Thursday 19 December 2013

E is for... Erotic

Isabel Allende famously said that “erotica is using a feather, pornography is using the whole chicken”.  For the most part, Walerian Borowczyk favoured the feather.

Immoral Tales (Contes immoraux, 1974)

It’s impossible to discuss Borowczyk’s film work in any depth without acknowledging that the vast majority of his post-1973 output can be described as ‘erotic’, much though the director himself bridled at the label (“If someone mentions the word ‘erotic’ or says I make erotic films, it’s always with ironic innuendo or a feeling of denigration”).  One upshot of this was a vertiginous fall from critical grace - even those who praised the films for their lustrous imagery seemed reluctant to engage with their content, as if there was something shameful about even admitting to having watched them.  Another was that it became increasingly hard to see Borowczyk’s films as their creator intended, particularly in censorious countries like the UK.  The version of The Beast (La Bête, 1975) that opened in London in 1978 is virtually incomprehensible at times, as was the British edition of Docteur Jekyll et les Femmes (1981), retitled The Blood of Doctor Jekyll.   In both cases the cuts removed sight of the enormous (albeit prosthetic) phalluses sported by the titular beast and the rapacious Mr Hyde, and few of his other films escaped untrimmed.

House (Dom, 1958)

Borowczyk’s interest in the erotic can be discerned from his earliest films.  Both the unnamed hero of Astronauts (Les Astronautes, 1959) and the hen-pecked husband in The Theatre of Mr & Mrs Kabal (Le Théâtre de M. et Mme Kabal, 1967) sneak occasional peeks at semi-undraped beauties, while many of his early films are suffused with a weird fetishism: the animated wig in House (Dom, 1958) or the fusion of sexualised body parts and industrial apparatus in Angels’ Games (Les Jeux des Anges, 1964).  His first two live-action features, Goto (1968) and Blanche (1971) both contain full-length female nudity, albeit briefly glimpsed compared with what came later.

Goto, Island of Love (Goto l'île d'amour, 1968)

The watershed period was 1972-4, when Borowczyk made the six short films that were part of his original conception of Immoral Tales (Contes immoraux, 1974) - the four films that comprise the final film, The True Story of the Beast of Gévaudan, which became the dream sequence in The Beast, and A Private Collection (Une Collection particulière, 1973), which explored vintage erotic paraphernalia owned by André Pieyre de Mandiargues (see below).  

A Private Collection (Une Collection particulière, 1973)

The latter exists in two versions: the more familiar 12-minute cut, and the 14-minute ‘Oberhausen’ version after the festival where it debuted.  Whereas in the shorter cut, fingers and thumbs would conceal risqué and outré material, in Oberhausen everything was laid all too bare, and the inclusion of a piece of vintage film featuring unsimulated intercourse between a woman and a dog has made this version legally undistributable in several countries.  Simulated bestiality also occurs in The Beast and the middle story of Immoral Women (Les Heroïnes du mal, 1979), while other controversial (often recurring) subjects include female masturbation, incest, rape and explicitly eroticised ritual sacrifice.

Immoral Women (Les Heroïnes du mal, 1979)

Borowczyk’s collaborators during this period include the French Surrealist writer André Pieyre de Mandiargues (1909-91) and his wife, the Italian painter Bona Tibertelli de Pisis (1926-2000).  Bona's images, populated by creatures possessing both human and mollusc characteristics, are celebrated in Borowczyk’s short film Venus on the Half-Shell (Escargot de Venus, 1975), while her husband wrote the source texts of several Borowczyk films: La Marge (1976) was based on the eponymous Prix Goncourt-winning novel, Love Rites (Cérémonie d'amour, 1988) on Tout disparaîtra, while Immoral Tales and Immoral Women included two of his short stories (‘La Marée’ and ‘Le Sang de l’agneau’). 

Venus on the Half-Shell (Escargot de Vénus, 1975)

Borowczyk’s other erotic films also had distinguished literary sources: The Beast was inspired by Prosper Mérimée’s novella Lokis, Behind Convent Walls (Interno d’un convento, 1977) by Stendhal (the article ‘Promenades dans Rome’), Lulu (1980) by Frank Wedekind’s play, Dr Jekyll by Robert Louis Stevenson, while The Art of Love (Ars amandi, 1983) features the poet Ovid as a central character.  (Borowczyk also depicted the painter Raphael, Erzsebet Báthory and Lucrezia Borgia as film protagonists).  At the turn of the 1990s, Borowczyk adapted four works of classic erotica into half-hour episodes for the French TV series Série Rose. 

Art of Love (Ars amandi, 1983)

None of this prevented him from being frequently dubbed “that arty pornographer”, although his erotic films defy that overly simplistic label.  On the most basic level, they lack the continuum that is the essence of true pornography.  Anyone using his films for sexual gratification is likely to be frustrated by his constant framing of seemingly important details just off camera, or cutting away at equally crucial moments - often to a loving close-up of an inanimate, often antique object. (Sight & Sound, one of the few English-language publications that remained broadly sympathetic to Borowczyk, asked of Dr Jekyll, “Who else would think of draping a girl over a treadle sewing-machine as an image of erotic invitation?”).  

Docteur Jekyll et les femmes (1981)

More importantly, Borowczyk delves beneath the surface in a way that pornographers rarely feel the need to do.  Although his features are invariably populated by exceptionally attractive and frequently unclothed young women (incarnated most memorably by his wife Ligia Branice, Paloma Picasso, Sylvia Kristel and Marina Pierro), it’s equally clear that he takes as keen an interest in their psychology and their own all too palpable desires, whether the entrapped naïfs played by Branice (the 1966 short Rosalie, the features Goto and Blanche) or the altogether more knowing and assertive women played by Pierro in the later films.  

Borowczyk the voyeur

While it’s hard to forget that we’re looking through the eyes of a middle-aged voyeur (Borowczyk was already in his fifties when Immoral Tales opened), he was cheerfully honest about this, responding to a charge that he was simply a pervert with the reply that he was merely echoing people’s existing fantasies.  But it’s this constant tension between the desires of the observer and the observed that give his films an erotic charge that remains almost unmatched in cinema.


Saturday 7 December 2013

D is for... Daumier

In 1999, the late, great Polish poster artist Franciszek Starowieyski (1930 - 2009) recalled a poem recited by Borowczyk’s jealous peers at the Krakow Academy of Fine Arts:

Following Daumier like a sheep,
Wherever Daumier goes, there will be Borowczyk.
Following Daumier like a sheep,
Daumier is here, but where is Borowczyk?

The poem concerned what they saw as Borowczyk’s debt to the nineteenth century French caricaturist Honoré Daumier (1808 - 1879):

The Daumier influence is most evident in the satirical drawings Borowczyk produced during the early 1950s for journals like Szpilki (Pins), edited by the caricaturist Eryk Lipiński (1808 - 1991):

The influence of Daumier on Borowczyk is interesting for a number of reasons. First, it undermines the notion that the artists like Borowczyk were the product of an exclusively ‘Polish’ artistic-cultural tradition. Second, Daumier also exerted a strong influence on another artist turned filmmaker, Sergei Eisenstein (1898 - 1948). (Eisenstein, incidentally, was one of only a handful of filmmakers who Borowczyk cited as an inspiration).

Borowczyk’s produced these satirical drawings during the socialist realist (socrealizm) period. In the Soviet Union, Socialist Realism had been effect since Karl Radek’s speech at the Writer’s Congress of 1934. In Poland it was implemented in 1949, by the then Minister of Culture, Włodzimierz Sokorski (1908 - 1999), under the auspices of the Party’s ideologue, Jakub Birman (1901 - 1984), and lasted until about 1955, a few years after Stalin’s death. In his memoirs, Borowczyk looked back on these drawings without shame, claiming that he had always been anti-capitalist:

In 1953, Borowczyk was awarded the National Prize for his lithographic work, particularly a cycle of images depicting the construction of the Nowa Huta district in Krakow: 

However, more often than not Borowczyk’s satirical drawings and lithographic cycles tend to be excluded from retrospectives of socrealizm. Unlike some his colleagues, Borowczyk did not adopt a ‘persona’ during this five or six year period when aesthetic freedom was limited. Indeed, there is a grotesqueness and perversity that makes a number of these satirical drawings stand out, in particular those involving President Harry S. Truman. One of these drawings, which features Truman wearing a what looks like a cardinal gown, over complete with hooves and a goat like tail:

While the image is designed to poke fun at Truman’s moral hypocrisy, it also prefigures the climactic image of La Bête (The Beast, 1975), whereby (spoiler) a character is revealed as having both a tail and a wolf-like hand.

One could say this is yet further proof of the ‘painterly’ aspect of Borowczyk’s approach to filmmaking, although I suspect the artist would (much like Eisenstein), argue that Daumier’s approach to graphics was essentially ‘cinematic’ in terms of both his dynamic approach towards composition and the inherent montage used to give imagery meaning.


Friday 29 November 2013

C is for... Composer

During his career, Borowczyk displayed a remarkable capacity for combining imagery with music. In Poland, two of the films he made with Jan Lenica (1928 - 2001) used music that had emerged from the then newly established Experimental Studio of Polish Radio. Modeled along the lines of similar facilities in Cologne and Milan, the Warsaw studio is proof of not just the relative freedom in Poland during the late 1950s, but the extent to which the State not only tolerated but encouraged experimentation and innovation. To see a newsreel about the Experimental Studio click here.
Był sobie raz... (Once Upon a Time, 1957) was scored by Andrzej Markowski (1924 - 1986), whom Borowczyk would call upon to provide music for not only his first professional solo-effort, Szkoła (The School, 1958), but also his first professional film abroad, Les Astronautes (Astronauts, 1959). 

Dom (The House, 1958), Borowczyk and Lenica's final collaboration, featured a remarkable score by Włodzimierz Kotoński, with whom Lenica would continue to work during the 1960s. Music from the archives of the Experimental Studio have recently been re-issued on CD by Bôłt Records.

In France, Borowczyk established fruitful working relationships with Avenir de Monfred and Bernard Parmegiani. Monfred, an organist and composer, was born in Petersburg in 1903, emigrated to France. For Borowczyk, he composed scores for films produced by Jacques Forgeot's Les Cinéastes Associés: Le concert (The Concert, 1962) L'encyclopedie de grand-maman (Grandma’s Encyclopedia, 1963) and Renaissance (1963).

Borowczyk's association with Parmegiani began in 1964, with Les jeux des anges (Angels’ Games, 1965), which utilised some elements from Violostries (1962), with others that would appear in later compositions, such as L'Oeil écoute (1970). Borowczyk's collaboration with Parmegiani continued with Le dictionnaire de Joachim (Joachim’s Dictionary). However, arguably the most effective unison of Borowczyk's imagery with Parmegiani's music was in Docteur Jekyll et les femmes (The Blood of Dr Jekyll, 1981). For this, Parmegiani reworked passages from his 1972 composition, Pour en finir avec le pouvoir d'Orphée. Borowczyk and Parmegiani's final collaboration was in 1984, with the animated short film, Scherzo Infernal (1984). Parmegiani talks about his audio-visual collaborations with Borowczyk in Eyes that Listen, a new featurette to be included in Arrow Academy's Walerian Borowczyk Collection:

When not working directly with contemporary composers, Borowczyk demonstrated a fine ear for classical music. A recording of Tino Rossi singing Je crois encore entendre, an aria from Bizet’s opera Les pêcheurs de perles, can be heard during the second panel of arguably Borowczyk’s most curious short, Diptyque (Diptych, 1967). For the title sequence of Blanche (1971), Borowczyk turned to an arrangement based on a song (no. 116) from the Carmina Burana song book.

The harpsichord is put to ironic use in both Gavotte (Rameau) and La Bête (Scarlatti), while the rapturous strains of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto play an integral role in Borowczyk’s delirious melodrama, Dzieje grzechu (Story of Sin, 1975). Camille Saint-Saëns’ Danse macabre appears during the sex and death in Borowczyk’s Wedekind adaptation, Lulu (1980). Arguably the most unique soundtrack in Borowczyk’s filmography is that for La Marge (The Streetwalker, 1976). For this, Borowczyk’s first film to be set exclusively in the contemporary world, Borowczyk featured music that might conceivably feature on the jukebox standing in a bar where prostitutes pick up their clients. This includes Elton John, 10CC, short-lived seventies outfit Sailor, not to mention Charles Aznevour, selections from Chopin, old tango recordings and Pink Floyd’s Shine on You Crazy Diamond...
On one occasion, Borowczyk himself was responsible for the music: the Goto anthem. This melody, incidentally, reappears Brief von Paris (1976), as part of a musique concrete soundtrack credited to Borowczyk and Tom Schmitt.


Friday 22 November 2013

B is for... Beast

Arguably Walerian Borowczyk’s best-known film, certainly his most immediately notorious, The Beast (La bête, 1975) was nurtured by several creative and historical wellsprings.  

French author Prosper Mérimée (1803-1870)

In 1869, Prosper Mérimée’s novella Lokis described a young man believed to be half-bear, who duly tore out his bride’s throat on their wedding night and fled into the forest.  (Mérimée is best known for the 1845 novella Carmen, in which a strong-minded and sexually liberated woman favours a man who tames bulls over her staid husband Don José.)  

Lokis (first filmed in Poland in 1970 by Janusz Majewski) has been interpreted as an inversion of the classic fairytale ‘Beauty and the Beast’. 

The poster for the film Lokis (1970),
designed by Franciszek Starowieyski.

Jean Cocteau's famous 1946 adaptation of
La Belle et la Bête, with Josette Day and
(under lots of fur) Jean Marais.

The most famous version, by Jeanne-Marie Le Prince de Beaumont, was published in 1756, a decade before rural France was terrorised by a creature described as a grotesquely oversized wolf.  

Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894)

Robert Louis Stevenson, later the source of Borowczyk’s Docteur Jekyll et les femmes (1981), vividly depicted what he called “the ever-memorable Beast, the Napoleon Bonaparte of wolves”:

“What a career was his!  He lived ten months at free quarters in Gévaudan and Vivrais; he ate women and children and shepherdesses celebrated for their beauty; he pursued armed horsemen; he has been seen at broad noonday chasing a post-chaise and outrider along the king’s high-road, and chaise and outrider fleeing before him at the gallop.  He was placarded like a political offender, and ten thousand francs were offered for his head.”

Contemporary engraving of the legendary
Beast of Gévaudan

These all fuelled Borowczyk’s film, as did Władysław Podkowiński’s painting Frenzy of Exultations (Szał uniesień), which scandalised Varsovians in 1894 - a reproduction hangs on the walls of the film’s main location.  (Borowczyk graduated from Kraków’s Academy of Fine Arts, not far from the National Museum where Podkowiński’s original has hung since 1904).  

Władysław Podkowiński’s
Frenzy of Exultations
(Szał uniesień, 1893)

Borowczyk initially made the short film The True Story of the Beast of Gévaudan (La véritable histoire de la bête du Gévaudan) for the anthology Immoral Tales (Contes immoraux, 1974), but it was subsequently removed and turned into the 18th-century dream sequence in The Beast.  It’s now bookended by a Lokis-inspired present-day framing story in which young Lucy Broadhurst (Lisbeth Hummel) travels to France for an arranged marriage, but discovers that her would-be husband Mathurin (Pierre Benedetti) is less interested in her than he is in his horses - shown graphically copulating in the film’s confrontational opening sequence.  

Lucy Broadhurst (Lisbeth Hummel)
in the throes of her dream.

The original short film now becomes Lucy’s erotic dream, in which Mathurin’s ancestor Romilda (Sirpa Lane) is pursued by a ravening beast sporting a monstrous phallus, but her awakened sexuality proves too much for it.  The film was made years before the modern definition of the term “political correctness” was coined, although the sequences between Lucy’s future sister-in-law Clarisse (Pascale Rivault) and the château’s black manservant Ifany (Hassane Fall) are at least as much a comment on class-based divisions as on racial ones.  

A horrified Romilda de l'Espérance (Sirpa Lane)
encounters the beast.

Besides its complex disquisition on human and animal sexuality, The Beast is also a pointed social satire, with the aristocracy and the church coming in for mockery of a kind already familiar to devotees of Borowczyk’s fellow Surrealist Luis Buñuel.  Indeed, the shot of a snail occupying Romilda’s discarded shoe echoes the moment in Buñuel’s The Diary of a Chambermaid (Le journal d’une femme de chambre, 1964), in which a murdered child is found with sticky snail tracks over her legs.  

A new high-definition restoration of Borowczyk's The Beast will be released on Blu-ray and DVD by Arrow Films in Spring 2014 as part of the Walerian Borowczyk Collection box set.  A Kickstarter fundraising campaign to restore Borowczyk's first live-action feature Goto, Isle of Love (Goto, l'île d'amour, 1968) is running until 11 January 2014.

Next week, C...


Friday 15 November 2013

November Screenings

Leeds International Film Festival

Festival director Chris Fell and Programme manager Alexander King have been longstanding supporters of Borowczyk. Between November 16 - 17, they will be screening Eight Shorts (1962 - 1969), Théâtre de Monsieur & Madame Kabal (1967), Blanche (1971) and Obscure Pleasures: A Portrait of Walerian Borowczyk (2013).

Krakow Etiuda & Anima Festival

Krakow's Etiuda & Anima festival has also championed Borowczyk's work over the years. There will be screenings of Eight Shorts (1962 - 1969) and Obscure Pleasures: A Portrait of Walerian Borowczyk (2013) on November 24 and 25 respectively. The full programme can be downloaded here.

Tuesday 12 November 2013

A is for... Animation


Whether it be a prop or an actor, animation, for Borowczyk, simply meant breathing life into something or someone. While he is often referred to as an animator turned live action filmmaker, Borowczyk did not make a distinction between the two genres:

"I’ve never considered whether I make animation film or a film of animated drawings or anything else... I just make film. My principal guide in everything I do in cinema is what I learned when very young: film is the unfolding of 24 images per second. This analysis, or extract, of what the eye perceives, creates cinema. My guide is thinking of how to express myself in 24 images, going past and creating a movement, or an illusion of one. When I learned that, I immediately came up with so many ideas. But I didn’t invent this way of thinking. Méliès did it all first. There’s no invention involved. It’s just playing with the elements. And each does so according to their temperament."

(This quote is from a filmed interview with Borowczyk that features in a new 60-minute documentary which is to be part of Arrow Academy’s forthcoming Walerian Borowczyk Collection - to pre-order your copy click here.)

Whenever journalists quizzed Borowczyk about his filmmaker heroes he would always mention:
Charles-Émile Reynaud (1844 - 1918):

Émile Cohl (1857 - 1938):

Georges Méliès (1861 - 1938):

It is interesting to consider Borowczyk’s affinity with these three pioneers of early cinema. First and foremost, all excelled in the short film form. Second, each one of these filmmakers made fantastic films, in the sense that they favoured the world of imagination.

Like his former collaborator, Jan Lenica (1928 - 2001), Borowczyk was fascinated not just with early cinema, but also the precursors of cinema. He was particularly fascinated by the French physiologist and chronophotographer Étienne-Jules Marey (1830 - 1904). Over a decade before the Lumière Brothers held their first private screenings of their own motion pictures, Marey developed a gun-like device which could photograph twelve frames per second: 

Similarly, the English photographer Eadweard Muybridge (1830 - 1904) developed a system involving multiple cameras to capture motion as well as a projection device: the zoopraxiscope:

Borowczyk and Lenica paid homage to these early pioneers of cinema in a sequence in Dom (House, 1958), featuring a bout between two fencers. The same year, Borowczyk produced a short film entirely from still photographs, Szkółka (The School, 1958), and developed the technique further with Les Astronautes (Astronauts, 1959), co-directed by Chris Marker (1921 - 2012):

Interestingly, a few years later Marker directed his own film made up from only still photographs (well, almost), La Jetée (1963), which featured none other than Mrs Borowczyk, Ligia Branice, as one of the ‘faces from the future’:

Next week, B...