Monday, February 06, 2006

The Passing of a Eurocult Master

Walerian Borowczyk, the renowned Polish animator and director of live-action erotic films steeped in the bizarre, has died of heart failure at the age of 82.

Borowczyk made his directorial debut in 1946 with the animated short Mois d'août ("Months of August") and continued to work as a high profile animator through the 1960s, receiving a BAFTA nomination for his 1958 short Dom. It was in 1968 that Boro made his first live action film, Goto, l'île d'amour, starring Pierre Brasseur of Eyes Without a Face fame. As he continued to direct live action, his work naturally gravitated toward erotic fantasy. In more general circles, he is undoubtedly most famous for THE STORY OF SIN (a Palme d'Or nominee at the 1975 Cannes Film Festival) or BLANCHE, which won the Grand Prix at the 1972 Berlin International Film Festival. But among devotées of the fantastique, of which Boro himself was certainly one, his best-known works are IMMORAL TALES (1974, featuring Paloma Picasso as Countess Elizabeth Bathory), THE BEAST (1975, an explicitly adult rumination on "Beauty and the Beast" featuring Sirpa Lane), LULU (1980, a loose remake of Pabst's PANDORA'S BOX, with a cameo by Udo Kier as Jack the Ripper), and BLOODLUST aka DR. JEKYLL AND MISS OSBOURNE (1981).

The latter film is particularly memorable, with Udo Kier's Dr. Jekyll periodically excusing himself from his dinner guests (including Patrick Magee) to thrash about in a chemically-treated bath, emerging as the vicious rapist Mr Hyde (Gérard Zalcberg), whose knife-like phallus is digitally opaqued in the only uncut version of the film I've seen (from Japan). Shocking, sexy, and also devastatingly funny as Jekyll's increasingly transgressive behavior brings about the collapse of his dining room's microcosm of polite Victorian society.

A frequent but delightful fixture of Borowczyk's work was actress Marina Pierro, who had previously worked with Sergio Bergonzelli and Luchino Visconti before devoting herself almost exclusively to "Boro's" vision from 1977 onwards. (She also appeared in Jean Rollin's THE LIVING DEAD GIRL.) Though she did not appear at all in some of Boro's major works, such was her impact that is it impossible to consider his work without considering her frequent and affectionate recurrence within it.

I found some of Boro's work a bit dry for my liking, but there is no denying that his was one of the most distinctive personalities to emerge from the world of Eurocult in its "Silver Age" (say, 1967-84). One of my favorite descriptions of the special flavor of his work can be found in Phil Hardy's AURUM/OVERLOOK FILM ENCYCLOPEDIA: HORROR. In an entry about the Jekyll picture (as Docteur Jekyll et les Femmes), the author writes: "Borowczyk's imagery, here fed by his fetishistic fascination with all things antiquarian, is often stunning and the film becomes a sort of still life in which familiar yet alien objects -- an ancient dictaphone, a treadle sewing-machine, a book of remembrance -- seem imbued with a secret significance all their own, and in which a glimpse of a whalebone corset or ruffled petticoat carries a heady whiff of eroticism." [Kim Newman has written to inform me that these words are the work of former MONTHLY FILM BULLETIN critic Tom Milne.]

If you find yourself in a mood to celebrate Borowczyk's life and work, it's hard to find domestically... but several examples are available on import DVD from our friends at Xploited Cinema, Diabolik DVD, and Sazuma Trading. We recommend their service.

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