*Some Images NSFW*
Director, animator, provocateur, the ‘engineer of ecstasy’ and more, Walerian Borowczyk wore many a guise in his fruitful yet controversial career. But under the hard rule of studios, critics and censors, he was tarnished with the label of pervert. And to be fair he would be unhappy with all the labels thus far. He was a pervert, but that wasn’t to mean that was a bad thing.
Born in Poland in 1923, it was his upbringing under seismic political and emotional conflict that seemed to shape much of his barbed humour and wry commentaries. A later move to France - where many of his works would be made - helped mould his artistic sensibilities, motivated by the shifts in contemporary cinema that saw the rise of arthouse film across Europe.
Though erotica was the label most pinned to him, his films were layered in satire and nuance. It is a shame that much of his criticisms and philosophical musings were lost when the censors hacked his films to pieces for decades. But being known as a pornographer, and the wicked and perverse man he could be, was not insult to Borowczyk who once said: “Eroticism, sex, is one of the most moral parts of life. Eroticism does not kill, exterminate, encourage evil, lead to crime. On the contrary, it makes people gentler, brings joy, gives fulfilment, leads to selfless pleasure.”
It has not been until recent archival excavations and relaxing of censorships on his films for home release that many of his works have been uncovered and enjoyed in their fullest state. Through Arrow Video with their Camera Obscura restoration and BFI here in the UK we have seen a new love rained upon the director’s works.
It’s easy for me to sit back and say I don’t like the films of Walerian Borowczyk (it’s only a sentence after all). More specifically that I was disappointed by them. But when I reflect on the fact that wonderful authors such as Angela Carter remained a fan of his work and was the inspiration for giants such as Terry Gilliam, I found myself drawn to them. So the bar was high. But through the disappointment and sometimes boredom I recall the quote by Abbas Kirastami; ‘I prefer the films that put their audience to sleep in the theatre… but the same films have made me stay up at night, wake up thinking about them in the morning and keep on thinking about them for weeks.’
I’m a huge fan of slow cinema, so long plodding and reflective films are a big Yes. I’m also fond of experimental and taboo bending films; Japanese cinema, for example, is very close to my heart. All in all, I also love a good raunchy film now and again, the more novel the better. Let’s be frank; I love film. And though Borowczyk hardly falls into slow cinema, he is a master of the surreal, absurd and filthy. So it’s a shame I never clicked. Or did I?
The pornographer artiste saw many of his films banned across the world to his delight. Some of his politics, I do not harbour though how much the provocateur he intended to be in such gesticulating, we shall never know, but something about his films no matter how much I didn’t actually like them, I think about daily. There is certainly a biting commentary, a titillation and cheeky nod no matter what you see in it. Most of all, its glorious perversion filmed in some of the prettiest erotic lighting I’ve ever seen. In fact all of his films have delectable palettes and playful mise-en-scene. To the eye, they are quite the treat.
So today, I’m exorcising myself of Boro once and for all by deep-diving the ones I think about most of all. Maybe I’ll be able to write again once it’s free from me, I will shed the heretic guise and restore my pure, little movie-loving heart. Or I’ll just hit up some more wild works (Fassbinder’s on the TBW pile).
10. Blanche (1971)
Oh yeah, I’m putting this low. Maybe the perfect example of my disappointment in a film despite enjoying elements of the overall thing comes in the package of Blanche. With a tone that I’m certain the Python’s seemed to be taken with and an aesthetic not quite captured again in medieval fares (though Ridley Scott tried his darnedest in his Rashomockery slog), I did find something to come away with. After the first half an hour or so, I found myself floundering a little. It stands out in rather stark contrast to the eroticism that followed in latter works, a far more conservative piece with as much of the black humour he imbued his stories with. Though the critics rave for its historical authenticity, there’s little else I found to vibe with.
The pure, young and beautiful wife of the aging master of the land, Blanche, is coveted by all those she meets. Kind and gentle, she is soon hounded by the love and lust of the men who visit including the king and his servant. Give this one a go, if only to get a sense of Borowczyk’s more restrained work and for his skill and attention to detail. Who knows, you may just love it.
9. Behind Convent Walls (1978)
The trend is I am always disappointed. The other is I can’t shake Borowczyk. The other other is Borowczyk films are great to look at. He has that knack. This film very much reminds me of the early career Almodóvar; he had plenty of mad nuns getting up to all sorts of mischief and it’s not a surprise he could have been influenced by a filmmaker like Borowczyk. And one of my favourite genres is nunsploitation; I realise now I have never rambled about the works of Ken Russel or my specific obsession with Oliver Reed in a clerical robe…
Anyway, back to this. The plot is as all of these kinds of films follow; the nuns of the convent are seemingly well behaved. However, they get up to all sorts of naughty business. Once again, there is certainly a biting sense of humour here. Does much happen? No, not in the plot-sense. But beneath his lens, he finds a way to paint the lewd and vulgar with some eroticism.
8. Mr. and Mrs. Kabal's Theatre (1967)
Something far more thoughtful now. The first feature-length film was also Borowczyk’s final animated and a culmination of his finest ideas. With hints of what was later to come and an unsettling perversity that enters on comedic barbarism, it’s a surrealist mastery in motion.
Formed of loosely-connected scenes, it follows the monstrous figure of Mrs Kabal and her meek husband (a grotesque-er Punch and Judy I guess) as they partake in various bizarre and cruel acts. The films itself is a mesh of different styles, of hand-drawn and cut out puppetry alongside clippings from illustrations and photographs (you can really see Gilliam’s inspiration on The Monty Python animation) alongside some uncanny sound mixing and strange dubbing sporadically translated.
7. A Private Collection (1973)
You just can’t look away from this one. I opt for the censored version against my usual protestations on the arrow release because there are some things I just don’t (and its one scene), especially when I know it’s the real deal (I cannot unsee the hint of what I had… so many regrets). However, this one really sums up his latter work in ‘sexploitation’.
Through a tour of Borowczyk’s personal collection of vintage erotica, he narrates with his funny little musings all the while shocking his audience. Serving as much a historical traipse through the perverse interest of our forefathers and how they liked to get their rocks off, it becomes highly reflective of perception verses deepest desires. If you’re ever starting a marathon, hit this one up I guess. You can see where he got some of his inspiration. If only I could bleach some of my memory.
6. A Game of Angels (1964)
A number of Borowczyk’s shorts could go here. In fact it could be argued some of him most striking work was in short form. However, a couple that best represent his work in the sixties should suffice. He was at his most abstract in this period, finding and telling deeply harrowing and possibly personal works to the most remarkable effect. This is no better showcased than his unsettling short, A Game of Angels.
In a nightmarish factory, angel-like creatures are produced. At thirteen minutes it manages to capture the bleak, incessant horror of industrialisation, interpreted as an allegory of the Soviet period and the Concentration Camp experience. Though much of Borowczyk’s past was never known, it is easy to see this film as possibly one of his most personal and dark animations.
5. The Beast (1975)
It’s interesting to note that many of his films are blatantly divisive by how striking the average reviews are. Often cited as his twisted retelling of Beauty and the Beast, the story actually shares very little with original fairy-tale. No film by Borowczyk caused quite as much a stink as this one. But I suppose, when people didn’t think he could get any freakier, he did drop one infuriatingly long opening scene (and close-up), that was also shamefully mahoosive. It’s his way of saying; ‘I dare you to keep watching’. It’s a complete endurance test to his viewer’s eyeballs.
A young woman is intended to inherit a vast fortune when she agrees to marry a man but it is not long before she discovers a dark past of the family which involves a monstrous beast. I appreciate the extremes Borowczyk goes and his costume designers too; I was both equally in peals of laughter and utterly impressed. No half-arser are they. When you see, you’ll catch my drift. And boy does he milk that prosthetic (the puns!).
But the film plods through its middle, with a few shocking scenes here and there until you’re thoroughly worn out by all the sheer nightdresses and lewd households. Yet I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen, nor could I forget what I saw (which is really difficult to do once you’ve seen it). Its finale is the real show-stopper, intended originally as a short for Immoral Tales he chose to extend; Borowczyk explores the nature of the beast within human nature, sexuality and bestiality. It’s a biting commentary on our own primordial desires and jabs heavily at the prudish and critics of the time. Even now, it is pure taboo farce. That it still shocks proves that it achieved… something.
4. Goto, Island of Love! (1969)
One of the few Borowczyk films I could consider genuinely thoughtful has to be this 1969 feature. Interpreted as an allegory of his own early life and the rule of fascism that stifled his country, a simple black and white film with few and far between glimmers of striking colour, its elements of the theatrical, the cabinet of curiosities set pieces that encroach around the story and its characters makes it the closest live-action film he directed to his own animations. But the affect is engrossing and wonderfully unique. The film was banned by fascist Spain and communist Poland.
An island called Goto, ruled by a ruthless dictator, is shaken when a lowly thief works his way through the ranks. Meanwhile, himself and the other islanders are seduced by the temptation of love and lust that seems to knock the foundations of their oppressive rulership.
3. Immoral Tales (1973)
Rumour has it, (the internet) a Church in Poland held mass to pray for the souls of Borowczyk’s film distributors. Mythos declares that during an outdoor screening of Immoral Tales, a storm broke out and yet not a single audience member left their seat, enduring the titillation through thunder and lighting. Rainer Werner Fassbinder was present, and quizzed Borowczyk later at the bar on his lack of male erections on film to which the Polish filmmaker replied, ‘There were, in the crowd, despite the thunderstorm and lightning.’
This gets a high ranking because the length of the entries that just worked well. As equally controversial as The Beast upon release, Immoral Tales benefits from its anthology set up exploring sexual fantasises and the taboo through significant figures and nameless lovers throughout history. Despite the gruesomeness of some of the tales, repulsive and brutal, one thing of merit one can take from this is his desire for liberalism though sexuality, perfectly captured in all its naturalistic, nude-y glory.
2. The Story of Sin (1975)
Funny that my favourite Borowczyk are his most literary. Based on the 1908 novel The Wages of Sin by Stefan Żeromski, somehow the polish filmmaker is restrained in his retelling, marvellously so, proving as much that he could capture sensuality and taboo without being… well, crass. Of course the film has its moments but at BBFC fifteen, it’s far less graphic in nature than its title suggests. Calling to mind the visual flare of Ingmar Bergman/Sven Nykvist seventies collaboration, it feels far more thoughtful and mature than many of his other works.
A moving and intimate portrait of a fall from grace, following the plight of a beautiful polish girl who endures a series of tragic, cruel encounters with men out to use her across Europe as she searches for the man she loves. Of the films on this list, it may be the only Polish one here and certainly the most Polish of all his works, a guided criticism of the hypocrisy of the deeply Roman Catholic country. His heroine, though foolish, harbours much agency in her choices and somehow remains a strangely endearing lead, perhaps the most feminist of all of Borowczyk’s women and certainly the most admirable.
1. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne (1981)
I don’t like this film. But at this point I must have Stockholm syndrome or something because I’ve included it in a couple of my other articles and still not a day goes by where I don’t picture the never-ending bathtub scene and wonder to myself why it had to be ten minutes. And now I'm calling it my favourite? Apparently.
Aesthetically, for sure. With the hazy lights, shady hallways and the gauzy dreamlike quality to the film that gives me a lot of latter Seijun Suzuki vibes, I yearn for films in the Twenty-first century to capture a look like this.
An interpretation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, in 19th century London a sex maniac sneaks into the titular characters engagement party and wreaks absolute havoc on all the guests, leaving behind some questionable wounds and leading the evening into debauchery, mystery and madness. A horror-like fable, it’s all about the atmosphere. Sensual and decadent, and somehow a little more highbrow than his other provocative works (despite Mr Hyde), it’s just a mood. It was probably the last really intriguing film he made. Shocking and ridiculous and over the top, the effects and costumes are so on point that it’s forgiven all of its sins. Even the devilish Hyde and his menacing member.
There you have it; my love/hate relationship with Walerian Borowczyk has accumulated in a top ten list. Join me in the sensual gutter! Do you dare the murky sleaze, carnal eroticism of Poland’s most controversial filmmaker? Or are you not ready to battle with the remotes volume as you hear your housemate come up the stairs? With all that neighing they had to find out what you were doing, right?