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)
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.
Life Imitates Art
Theatre of Mr. and Mrs. Kabal (1967), Borowczyk’s debut feature, is minimalist animation almost devoid of background and shading and with occasional color details. The “action” is a series of grimly whimsical vaudeville-type sketches between the grotesque married couple and sundry butterflies and lizard-like reptiles who are somehow the same animals. As usual, transformation is a constant theme and motif as everything is always turning into something else, and death remains a trivial dramatic detail that’s never necessarily permanent. The film also has the earliest examples of women bathing, posing and being spied upon, which will be a recurring motif for Borowczyk as a prime intermingling of desire and surveillance.
The Kabals previously starred in The Concert (1962), which is on the Olive disc of French shorts. It’s natural to wonder, and we must do so fruitlessly, if the spelling of “Kabal” is meant to remind us of esoteric mysticism and the search for hidden meanings via “Kabbalah”. Borowczyk’s work has a particularly Catholic rather than Jewish orientation, although we must also consider the abstract grey and black tones of the short Angels’ Games (1964). Its grotesque animation of repeated ritualized decapitations, train sounds, and wrestling pieces of meat has encouraged the interpretation that it’s a vision of the Holocaust and concentration camps, an awareness heavily in the minds of the postwar Polish artists. Note that its title connotes both Jewish and Catholic supernaturalism.
Grozo (Guy Saint-Jean), Glossia (Ligia Branice) and (Pierre Brasseur) in Goto, Isle of Love (1968)
Duels to the death and the value of spyglasses feature heavily in Goto, Isle of Love (1968), which takes place on an island that’s somehow been cut off from the rest of the world since an earthquake killed off most of the population in the 1880s. It’s tempting to read this mythical land as a transmogrified history of the postwar Poland left behind by Borowczyk, a country in some ways cut off from contemporary Europe and stuck in empty replays of its history. (This makes us think, retroactively and parenthetically, that the moments when Mr. Kabal in the previous movie spied on brightly colored girls in bikinis, whose come-hither gestures were always guarded and thwarted by the same angry bearded patriarch, were enactments of how the citizens of surrealized countries caught forbidden glimpses of the West.)
Goto’s survivors perpetuate the rituals of civilization in a degenerate way. For example, they play the music of Handel, but the original instruments stand unplayed while they fabricate homely new ones, like a musical saw. They have a bizarre manner of choosing a monarch, and another bizarre manner of settling criminal cases through gladiatorial combat on a stage.
One criminal survivor (Guy Saint-Jean), put in charge of the kennel and the killing of flies (another recurring element in Borowczyk), becomes obsessed with the queen (Branice, of course), who in turn is carrying on with a young lieutenant (Jean-Pierre Andreani) under the nose of her stiff and jolly husband (Pierre Brasseur). This quartet manages to make life miserable for each other as the lowly wretch plots his rise to power under the notion that he can annex the queen for himself. This enigmatic black and white film has a few fleeting color inserts.
The color film Blanche (1971) is a medieval tale of love and tragedy based explicitly on a work by Polish Romantic Juliusz Slowacki, who in turn was inspired by Byron’s 1819 poem Mazeppa, on the topic of a Polish lover punished for adultery. Byron had been inspired by Voltaire, and there are many versions of this apocryphal historical anecdote.
Borowczyk turns it into an elegant tableau that escalates from medieval courtly mode to Jacobean revenge horror spiraling around a heroine (Branice) who pines with chaste intensity for her stepson (Lawrence Trimble). The feeling is mutual, and their silent anguish is complicated by the brash and predatory page (Jacques Perrin) of the visiting king (Georges Wilson).
The Lear-like master of the castle, and Blanche’s husband is played by Michel Simon, having a grand old time as an icon of French cinema. Seen briefly is the main dwarf from Gavotte, and the whole is like a tapestried incarnation of the same hopelessly inward machinations on Goto, as an outsider inserts himself into an ongoing triangle.
Although the filmmaker retains his penchant for impassive four-square compositions interrupted by eyeblink close-ups for various details, he frees his camera periodically for subjective tracking shots, building to the frantic final scenes from the point of the view of a man being dragged by a horse.
Borowczyk would follow this historical saga of a repressed and victimized woman, and the repressed and victimized men around her, with Immoral Tales (1973), a wonderful celebration of transgressive women in history, and its fairy-tale offshoot The Beast. Both films are already available from Arrow and needn’t be discussed here, except to urge anyone interested in this filmmaker to seek them out at once.
Grazyna Dlugolecka in Story of Sin (1975)
But the stories of women’s sexual transgressions that receive the most prizes are those that fall back into the punishing mode, which returns us to the only feature Borowczyk made in Poland: Story of Sin (1975), based on a classic Polish novel by Stefan Zeromski that had been filmed at least twice before. In fact, the same actress who played the heroine in the 1933 version, Karolina Lubienska, returns to play the heroine’s mother in this version.
The iconically and mythically named Eva (Grazyna Dlugolecka) begins as a good Catholic girl attending confession and being advised by the priest to avoid temptation. Alas for her but good for the story, temptation promptly enters in the form on a new tenant (Jerzy Zelnik), who’s trying against the odds to get a divorce or annulment in this strict Catholic country in a story set vaguely during La Belle Époque.
Instead of accepting the impossibility of the situation, Eva pursues the relationship with rebellious tenacity, flouting convention and morality to pursue a complicated course of setbacks, liaisons and exploitations that includes a harrowing birth scene shot with a wildly subjective camera staggering all over the room. The tranquil surface of Borowczyk’s fussy, serene style is continually roiling with the emotions and behaviors that erupt from under it, often scored paradoxically by Mendelssohn.
In an extra interview, Dlugolecka claims that the director was absent for this one birth scene because his style was too constricting, so she and the photographer handled it themselves. She also says that they’d initially shot scenes with Branice as Eva before realizing she was too old to disguise as a 20-year-old, and that’s why Dlugolecka ended up with the role. (In Blanche, Branice’s head was entirely wrapped so that only her carefully lit face shown out like a moon.) She further states that, while the film was extremely popular in Communist Poland, she herself was “punished” for her young shamelessness by being kept from further meaty parts. She found out later that producers were told she was ill.
Life imitates art. Eva cannot be rewarded for her willful transgressions, of course, any more than Emma Bovary or Anna Karenina, or the novel wouldn’t have been published nor its subsequent film versions made. This leaves us free to interpret the film as a moralistic tale, and apparently it gained Church approval on such grounds, yet we’re equally free to perceive this calmly unfolding parade of bodice-bursting melodrama as a beady-eyed analysis of the ways in which Eva is trapped and exploited by the men around her, from being “boxed in” by the confessional to her final framings in windows and against doorways.
Like the Blu-rays of Blanche and Goto, the DVD/Blu-ray combo of Story of Sin comes with background material on its making. This disc fairly overflows with bonuses, including the aforementioned Polish shorts, complete with contexts and commentaries. Borowczyk merits such lavish attention after having his works shelved and dismissed for so long. There are still a few other features awaiting resurrection, and as we have seen, that’s always a possibility in Polish art.