sin and La marge, two gloomy, arty classics about doomed love. While he seems to have jumped back on the cult film train with Behind Convent Walls, anyone expecting a run-of-the-mill nunsploitation film is likely to be disappointed and maybe a little shocked.

Behind Convent Walls is nunsploitation at its core, but it is also so much more. Where some of the genre’s directors like Joe D'Amato focus on the sex, violence, and sacrilegious material inherent in erotic nun movies, Borowczyk somehow transcends this to effectively recycle one of his beloved themes: the inevitably and irresistibility of human sexuality. Like La marge, the film has a deceptively simple plot that manages to convey a surprising amount of emotion through the passions of some loosely sketched minor characters. With some sort of directorial sorcery, Borowczyk manages to convey the emotional aspect of natural, innocent sexuality seeping (OK, gushing) through the cracks of a disciplined culture like Roman Catholicism (fittingly this is his only Italian production), specifically in the physical and emotional pressure cooker of a convent. 

While the strict Mother Superior does all she can to suppress sexuality and sin in her young charges, the sisters innocently and exuberantly display a talent for fun, mischief and, unsurprisingly, masturbation. What sets Behind Convent Walls apart from other nunsploitation films is that most of these sexual acts are presented as natural, inevitable acts not associated with sin or acts committed out of love for Jesus. Yes, you heard me. They whack off for Christ. Which is, I suspect, why Behind Convent Walls has suffered extensively from some damaging censorship. Most Borowczyk retrospectives and film festivals have neglected it, I assume, because of this message. While it is one thing to say that corrupt, evil, immoral, or insane nuns can indulge in sex, it is another thing entirely to say that they commit the same acts in the name of innocence, affection, instinct, and, above all, love for God.

The casting here is also excellent. This marks the final appearance of Borowczyk’s dazzlingly beautiful first muse, his wife Ligia Branice, who is in very fine form and gives one of her most lively performances. It’s also Borowczyk’s first time working with actress Marina Pierro, the Italian beauty who would star is most of the films in the second half of his career. Also keep your eyes peeled for cult movie figures like Howard Ross as the priest's charming nephew — he also happens to be the man with the missing finger from New York Ripper. I'm probably the only person who cares about this, but there he is alongside Gabriella Giacobbe (Keoma), Mario Maranzana (Lady of the Camelias), Alex Partexano (And the Ship Sails On, Zeder), and many others.

I'm reviewing the uncut, PAL region 2 disc, though I really hope something better (and fully restored with lots special features) gets released sometime soon. There are some extras here, such as a nice, though too short documentary from some of Borowczyk's biggest fans, most of whom seem to be other film critics. Regardless of the DVD edition, the film comes with the highest possible recommendations and it’s one of my favorites. Though I’m at the point where nearly half of Borowczyk’s catalog is on that list, Behind Convent Walls and I have had a long term romance. Having the opportunity to see it in the theater a few months ago at the Lincoln Center Borowczyk retrospective was one of the highlights of the last five years.

P.S. I’ve seen the film a number of times over the years and I remember a particularly beautiful lesbian sex scene taking place in the convent’s garden. But when I saw the film at the Lincoln Center, it was missing. Did I imagine this? Or just splice in a memory of a scene from another film? If I find the answer, I will let you know.

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. The troubling part is that I can’t really explain why La marge is so fantastic.

A lot about it is obviously pleasing. The stunning cinematography from Bernard Daillencourt (The Beast) and an incredible soundtrack — with popular 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 films. 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 accident 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. After a few viewings of this film, 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 tradition 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 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 underrated Je t’aime moi non plus (also starring Dallesandro). But unlike many of those films, La marge manages to be effortlessly emotive and almost 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 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 now. But there is something both painful and beautiful about the moment. It perfectly expresses the strong sense of denied, repressed emotion that Diana gives off. 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 and without taking it personally. 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 renowned art house director like Rainer Werner Fassbinder.

Do yourself a favor and watch this as soon as possible.

Also, my birthday is in two weeks, someone buy me that leather overcoat Joe Dallesandro wears. Or buy me the soundtrack, which is has become one of my favorites. I tried to deny it for years, but “I’m Not In Love” is one of the best love songs of all time.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Interview with Daniel Bird on Walerian Borowczyk

If Daniel Bird’s name isn’t familiar to you, then you likely don’t know much about cult cinema, particularly of the Eastern European persuasion. This British-born cinephile has spent much of the last years living in Poland and he’s one of the world’s foremost experts on Polish expat directors like Walerian Borowczyk and Andrzej Zuławski. He wrote a book on Roman Polanski, has written for the illustrious Eyeball, and is all over plenty of DVD/Blu-ray special features, including Arrow’s Borowczyk box set, which he helped produce. Bird also recently curated the Borowczyk retrospective at the Lincoln Center this April, which is where I had the pleasure to meet him. He let me pick his brain for a bit about Borowczyk's fantastic work.

Satanic Pandemonium: What first drew you to Borowczyk? Not simply the first film you saw, but what about his directing style attracted you?

Daniel Bird: The way he conjures up atmosphere. Watching his films is like visiting new worlds.

SP: You’ve written/spoken about how you managed to track down Zuławski for an interview. What was it like trying to get ahold of Borowczyk?

DB: I took the plane to Warsaw, visited 61 Pulawska Street, where all the former Communist film studios are situated, entered the office of TOR, which produced Story of Sin, and asked for Borowczyk's number. Amazingly, they gave it to me. I immediately called him on a pay phone – this was 1997. I can't say he was thrilled.

SP: Do you have a favorite film of his?

DB: Story of Sin if I am in a good mood, Angels' Games if I am in a bad one.

SP: How did the Arrow project get started? Why were those films in particular included in the set?

DB: Ligia Borowczyk had the rights to nine shorts and two features. However, she did not have materials. I had approached a number of distributors over the years with the idea of distributing Ligia's titles but without success. In 2012 Francesco Simeoni contacted me about producing extras for some titles. I mentioned these Borowczyk titles to him, and he said that he was about to relaunch the Arrow Academy brand, and that this might be the project to announce what the new Arrow Academy was all about. These titles were then combined with those produced by Argos Films, which conveniently covered all of Borowczyk's work, excluding his work in Poland.

SP: Out of his remaining films, is there one in particular that you would really love to see get a special edition release?

DB: I would like to see Story of Sin and the Polish shorts released, as well as La Marge.

SP: I have something of a fascination for male directors' and their relationship with their muses/wives, so I was wondering if you could say anything about Ligia Branice? She seems to be Borowczyk's muse early on, but her appearances in his films trickles off, though I believe they remained married until his death.

DB: Ligia was Borowczyk's wife, muse and collaborator. She was born in Krasnystaw, a town in Eastern Poland, not far from the Ukrainian border. Ligia comes from a noble family. After the War, she moved to Krakow with her mother. They met in Krakow, when Borowczyk was studying at the Academy of Fine Arts and Ligia was still at school. During the mid 1950s they moved to Warsaw, where Borowczyk designed posters and Ligia studied acting. Ligia, of course, appeared in many of Borowczyk's early short films – Dom, Les Astronautes, Rosalie, etc. She also produced the drawings which form the basis of Le dictionnaire du Joachim. Ligia plays a key role in Goto, and Borowczyk conceived of Blanche as a film for her. Originally, she was supposed to play Ewa Pobratynska, the heroine of Story of Sin. However, the character in the book is around twenty, and Ligia was over forty, so she ultimately declined the role. Of course, this genre, if it can be called that, has trouble accommodating middle aged women. That said, Ligia's final film, Interno di un convento (Behind Convent Walls), is one hell of a swan song.

Thanks Daniel!

If you want to be a fraction of the Borowczyk and European cinema scholar Daniel is, check out the following:
A written interview on Borowczyk with CineOutsider and a video interview
An interview with Spectacular Optical on Borowczyk
A great interview with Moon in the Gutter on a number of topics
Slant Magazine’s article on Bird’s short Borowczyk documentaries
His essay on Goto, the Island of Love for Vertigo

Snippets from Borowczyk’s archive on Bird’s blog