Brad Stevens, Video Watchdog Issue 32.
Recently I selected thirty or so films as the most essential (or greatest) foreign films I had ever seen. To honor Polish director Walerian Borowczyk I selected his amazing 1980 feature DR. JEKYLL AND HIS WOMEN for the list. While I do think that that surreal nightmarish masterpiece is his finest film, if I had to select a favorite I would have to go with a film he shot five years earlier in 1976.
LA MARGE is one of the oddest films in the legendary Borwoczyk's filmography. The great master would typical deal in period pieces for his life action epics, but LA MARGE is very much of the time it was made in. I would say that as much as any other film from the seventies, that it belongs to the decade. Everything from the clothes to the music, to the look and attitude makes LA MARGE one of the quintessential features of the 1970's and, to my eyes, one of the best.
To me Walerian Borowczyk is in the same league with the likes of Stanley Kubrick, and his work should be being picked apart in film schools all over the world. Unfortunately film audiences and critics have too long shunned this iconic and talented director, due to his subject matter, shooting style and sheer nerve. LA MARGE might be among the easiest opening to his film world, but perhaps not the most ideal as it is so different from his other work.
Borowczyk came to prominence in the sixties with his landmark animated work that made him a critical darling and more than respected amongst his peers. He busted through the live action film world with his memorable GOTO, ISLAND OF LOVE in 1968 and for short while it seemed that his feature film career would match the success of his animated one. 1971's beautiful and haunting BLANCHE seemed to suggest an even further step into the cinematic pantheon for Borowczyk but 1974's IMMORAL TALES stunned audiences and critics with its audacious eroticism and over the top imagery.
If the masterful IMMORAL TALES sounded the call that Walerian Bororwczyk was not going to fall easily into the accepted European art mode, then his 1975 feature THE BEAST closed the door on it entirely. Frank, shocking, possibly pornographic ( I guess it depends on who you ask) and completely unforgettable, THE BEAST became one of the seventies most controversial and reviled productions. It would close off Borowczyk from the critical Establishment and the mainstream film world for the rest of his life, and I can't imagine he would have wanted it any other way.
After the flabbergasted reception of THE BEAST, Borowczyk scored a surprise almost hit with STORY OF SIN from the same year. STORY OF SIN felt different than the master's other films, emotionally it was more moving and resonate. It would be these qualities that Borowczyk would bring to the film he would begin shooting just after wrapping STORY OF SIN, namely LA MARGE.
LA MARGE, in a way, can be viewed as Borowczyk's last effort to really score a hit with an almost mainstream film. It was based on a well known novel by Andre Pieyre de Mandiargues (whose work Borowczyk would film five times), it would be scored with some of the seventies biggest musical acts (including 10CC, Elton John and Pink Floyd) and it would star an actress who two years before had become the biggest box office draw in French cinema, Sylvia Kristel.
The vastly underrated Sylvia Kristel called LA MARGE her favorite role she ever did in her recent autobiography, NUE (UNDRESSING EMMANUELLE). It is a seminal role in it and she is breathtakingly good in the film. The mid seventies were a remarkable time for the Dutch born EMMANUELLE star. Within three years she would work with not only Borowczyk, but Alain-Robbe Grillet, Roger Vadim, Francis Girod, Francis Giacobetti and Claude Chabrol. Sylvia Kristel was virtually written out of French film history in the eighties and has remained a bit of a lost figure since. Her performance in LA MARGE (as well as the other work she did in this period) is an almost shocking reminder as to how good she was in these films, and how popular she was with not only the great directors of the period, but also film audiences.
Joining Kristel was another actor on a bit of a roll. American icon Joe Dallesandro had stayed on in Europe after travelling over with Paul Morrissey and crew a few years earlier for FLESH FOR FRANKENSTEIN and BLOOD FOR DRACULA and he, like Kristel, was becoming more and more in demand for some of Europe's top directors. He had just come off films with Louis Malle and Serge Gainsbourg when he stepped in front of Borowczyk's camera to deliver, what I consider, his greatest performance.
Joining Borowczyk were some familiar names to fans of his work, most notable of these were Bernard Daillencourt as cinematographer. Daillencourt had previously collaborated on both IMMORAL TALES and THE BEAST, so he was no stranger to Borowczyk's striking painterly like compositional style. His work with the Polish great would bring him to the attention of David Hamilton (who along with Borowczyk probably set the standard for seventies eroticism) and Hamilton hired him on for a handful of his films including BILITIS (1977) and LAURA (1979). Daillencourt's work on LA MARGE is a major achievement. The film has an eloquent but down to earth (even dingy) style to it that separates it from almost any other film from the period (specifically the glossiness of a film like EMMANUELLE or Hamilton's later works).
The plot of LA MARGE is simple. A businessman leaves his country home, and wife and young son for a business trip to Paris. While there he develops a sexual and spiritual bond with a call girl. When he gets word from home that his son has accidentally downed and his wife has killed herself, his world begins to completely crumble around him.
The plot is the least of LA MARGE'S many virtues. Like all of Borowczyk's works, LA MARGE reminds an audience of film's capability to give the moving image an undeniable soul. Everything from his angles, to the way he shoots Kristel and Dallesandro during their love scenes show Borowczyk as being among the great cinema stylists in history.
The love scenes in the film are particularly noteworthy. Simply put, no one shot the human form like Walerian Borowczyk, and he photographs every inch of both Kristel and Dallesandro with such devotion that it is hard to not be genuinely moved by it.
While LA MARGE is undoubtedly another chapter in Borowczyk's unmatchable image museum, the sound of the film makes it again distinct from his other works. I am not sure how involved Walerian was in choosing the songs for the picture, but it is hard to imagine them being more perfectly selected. I suspect that he was hands on in getting the group of extraordinary songs that he did (ironically I suspect that rights issues for some of these tracks might cause the film to continue to go unreleased on DVD here).
The two major musical moments of the film are absolutely Charles Dumont's lovely UNE FEMME, which plays in its entirety through the film's key love scene, and the daring use of Pink Floyd's majestic Syd Barrett tribute SHINE ON YOU CRAZY DIAMOND during the film's heartbreaking climax. Borowczyk brings both of these songs to the forefront during their scenes, but other songs like 10CC's LAZY WAYS and Elton John's SATURDAY NIGHT'S ALL RIGHT play slightly underneath as if they are being heard from another room (or perhaps more precisely in only one of the characters heads). Another key song is I'M NOT IN LOVE, also by 10CC. This gorgeous and innovative track has been damaged over the years by being overplayed so much, but join me if you will in revisiting this lovely piece of British pop as Walerian Borowczyk would have heard it back in 1975 when he was filming LA MARGE.
LA MARGE would be the first of many times the iconic song has been used, but perhaps only Sofia Coppola made better use of it in her VIRGIN SUICIDES than Borowczyk did here...
The visually stunning and perfectly scored film surrounds its two iconic stars with a strong supporting cast that includes some of French cinema's most amazing faces from the seventies. The lovely Mireille Audibert makes a big impression as Dallesandro's wife in the film, and the early scenes of them together are among the film's most serene moments. Noted character actors Andre Falcon, Louise Chevalier and Dominique Marcas also appear as does future David Hamilton actress Camille Lariviere.
The film belongs though to 23 year old Sylvia Kristel. In his Video Watchdog review Brad Stevens notes that she is "unbelievably good" and I agree wholeheartedly. There is a undercurrent of rage, distrust and hurt in Kristel's performance, and the near final moment when she suddenly breaks out into her native Dutch is one of the most resonate scenes in all Borowczyk's canon. The part could have been one-dimensional but Kristel delivers a stirring performance that I find quite overwhelming. This actress deserves way more credit than she has ever received.
LA MARGE has many moments that are among the most definitive of Walerian Borowczyk's career. From the filming of Dallesandro's and Kristel's feet during one of their lovemaking session, to the sad elderly maid who spends her evenings staring through couple's keyholes, to the unsettling confrontations between Kristel and her abusive John. The film is filled with moments that continue to haunt me well over a decade since I saw this very special film, a work that is almost completely unknown among film fans.
LA MARGE opened to mostly poor reviews in France in the late summer of 1976. The baffled producers attempted to see the film on Kristel's reputation as Emmanuelle, and in some regions it was actually re-titled EMMANUELLE '77. The film would fail nearly everywhere, and for its brief UK and US release it was re-titled, recut and reshaped into THE STREETWALKER. I have unfortunately never seen this version but have been told it features some alternate footage, making it a valuable if flawed companion to LA MARGE. I hope to add this version to my collection one day.
The film has been released in Japan and France on DVD but otherwise it remains out of print. The use of acts like Pink Floyd and Elton John will probably make it most expensive for the Region 1 market, but one can hope that one day some enterprising small company will release it.
For more information on one of the great undervauled directors in screen history please visit the essential Mondo Erotico.
Issue "32 of Video Watchdog is unfortunately sold out at their site but check Ebay as copies might occasionally pop up.
Those interested in the career of Joe Dallesandro should check his official site and his MySpace page.
A Sylvia Kristel page can be found here.
The English translation of Sylvia's memoirs can be purchased here. I will be posting a full review of this book here at Moon In The Gutter soon.
Recently, frustrated by the lack of attention given to her, I set up the following photo tribute to the great Dutch actress here
I invite anyone interested to stop by and give some love to this undervalued cinematic icon.