Recently I did a presentation on Walerian Borowczyk for a film class I am taking. To go along with it we were asked to submit a short paper acting as an introduction to their life and work. Here is a version of mine (with most of the cited page number listings removed to make it more readable) that I thought I would share here. Fans familiar with Borowczyk will find this tiring, but hopefully anyone reading who isn't familiar with his work might get something out of it.
Rarely has an important filmmaker fallen from critical and popular grace as hard as Polish director Walerian Borowczyk. Once included in the same league as filmmakers like Bunuel and Fellini, Borowczyk now hardly occupies even a footnote in mainstream film studies. Still, his work resonate and his themes of “casual brutality, malignant direction by superior forces” and perhaps especially “the fragile, elegant past represented by faded snapshots and piecemeal lithographs” (Strick, 145) continue to haunt generations of maverick filmmakers inspired by Borowczyk’s wildly independent spirit.
Born in Kwilcz, Poland in the late summer of 1932 (some reports list the date as 1923), controversial director Walerian Borowczyk’s earliest influence was his father who was a painter. All of Borowczyk’ works would be marked profoundly by this early influence as all of his films have a very painterly quality about them. This quality is weaved in well with the other themes that continually occupy his films such as voyeurism, obsession with antiquity and a distrust of the wealthy and the church.
Borowczyk did indeed begin his career by studying painting at the prestigious Krakow Academy Of Fine Arts as a teenager. This led to his first entry into the film world, as a poster designer in Poland in the early fifties, which would prove to be a very fruitful and important period for him. Borowczyk’s poster designs got him immediate recognition and many of the images he painted in this period would turn up in his later career, marking him as an auteur before he even stepped behind his first camera.
Borowczyk’s attentions soon turned from painting to the world of animation, an art-form he thought had been misused by the likes of Walt Disney and other children’s animators. Shortly before moving to Paris in 1959 Borowczyk began making his short animated films, first with Polish artist Jan Lenica and then by himself.
His animated shorts were immediately acclaimed as the work of a visionary and they all focused on the problems of modernization and were known for Borowczyk’s inter-cutting of live action (shots often including his wife Ligia) and for his habit of drawing directly onto the film frame. His most famous early-animated works include Dom (1958) and Les Astronautes (1959), a collaboration with his friend acclaimed French filmmaker Chris Marker.
Borowczyk continued making animated shorts throughout the early and mid sixties and garnered numerous awards for his efforts. His work Renaissance (1963) was a major hit and won many accolades from his peers. Raymond Durgnat said that the film was “a remembrance of things past” and a “meditation…on what is life-affirming” and “life-denying”. After a couple of more years of short animated works Borowczyk would deliver his first and only full-length animated feature in 1967 with Mr. And Mrs. Kabal’s Theater before switching to live action films in 1968.
The first two live action films from Walerian, Goto, Island Of Love (1968) and Blanche (1971), garnered him a lot of acclaim from the critics and public. Goto, Isalnd of Love continued many of the themes he had began with his animation and set in motion the obsessions that would haunt the rest of his career. Critic Christian Kessler noted that Goto, Island Of Love “was a simple but forceful examination” of when “sexual ignorance leads to ultimate doom”.
Blanche, another period piece, was an even bigger popular and critical hit than Goto, Island of Love and like that film it would star his wife Ligia. The film would play at many festivals and Pete Tombs would note twenty-five years after its release that Borowczyk’s look at the “destructive power of sexuality and sexual repression” has lost none of its resonance. However, despite the success of his first two live action features, Borowczyk’s time as a critical darling was about to end as his next feature would scandalize his reputation and his career.
1973’s Immoral Tales would be a smashing popular success upon its release in France (it would be the second biggest money maker of the year there) but the conservative press rather viciously attacked Borowczyk’s work as a pandering to the adult film market with its emphasis on sexuality and nudity. Tombs noted that some critics looked upon the film with outrage and suggested that it was “a slide away from art and a move towards grubby pornography”. Hurt by the caustic critical reception granted to a film that the public loved, Borowczyk returned to Poland briefly to film his one feature there, 1974’s The Story Of Sin.
The Story Of Sin, the most financially successful Polish film of 1974, would go a little ways towards reestablishing Borowczyk’s reputation with the critical community. Thomas Kessler described it as “an extraordinarily understated movie” and Borowczyk described it as an attempt as a “popular film” but the brief return to critical favor would be destroyed for good with The Beast, a 1975 satire that would get him in trouble with the censors, the public, the critical establishment and the authorities.
The Beast caused a major scandal upon its release and Borowczyk was nearly brought up on obscenity charges. The film was subjected to major cuts all over the world and the uncut version didn’t appear on home video legitimately appear until just a few years ago. Pete Tombs described its reception as being a complete “fallout” and that it was “profound as nobody who saw it was untouched”.
The furor caused by the film would hurt Borowczyk’s career beyond repair and he would have trouble getting funding and distribution for the rest of his career.
Borowczyk attempted to save his career in 1975 by working on his first modern day film, La Marge, which featured two of the biggest stars of the seventies (Sylvia Kristel and Joe Dallesandro). The film was mis-marketed though as a follow up to Kristel’s Emmanuelle (1974), cut and universally ignored by critics causing Borowczyk’s works to become more cynical, angry and at time violent. La Marge has its fans though (myself included), such as Video Watchdog critic Brad Stevens who called it a “masterpiece” and it is notable as being one of the only modern day films in Borowczyk’s canon.
His next film, 1977’s Behind Convent Walls, would be an all out attack on the conservative press and religious groups that had had him all but blacklisted from the mainstream film world. While not one of his most noteworthy films, it is of massive importance as it was the first time Borowczyk had worked with Italian actress Marina Pierro, a performer who would feature in nearly every film he shot after. Behind Convent Walls is an angry and unsettling satirical work set in a convent. It would prove even harder to market than La Marge and was little seen at the time of its release, something that would plague all of his work from this point on.
After contributing the short film L’Armoire for the 1979 anthology film Private Collections, Borwoczyk delivered his next film Three Immoral Women (1979) (often looked upon as a companion to Immoral Tales) which was quickly followed by a re-imaging of Pabst’s Pandora’s Box, 1980’s Lulu.
1981’s Docteur Jekyll et Les Femmes is today regarded by many top critics (Sight and Sound recently listed it as one of the seventy five greatest under the radar films in history) as perhaps Borowczyk’s masterpiece. A cold and savage retelling of Stevenson’s classic tale starring again Pierro and German star Udo Kier, Borowczyk’s film despite all of its obvious attributes also failed to find any real audience and legal disputes have kept it out of public view for the past three decades. A pity as Kessler points out the film is clearly Borowczyk’s “most personal” and Tom Milne referred to it as “splendidly apocalyptic”.
After the mystifying failure of Jekyll, Borowczyk only managed to complete two more films, The Art Of Love (1983) and Love Rites (1988) both of which starred Pierro. He was briefly assigned to the production Emmanuelle 5 (1987) but walked off the set disgusted and unhappy after the producers refused to let him do what he wanted with the film. With the exception of some TV work, Walerian Borowczyk’s career ended with the failure Of Love Rites in 1988.
Borowczyk’s name began to come up in the early nineties as both Terry Gilliam and The Brothers Quay named him as an influence on their work. In 1994 Video Watchdog ran a major story on him that re-introduced an entire new generation to his films and life. The Tohill and Tombs book Immoral Tales followed in 1995 and their chapter on Borowczyk managed to introduce even more to his then hard to find films.
The past decade has seen the home video debut of many of Borowczyk’s key works in America and Europe. As of 2008, only four of his films are not available on either Region One or Region Two DVD. It is a pity that the four are Blanche, La Marge, Lulu and Docteur Jekyll Et Les Femmes, which are major works.
Walerain Borowczyk died in Paris in 2006 with his wife and key collaborator Ligia at his side. While his career will probably never gain the recognition it deserves by the mainstream, more adventurous film fans will continue to find much to value in his very distinct body of work.