Can a talented artist wipe out his credit because of ‘wrong’ creative choices? Polish filmmaker Walerian Borowczyk is certainly not the first author to lose the attention of the specialized press, but there aren’t many cases in which an art house film director falls to the level of a mere pornographer. Acclaimed during the late sixties and seventies by cinéphiles (see, for instance, the February 1969 issue of prestigious French journal Cahiers du cinéma),Borowczyk made Emmanuelle 5 (1987) and other ‘S’ rated movies of dubious quality on his descent. Although he always claimed a sincere interest in representing sexuality, film critics looked with disdain on his later films – aimed at wider audiences even if some of their screenings were often limited to certain cinema theatres.
Walerian Borowczyk (1923-2006) started his career as a Socialist realist painter. He soon abandoned this restrictive style and displayed his potential as a graphic artist in powerful lithographs. Indeed, Borowczyk was one of the gifted artists of the renowned Polish Poster School of the 1950s whose designs, according to Ian Christie, were often better than the films promoted. By the time he won a national award for his creations, he already had extensive experience in film-animation, occasionally in collaboration with cartoonist and illustrator Jan Lenica. For two decades (between 1946-1966) he devoted his filmic production exclusively to this type of work, though, unlike most renowned cineastes, Borowczyk directed shorts throughout his prolific career. One of the first films in his adopted country, France, was Les astronautes (1959), a photoplay –combination of pictures and animation- released ten years before Armstrong walked on the moon. Made in collaboration with Chris Marker, the scientist in the story explores outer space, but far from being overwhelmed by the vastness of the universe, he seems during his trip more interested in earthly matters, stopping his spaceship in front of an apartment-window to spy on an attractive woman.
Borowczyk was not in truth an innovator; what makes his work distinctive is the poetic charm his animations often encompass, the remarkable scores, the visual exploration of textures, as well as his peculiar sense of humour. One of his most important works is Renaissance (1963), a black and white short film in stop-motion. In stop-motion, objects are photographed in slightly different positions, giving the impression, when the frames are spliced together, that the objects are moving – an old but very effective technique still used in contemporary animation (nowadays with clay models in films such as Chicken Run). The film begins with an explosion followed by some abstract images. The action goes backwards in order to reconstruct the original look of the items destroyed, in a similar way to that used by early cinema to explore the wonders of reversing time. The difference here is the added social commentary. The bourgeois nature of the objects displayed (an antique family picture, a doll, a law book, a taxidermy bird), and their ‘renaissance’ after the explosion have been identified by critics as being close to the Surrealist movement, which was still in vogue in the early sixties.
Screened at the height of the Cold War, Les Jeux des Anges (1964) warns in French, English and Russian that “(…) Any similarity to actual persons, living of dead, or actual firms is purely coincidental”. The irony of this statement is clear when we hear the hypnotic clattering of a train while the dark screen simulates movement with purely abstract images. This is, without doubt, Borowczyk’s most disturbing short: guillotined angels, bloody wings and tubes that become rifle-barrels are part of this imaginative universe of ambiguous meaning. Also exceptional is the use of sound and, in particular, the Baroque organ music –later seen in Goto, Island of Love. Despite its claustrophobic overtones, Terry Gilliam claimed that this film had a deep impact on Monty Python’s animations.
Goto, Island of Love (1969) is probably his most original feature. The film is set on an imaginary island ruled by an authoritarian dynasty where everybody’s names start with the letter G, with the exception of some prostitutes. As in Godard’s dystopia Alphaville (1965), all the women in the film are objects of desire, including the Governor’s wife Glossia (played by Ligia Branice, Borowczyk’s muse and wife). Isolated after an earthquake, the women on the island wear 19th century attire while their male counterparts are dressed, if they belong to the privileged class, in military uniforms, or dirty Mao-life overalls if not (unsurprisingly, the film was banned both in Communist Poland and in Fascist Spain). Goto depicts a Kafkan society where criminal offenders fight among each other as unglamorous gladiators, and students are routinely indoctrinated in the classroom. (I won’t reveal the funny and informative sketch that takes place in the school about the three governors of Goto – in my opinion, the most engaging sequence in the film.) As with other institutions in this gerontocracy, the school appears to be organized around absurd norms from which the protagonist wishes to escape. By contrast, love, or more accurately, infatuation, seems to be the only way out, although at great cost.
Borowczyk revisits the topic of uncontrollable passion in Blanche (1973), although with an even more tragic outcome. Considered along with Goto, Island of Love his best full-length film, Blanche is set in 13th-century France. As his previous historical films demonstrate, the Polish filmmaker is not interested in an accurate historical reconstruction of events -even though the film shows musicians playing period-instruments. The elaborate costumes and beautiful score are there to reinforce this tale of impossible love and unmerciful punishment.
Eroticism has been always an important theme in Borowczyk’s films. Perhaps the canon of ‘serious’ cinema, where the representation of sexuality on screen – if recurrent – might be seen as vulgar, damaged his reputation. A collector of erotic paraphernalia, Borowczyk’s preference for this topic was better understood in France, where he found more lenient spectators. By contrast, most of the British press never forgave his fixation on the topic, nor could they sympathize with his aim of appealing to wider audiences. But Borowczyk’s work focuses on two essential themes, eros and thanatos (love and death). And could anything be more important than that?
‘Walerian Borowczyk: The Listening Eye’ is a retrospective presented as part of Kinoteka Polish Film Festival, and in conjunction with the ICA exhibition 20 May – 29 June.