Object Lessons

Nick Pinkerton on “Obscure Pleasures: The Films of Walerian Borowczyk”

Walerian Borowczyk, A Private Collection, 1973, 35 mm, color, sound, 12 minutes.

THE FILMS OF WALERIAN BOROWCZYK, now receiving a weeklong retrospective at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, are among the purest instances of fetishist cinema that I know. Although “Boro”’s movies certainly abound with erotic fixations and substitute phalluses—the altar candlesticks and zucchinis in the “Thérése Philosophe” episode of Immoral Tales (1973), the bedpost in The Beast (1975), the catalogue of verboten vintage erotic paraphernalia in A Private Collection (1973)—I use this phrase not with a solely sexual connotation, but with the broader meaning of fetish: the imbuing of inanimate objects with human or extrahuman power and presence.

In Borowczyk’s live-action films, objects vie for attention with subjects to a degree which is unusual and disconcerting. It would be tempting to call this a failure, a case of production design rushing into the void left by absence of direction, were it not so clearly a part of Borowczyk’s undertaking to confound the division between people and things, portrait and landscape. I specify “live-action” films because Borowczyk’s first film work was in the field of animation, and it was as an animator that he gained notoriety outside of his native Poland. Like Terry Gilliam, Tim Burton, Brad Bird, and Frank Tashlin, Borowczyk belongs to the exclusive company of animators turned live-action filmmakers. While it is difficult to find any common linkage among such disparate company, in imagining how the transition might have influenced Borowczyk, we can point to a deliberate shallowness that marks both his animated and live-action works, in the latter instance best exemplified in the medieval-set Blanche (1971), which approximates the flatness of Western painting before the innovation of perspective. Another Borowczyk hallmark is an intimate and irreverent relationship with art history, particularly but not exclusively as it relates to sexual behavior. His 1964 Renaissance is one oblique example. It opens on a roomful of unidentifiable detritus which is then seen to spontaneously recompose itself through the use of ingenious and painstaking stop-motion photography, until finally forming a still-life scene, which then explodes and returns to the state of primordial chaos. In a recent piece for Film Comment magazine, the critic Kent Jones notes that “[Federico] Fellini and [Sam] Fuller both expressed a desire to make a film without people, just objects. Tellingly, neither of them ever did anything about it.” Well, Borowczyk did.

Borowczyk’s background offers some clues to his unique mise-en-scene. He was born in the village of Kwilcz in 1923. Unlike his rough contemporaries (Morgenstern, Munk, Wajda), he didn’t come to filmmaking through the newly formed Łódź Film School, but studied painting instead, at the Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków. Upon graduation, he became a much in-demand designer of film posters, a crucial figure in the so-called Polish School of Poster—a dozen instances of his craftwork from this period are on display in the Frieda and Roy Furman Gallery, adjacent to the lobby of Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater. Borowczyk’s first animations began to play out around the time that he was thirty, and with 1958’s Dom (Home), codirected by Jan Lenica, he can be found exhibiting a mastery of the full range of techniques—stop-motion, integrated drawing and live-action, and decoupage, including an Eadweard Muybridge pastiche, in a style that would later greatly influence Gilliam—to approximate the fantasy life of an idle housewife (played by Borowczyk’s own wife and muse, Ligia Branice).

Dom, along with Renaissance, will play as part of a showcase of Borowczyk’s key short works included in “Obscure Pleasures: The Films of Walerian Borowczyk.” The retro follows a similar event last year at London’s BFI Southbank, occasioned by UK-based Arrow Films’ restorations of Borowczyk’s canonical works, all undertakings marked by the participation of Daniel Bird, an expert in Polish fantastic films and literature generally, and Borowczyk specifically. (The series’ title comes from a 2013 documentary on Borowczyk codirected by Bird, which screens in a program called, rather unimaginatively, “A Dazzling Imagination.”)

Walerian Borowczyk, Goto, Island of Love, 1968, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 93 minutes.

Dom was the work that announced Borowczyk to the rest of Europe. It won the Grand Prix at the Brussels Experimental Film Festival, running concurrent to the Expo 58 World’s Fair, and along with the awarding of countryman Roman Polanski’s short Two Men and a Wardrobe, its success signified the dawn of a new day for Polish cinema—soon to be Polish expatriate cinema. Borowczyk, emboldened, left the following year for Paris, where he would spend the vast majority of his working life. (Story of Sin [1975] is his lone feature made in his homeland.) It was there that he met producer Anatole Dauman, whose Argos Films underwrote the careers of the Left Bank contingent of New Wave filmmakers, including Alain Resnais and Chris Marker, with whom Borowczyk collaborated on The Astronauts (1959).

In fact Marker’s sole contribution was the loan of his pet owl, Anabase, and his established name, which it was hoped would help to launch Borowczyk in his new home. And launched he was—the 1960s were the period in which Borowczyk was held in the greatest critical esteem, producing praised works like Renaissance and the austere live-action short Rosalie (1966) before his perhaps inevitable leap into long-form filmmaking. Within the space of a year, Borowczyk released his first (and only) feature animation, Theatre of Mr. and Mrs. Kabal (1967), and his first live-action feature, Goto, Island of Love (1968). Set on an isolated, inescapable island nation where a natural disaster has retarded progress for nearly a century—the metaphor for life in Communist Poland, where the film was banned, was there for anyone who cared to pick it up—Goto focuses on a lowly subaltern (Guy Saint-John) who fixes his sights on the wife (Branice) of the island’s third-generation military dictator (Pierre Brasseur), and schemes his ways through the ranks to get to her while polishing her boots with unusual relish. (In Mr. and Mrs. Kabal, the mechanism of fascism is re-created on the smaller plane of the domestic sphere.)

Borowczyk’s basic conviction of the centrality of eroticism and fantasy in all human endeavor didn’t change greatly from Goto onward, though, beginning with the appearance of Immoral Tales, the response to his films did. Working in animation was a way for a generation of artists living in Communist countries to circumnavigate the censorious dictates of socialist realism, but now, in the West, Borowczyk had a new set of taboos to tackle, and he plunged into bestiality, blasphemy, and incest with gusto. For some, with Immoral Tales and the films that followed, the artist had reduced himself to the status of pornographer. And while it is difficult to deny that it is a significant step down from Dom and Goto to the likes of Emmanuelle 5 (1986) and highbrow soft-core for French television, the sort of thing that Borowczyk was doing at the end of his career, his output from the mid-1970s onward has been unfairly lassoed together and labeled as undifferentiated Eurosleaze, while in fact these films offer flashes of his original compositional eye, hypnotic contrapuntal editing rhythms, and disquieting tonal gifts.

In more than one respect, the opportunity to see the rarely screened work from Borowczyk’s “decline” is the highlight of Film Society’s series. In what is, unfortunately, an increasingly commonplace occurrence, the restorations afforded to Borowczyk’s best-known works (Goto, Blanche, Immoral Tales, The Beast) have not been accompanied by the striking of new 35-mm prints, and they will be shown on DCP. His latter-days filmography, however, will be shown on 35 mm, including The Streetwalker (1976), Behind Convent Walls (1977), his entry in 1978 omnibus film Private Collections, Immoral Women (1979), Lulu (1980), and Love Rites (1987). It is on account of the appearance of such rarities that “Obscure Pleasures” is among the most anticipated series of this year for cinephiles and perverts, two Venn diagram circles that have significant overlap.

“Obscure Pleasures: The Films of Walerian Borowczyk” runs April 2–9 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York.