Monday, December 07, 2009

The films of Walerian Borowczyk

From Les Jeux Des Anges to Emmanuelle 5
With cinema's potential for fetishistic lingering on detail, its desire for flesh, its capacity for the extreme close-up, and its final, inescapable, unavoidable superficiality, it’s a wonder the porno film has not been elevated to the status of art. But the low budgets, seediness, decidedly dodgy camerawork, the bad acting and narratives have assured its place in the hands of exploiters and perverts.

The films of Walerian Borowczyk (1923-2006) testify to an elegant, erotic obsession with ‘the object’ (in the surrealist meaning of the word), flesh and things superficial and sexual. It almost comes as no surprise that, after starting off as an animator, he drifted into the realm of softcore pornography, and still didn’t lose his elegant style and unique way of looking at ‘things’. Only Borowczeck could fuse everyday objects with an awkward sexuality and beauty.

An influence on Jan Swankmajer (now often cited as the 'best' animator in the world), early David Lynch, the Brothers Quay and Terry Gilliam, the Polish Borowczyk studied painting at college and produced film posters in the mid-1950s, revealing a mixture of painting, collage and photo montage.

(Polish film posters are finally getting the recognition – and the prices, unfortunately – they deserve. Posters from the 1950s up to the 1990s are amazingly imaginative – often, you'd hardly recognise the Hollywood blockbuster it was depicting (yes, that's a good thing). Ironically – or not... remember my dictum 'all art comes out of shit' – since Poland's political and social restrictions have lapsed in recent years, so has the quality of its poster art.)

Borowczyk began his animation career in the late 50s with fellow animator and surrealist Jan Lenica. They studied at the same film school as Roman Polanski, another Pole whose early films also demonstrate the bizarre and surreal. Borowczeck’s early work recalls the work of surrealists such as Max Ernst, abstract expressionists like Kurt Switters, the Cubism of Braque and Picasso and even the unclassifiable Joseph Cornell with his worlds in a box.

For animation, easier and more effectively than live action, has the capacity for creating new and enclosed worlds. Borowczyk’s best animations, Dom (1958), Les Astronautes (1959, with Chris Marker) and Les Jeux des Anges (1964) revealed an eclecticism of techniques – painting, drawing, stop-motion photography and collage, as well as an over-riding bleak and destructive tone.

Borowczyk’s first two ventures into live-action feature films, Goto, Island of love (1968) and Blanche (1971) were well received by critics. Austere, extraordinary, beautiful to look at, their flattened perspective, lack of shadows and characters often filmed in profile recall animated films and early Renaissance painting. Indeed, Blanche was set in the Middle Ages, and the costume, camerawork, music and acting depicted tales of illicit love that felt like they were filmed five hundred years ago. Blanche features the great French actor Michel Simon, who looked pretty old in Vigo's L'Atalante (1934); here he looks positively ancient. Also, like animation, the films were about closed-off worlds.

By 1974 with Immoral Tales, Borowczyk was slipping into the realms of softcore porn. Though still often visually striking, and like his animations revealing enclosed worlds (with the ol' flattened perspective), with one tale essentially about a blowjob and another featuring an attempted rape of a young girl, it can't disguise its sordidness.

After the well-received Story of Sin (1975), things started going downhill with La BĂȘte (also 1975), a ridiculous soft porn, misogynistic work: a beast runs around the countryside with a huge hard-on chasing an almost naked woman in a wig, still had moments of surreal beauty, such as the snails on the woman’s high heel shoe, perhaps revealing a Bunuel influence. The film has its admirers: and not just perverts – even film critics.

It's difficult to dismiss his later films as purely soft core trash. There's always more to Borowczyk than that. Behind Convent Walls (1975) is filmed like a Renaissance painting, or maybe a Vermeer. Blood of Dr Jekyll (1981) was a partial return to form, depicting Dr Jekyll's transformation into Mr Hyde as a backlash against Victorian morality, and starred decent actors, including Patrick Magee and Udo Kier. But by the time Borowczyk directed Emmanuelle 5 (1988), which I saw on video in a newsagent (some time ago!) for £4.99 (Borowczyk in a newsagent! That’s how you bring arthouse films to the masses!), I had lost all hope, even though a couple of shots were filmed with his now-signature flat like an animation, revealing the animator at heart. Maybe.

Goto Isle of Love was released this year on DVD by Nouveaux Pictures. But what's really needed is a DVD box-set of his early animations. You can watch some on YouTube and (a great site for obscure films and videos) but the quality's not great.

1 comment :

Anonymous said...

Pardon for my English. I'm italian and I teach latin...

Congratulations for your article about Borowczyck, one of the best articles about him that I've found.

You have noticed and understood the greatness of that director, often superficially considered only as a trivial pornographer.

His last masterpiece, almost a sort of ideal testament, is "Ars amandi" (The Art of Love), based on the treatise of the latin poet Ovidius, and featuring, along with the always charming and refined Marina Pierro, a ferocious Michele Placido and the old Massimo Girotti (in the role of the poet Ovid), who looks very fatigued and not in key with the character.

If at his place there had been, for instance, Vittorio Gassman, that movie (probably less erotic, less sensual and more meditative, than the usual Boro style, and enveloped and immerged in a realm of dark light and an obscure atmosphere) would have resulted in an absolute masterpiece of movie art (like the cruel, subtly sadistic episod of the comtess Erszebeth Bathory in "Contes immoraux", with the wonderful and conturbing Paloma Picasso, daughter of the painter, in the role of the protagonist).

I am a professor of Lyceum, and it's a sin that the catholic hypochrisy and the false moralism don't allow me to show that movie to my students. With it, they could understand that the classic world was not only violence and war, as it appears in most movies and, obviously, in the school books, but also, and maybe above all, pleasure, sensuality, joie de vivre and love for life.

I don't want to reveal the final of the movie. But it shows the violence of power and the cruelty of repression (the director himself was object and victim of censorship: he escaped from Poland but found repression even in the West).

Borowczyck reminds us of a time when culture, art ad eroticism could still be joyned toghether and conciliated. Nowadays, on one hand eroticism has degenerated in mere pornography, on the other culture almost does not exist anymore at all, if not in the form of boring academism).

Ars amandi, unluckily, is an hard to find movie, a rare gem.

But you can try here:

(with some screen captures, among others, of the wonderful Pierro).