Something Borowczyk, Something Blue

A Cinema of Sex and Power

by Michael Barrett

30 May 2017

Walerian Borowczyk is a filmmaker of glimpses and ellipses. Long neglected and obscure, his films are now emerging on Blu-ray.
Blanche (1971) 
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The Walerian Borowczyk Short Film Collection

Director: Walerian Borowczyk
Cast: N/A

US DVD: 25 Apr 2017

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Theatre of Mr. and Mrs. Kabal

Director: Walerian Borowczyk
Cast: N/A

US DVD: 25 Apr 2017

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Goto, Isle of Love

Director: Walerian Borowczyk
Cast: Pierre Brasseur, Ligia Branice

US DVD: 25 Apr 2017

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Blanche

Director: Walerian Borowczyk
Cast: Ligia Branice, Michel Simon

US DVD: 25 Apr 2017

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Story of Sin

Director: Walerian Borowczyk
Cast: Grazyna Dlugolecka, Jerzy Zelnik

US DVD: 28 Mar 2017

Walerian Borowczyk couldn’t help himself. All his films, whether shorts or features, animated or live, bear the stamp of himself, the vibe of having sprung organically from his brain—or handmade from his quaintly furnished atelier—and revealing the textures and quirks of his obsessions: desire, power, transformation, the grip of the past, the lure of antique objects, and the surreal, all steeped in classical European literature and history.

His stuff has been hard to find on video for many years, with only the odd project showing up now and then. Thanks to two companies, Olive Films and Arrow, viewers suddenly have most of his career at their fingertips, ready for visual caressing as their images constantly tease and retreat.

Who was Borowczyk? You won’t be surprised to learn he was Polish, and of the same postwar generation that gave us such malcontents as Roman Polanski, Andrzej Wajda and, slightly later, the similarly transgressive and original Andrzej Zulawski. As an art student, he teamed with his equally fresh and dynamic colleague, Jan Lenica, to make posters and short films.

The animated Once Upon a Time (1957) re-arranges paper cut-out shapes into various birds and animals that flirt with each other against the white space, a vision of life as constant flux and transformation in a whimsical vein. The following year, House uses the still photography of actors for a lexicon of techniques: animation, stop-motion, pixillation (the removing of frames). Its plotless skits were linked by photos of Borowczyk’s wife and constant muse, Ligia Branice, raising her doe-like head and opening her eyes. Among other things, Borowczyk’s career is a record of his obsession and collaboration with her.

These moments foreshadow the scene in Chris Marker’s famous short La Jetée (1962), in which the heroine of this still-photo odyssey startlingly opens her eyes. That’s not an idle reference, for Borowczyk relocated to the freer atmosphere of Paris in 1959 and promptly worked with Marker on a celebrated science fiction short of still photos and animation, Les Astronautes. As Marker said, he only lent his name to the project to get Borowczyk through the red tape, and he suggested using an owl instead of a canary, but otherwise, it was strictly Borowczyk’s creation. While space exploration was a very contemporary theme, Borowczyk evokes a throwback vision that recalls Georges Méliès turn-of-the-century trick films and H.G. Wells’ notions of DIY inventors.

Having access to these films makes it obvious what an impact Borowczyk had not only on Chris Marker but on young animator Terry Gilliam, so it’s no surprise that Gilliam offers an introduction on Olive’s The Walerian Borowczyk Short Films Collection, a Blu-ray that showcases the French work. The Polish shorts are included as extras along with thorough analysis and historical context on Arrow’s Blu-ray of Story of Sin, which we’ll get to soon enough.

The French films comprise 14 titles that range from animation to live action and the zone in between. Most are less about a plot than tone and image, though there’s the 18th Century skit Gavotte (1967) about the slapstick rivalry between two court dwarfs to Rameau’s harpsichord music. On the Arrow disc, David Thomson discusses Borowczyk’s continual interaction with classical pieces. Among other effects, the music signals not only his tastes but his intentions of identifying with a legacy of high art and culture. It’s as though these films belong to an alternate universe that only touches the contemporary world through the reverberation of certain ideas.

An especially striking short is 1963’s Renaissance, whose title evokes a historical period while the “action” is a simple and profound conceit. We begin with a wrecked room, and gradually the objects reassemble themselves from their destroyed states. It’s a stop-motion film run backwards. Typically, Borowczyk uses objects to stand in as “actors” for the human world, for civilization itself. Speaking only for this viewer, the film conveys a joyous and redemptive promise, although its cyclical nature implies that history is a continual cycle of destruction and rebirth. Is it a historical comment, a spiritual idea, or both?

Coming of age in the ferment of Poland’s 1950s, Borowczyk and his national colleagues were aware of the revival of the previously dismissed playwright Stanislas Witkiewicz, who eschewed realism and psychology in favor of bizarre theatrical effects that anticipated Beckett and Ionesco. Witkiewicz was always unceremoniously resurrecting characters after killing them off, demonstrating that death on stage was but a temporary development. This idea, as well as his sense of theatrical staging, come across in Borowczyk’s work, of which Renaissance is a great example. An extra about these shorts shows a photo of Borowczyk with novelist Witold Gombrowicz, for whom Witkiewicz was a mentor.

Ligia Branice in Rosalie (1966)

Ligia Branice in Rosalie (1966)

A live short that won several prizes, Rosalie (1966) features Ligia Branice enacting a monologue, supposedly a court testimony about the events that led a housemaid to be put on trial for killing her baby, although there’s a surprise twist. Based on a story by Guy de Maupassant, this intense cameo on gender and class leaves the impression of being one long close-up, although Borowczyk interpolates various illustrative images.

This short foreshadows a sequence in Story of Sin, just as Branice’s eye-opening in House foreshadows Goto, Isle of Love, but we’re not there yet. While we’re at it, the wax cylinder gramophone that stars in the 1969 short The Phonograph, as well as one of the selections it plays, also shows up again in Story of Sin.

As we’ve implied, it’s typical for Borowczyk to “star” antiquated objects in his movies, even if he sometimes constructed the objects himself. A late short, 1973’s A Private Collection, exists in two versions, with the longer version labeled as censored although each version shows things the other doesn’t. The curator, whose head is continually out of frame, shows off his collection of pornographic toys and objects from previous eras, leaving us to wonder which are real and which might be invented.

Some of the objects are about police, and priests don’t come off well in these films either. Perhaps it’s natural for Borowczyk, emerging from a country that combined Catholic guilt with Marxist censorship, to invest the erotic with the fetishization of antique mechanics, the dust of intellectual history, and the subversion of power. Presumably censored is an old peepshow loop that implies bestiality, a subject that rear its ugly head in his 1975 feature The Beast, already available from Arrow.

This short epitomizes the point that Borowczyk’s is a cinema of glimpses and ellipses. He adopts a flattened proscenium approach with the camera staring dead center at the action, or rather at a space where the action usually happens, although what happens often is that actors come in and out of the frame so that only body parts are glimpsed, like a foot on the stairs. He’s especially fascinated with stairs, doorways, windows and other frames within the frame that partially obscure our view and make us crane our necks to see more.

Adding to this mise-en-scene is a sense of editing that glimpses details or establishing shots or close-ups that are sometimes almost too rapid to process. The connections between these shots aren’t always immediately obvious, so it’s as though the film is blinking or free-associating in ways we’ll have to put together as we gather more information, or as certain developments are implied. Thus, the glimpse and the ellipse.

His themes are power and desire and how everyone’s behavior revolves around these concepts. Some people have power and abuse it, while others don’t have it and dream of being able to abuse it. The ideas of authority and liberation from it are expressed via sexual desires, and these ideas flower in Borowczyk’s feature films.

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