Walerian Borowczyk Explores the Obsessive Quest in 'Story of Sin'

by Imran Khan

24 May 2017

In Story of Sin, there's a realism articulated through a psychological terror, an anxiety ramped up to the wild-eyed surveying of struggle and compromise.
Grazyna Dlugoleck as Ewa Pobratynska 
cover art

The Story of Sin

Director: Walerian Borowczyk
Cast: Grazyna Dlugolecka, Jerzy Zelnik

US theatrical: 28 Mar 2017
1975

Released the same year as The Story of Adele H, François Truffaut’s masterful study on obsessive love, Walerian Borowczyk’s own version of twisted romance, Story of Sin (Dzieje grzechu, often listed as The Story of Sin), found an equally charismatic design on female-empowered narratives.

Truffaut’s leading woman, the much adored Isabelle Adjani, pushed her innate dramatic abilities to their furthest extremes for a performance which would earn the French star her first Oscar nomination for Best Actress. While Poland’s Grazyna Dlugolecka may not possess the acting prowess of her far more prolific French contemporary, she is by no means a mere runner-up. It’s her earnest and untrained performance, in all of its tangled and fettered dances with the looming turn-of-the century backdrop, which ultimately sells the film.

Premiering at Cannes in 1975 (where it would be nominated for the Palme d’Or), Story of Sin tells the tale of a shy, Polish ingénue whose family rents their vacant apartment bedroom out to boarders to help scrape by. Ewa (pronounced Eva) is suddenly conflicted with religious guilt when, in confession, she is enlightened on the nature of sin. Ewa’s desires are put to the test when a handsome, young boarder comes to stay at her household.

Lukasz, the young married boarder seeking a divorce from his estranged wife, takes an immediate liking to Ewa. Fairly soon, the two are deeply engaged in activities carnal and otherwise and Ewa soon finds herself tasked with having to conceal a scandalous affair from her overbearing parents. When Lukasz suddenly departs, Ewa’s emotional frustration gives way to an unravelling of her sanity, which will have her travelling the world in search of her lover—a quest which will end in soul-shattering misery. 

Like the way it is with the actors in most Borowczyk films, Dlugolecka’s presence in Story of Sin is secondary to the overwhelming art direction and design. The actress is often swallowed up by the meticulous amount of detail which threatens to close in on the cast whenever the filmmaker takes to fancying his preeminent artistry (which is almost always). Speaking an aesthetic language so few seemed to understand during his lifetime, Borowczyk famously enslaved his actors to their opulent environments.

While Dlugolecka is no different here, she seems aware of the imposition and appears to fight it at every end. It informs a performance that’s worked to an extreme, like a sore muscle from strenuous labour. Either wounded and feeble in the pensive moments of shame or feral and desperate when scorned, Dlugolecka swings wildly the pendulum of Ewa’s passions from one emotional exhaust to another. In a Borowczyk film, she has no choice. Unlike Adjani, who commands a scene simply through the sheer magnitude of her talents, Dlugolecka wisely uses the intimidations of Borowczyk’s painterly evocations as a means from which to react.

Story of Sin was Borowczyk’s only film shot in his native Poland and remains, therefore, a curio in his body of work. Often, the film is touted as a surrealist exploit into the affairs of obsessive love, but there’s very little (if at all) displays of surrealism here. In fact, the story plays out most impressionistically. There’s a realism articulated through a psychological terror, an anxiety ramped up to the wild-eyed surveying of struggle and compromise. The narrative is grounded in the naturalism of a by-gone world of corseted women and derby-hatted men who stake their claims in the revolving traffic of horse carriages and row boats.

Ewa’s disintegration unfolds with the tragicomic nuances the filmmaker is often cited for (a trait best appreciated in his masterpiece, Goto, Isle of Love). If you’re looking for something that might hold a candle to Adjani’s untouchable performance in Truffaut’s film of similar design, Story of Sin may be yet another estimable entry into the modest genre of the anti-romantic drama.

Arrow Academy has done a marvellous job on this transfer, bringing this once-obscure film into the bright lights of the digital age. The images are crisp and clear. It’s also textured with a healthy amount of film grain (for the cinephiles who love that stuff). Colours, in particular, are muted and baroque, full of late 19th century hues (burgundies, crimsons, violets and baby blues) that are rich and fulsome. Sound and dialogue are very nicely rendered and the soundtrack of sentimental classical music (which seems to be the preserve of many Polish films) is appropriately used.

In the way of extras, this is possibly one of Arrow Academy’s most generous packages. It includes both the DVD and Blu-Ray versions of the film, for optimal convenience. The bonus materials are absolutely fantastic; included here is the obligatory audio commentary on the film, the short films Once Upon a Time, Dom and The School by Borowczyk, an interview with the leading actress Dlugolecka, a number of featurettes on the film, including a discussion with film essayist Daniel Bird and another one on Borowczyk’s choice of music in his films. In addition to an introduction about the promotional artwork on the film, there’s also a wonderful little essay booklet that comes with the package with an insightful piece on the once-forgotten film.

The early works of Borowczyk favoured a subtlety, in which the erotic elements were relegated to the background of his narratives. By the late ‘70s, the director took a sharp left turn into what many consider softcore pornography, depending on the critic reviewing his work. Admittedly, despite the leanings toward a more open display of eroticism from the late ‘70s and beyond, Borowczyk’s visual aesthetics would only develop and expand further into an impossibly gorgeous and breathtaking composition of imagery and art.

Story of Sin can be included in a trilogy of the filmmaker’s early works, which include the medieval drama Blanche (1971) and the romantic dystopian fable Goto, Isle of Love (1969). These three films deal with, in one capacity or another, the dangerous perils of obsessive love and the romantic nihilism born from unrequited passions.

The Story of Sin

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