Thursday, 9 March 2017

Alas poor Boro, I knew him well - Adrian Martin celebrates the revival of Walerian Borowczyk with an exciting youthful memoir

March 2017 Introduction:
The following piece, originally written for the Melbourne newspaper The Age in 2002, may intrigue and amuse Film Alert readers. At that time, Walerian Borowczyk (1923-2006) was still a specialist taste. He was also still alive, albeit no longer productive as a filmmaker. Now, just over a decade beyond his death, the situation of his reception within global film culture has changed greatly: a book of essays on him has appeared, Arrow and Carlotta have produced lavish DVD/Blu-ray box sets with restored versions of many of the films, and currently the Centre Georges Pompidou is running a high-profile retrospective until 19 March at the Pompidou Centre, graced with enthusiastic coverage in Positif and Cahiers du cinéma magazines alike.

I and my partner Cristina Álvarez López have even managed to play a tiny part in this ‘Boro’ revival, with Cristina’s text on his work, and our joint audiovisual essay on The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Miss Osbourne (1981), appearing on both box sets, and at the streaming site Fandor. Our estimation of Borowczyk’s greatness as a filmmaker only increases with each revisitation of his rich, remarkable work. But, back in 2002, I needed to frame his extraordinary career by telling this personal story …

Walerian Borowczyk
This is the sorry tale of one cinephile’s descent into the underworld. In a mere few years, between the ages of sixteen and eighteen, he slid from dutifully attending stately Melbourne arthouses like the Longford and the Rivoli to frequenting sordid porn barns with names like the Barrel, the Shaft and the Blue Bijou.

I confess. That cinephile is me. But it was all for the sake of tracking an elusive, enigmatic and remarkable filmmaker named Walerian Borowczyk.

Every few years, Phillip Adams writes a column reminding us that he was the solitary, early champion of a now supposedly forgotten Borowczyk movie, Goto, Isle of Love (1968). In fact, to many discerning film fans of the period, Goto was merely the jewel in the crown of an already extremely illustrious career. (It is startling to see today that, in a mid 1960s issue of Cahiers du cinéma, the then-young Roman Polanski was pegged as “in the tradition of Borowczyk”!) And the director’s subsequent path, although bumpy, has never ceased attracting fierce admirers.

Ligia Branice, Goto Isle of Love
In the 1950s and ‘60s, Borowczyk achieved fame as an innovative and experimental animator, collaborating with the likes of Jan Lenica and Chris Marker. Dom (1958), Les Jeux des anges (1964) and the series devoted to the Théâtre de Monsieur et Madame Kabal are among the works that inspired later filmmakers including the Brothers Quay, Terry Gilliam and Jan Svankmajer.

Borowczyk’s often disquieting, perverse and characteristically Eastern European vision delighted in giving ghostly life to the strange, inanimate objects he so lovingly collected. (His 1973 short A Particular Collection offers a guided tour to novelist André Pieyre de Mandiargues’ personal museum of antique sex aids and erotic toys – including some tasty artworks made by Borowczyk himself. The filmmaker inherited this collection after the writer’s death in 1991.) He elaborated a form of Surrealism in which an over-rational, controlling society collided with the irrational force of human desire.

This is the story played out in Goto, Isle of Love and Blanche (1971). These masterpieces, along with A Story of Sin (1975) made in his native Poland, cemented his reputation in the ‘70s as a virtuoso of film art alongside Luis Buñuel.

Serious critics acclaimed his idiosyncratic sense of architecture and design, his fondness for the wordless acting styles of the silent era, and his unbeatable eye for arresting, mysterious images.

But then something calamitous happened. Eroticism had always been present as a driving element in Borowczyk’s work. But suddenly he steeped himself in the production of what seemed to be full-out sex-films.

In the era of erotic chic, alongside notoriously popular movies like Emmanuelle (1974) and The Story of O (1975), Borowczyk signed such lush flesh-feasts as Immoral Tales (1974), The Beast (1975) and The Margin (aka The Streetwalker, 1976).

To his diehard fans, these films continued Borowczyk’s artistic journey in every respect (a Melbourne Times reviewer in the ‘70s, cinephile Trevor Bergroth, rightly called The Margin “Bresson on aphrodisiac”). But to film culture at large, he had become disrespectable, an outcast.

As Borowczyk became more prolific, his work became much harder to see. Expelled from the arthouses, it fell into the porn circuit, in those long-lost, pre-video days when porn houses still projected actual celluloid. (Cue some possibly misplaced and most definitely perverse Boogie Nights-style nostalgia here.)

Original French poster for the film that turned into
Three Immoral Women  for international release
The last one I managed to catch on a big screen, amid the raincoat brigade at the Shaft, was Three Immoral Women (1979) – which I gamely defended in the pages of RMIT’s student newspaper Catalyst, at the age of 20, in an essay titled “Between Art and Porn”.

Alas, no one seemed to paying attention. Daily reviewers, Film Festival programmers and cinema theorists alike had turned their gaze in shame and disapproval away from Borowczyk. Even the French magazine Positif, once a loyal supporter of the filmmaker, began a capsule review of Emmanuelle 5 (1987) with the lament: “Poor Boro … “

By then, Borowczyk had become an auteur one occasionally found in the darkened, erotica section of large video shops, represented by magnificently delirious films like Dr Jekyll and His Women (1981).

But, in his old age, Borowczyk perhaps takes solace in the fact that his star has risen once more. The global market in video and DVD, plus the rising interest in cult video through specialist fan publications and Internet sites, has at last created the conditions for a Boro revival.

Scott Murray, filmmaker and once editor of Cinema Papers, has such a high regard for Borowczyk that it has led him to write an as-yet-unpublished book-length study of the films titled Heroines of Desire. As I can well testify, making the effort to see Boro’s Behind Convent Walls (1977) at the Barrel can lead even the most genteel cinephile to the most flagrant declarations of amour fou.

© Adrian Martin July 2002/March 2017

US DVD Cover

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