Alas, Poor Boro, I Found Thee: Phantom Forms Brought to Light

On the occasion of a traveling retrospective of films by Polish director Walerian Borowczyk, where eroticism rules the day.
Tanner Tafelski

Daniel Bird: “What is your opinion of Walerian Borowczyk’s work?”

Andrzej Żuławski: “Borowczyk?  Oh, he lost himself, I think, it’s a pity because he was quite a talent.” 

One radical filmmaker laments another radical.  With one sentence, Żuławski encapsulates the conventional arc of Borowczyk, or as he calls himself in Mr. and Mrs. Kabal's Theatre (1967), Boro’s career.  He was a great animator working with Jan Lenica in Poland and, when moving to France, Chris Marker[1]. His shorts influenced Jan Švankmajer, Terry Gilliam, and the Quay Brothers, and were praised by critics like Amos Vogel and Raymond Durgnat.  With his first two live-action feature-films, Goto, Island of Love (1968) and Blanche (1971), critics hailed Boro as part of the major league—an auteur.  He’s the next Bresson!  He’s the next Buñuel!  Then he made Immoral Tales (1974), a blemish in his body of work at this point in his careerBut the film was forgiven for Boro made The Story of Sin (1975) next, injecting eroticism—well within the bounds of art-house cinema at the time—into Stefan Żeromski’s novel.  He followed Sin with The Beast (1975), and thus begins his fall from grace, descending into the cesspool of pornography.  From here on, up until the end of his career, he was called a smut-peddler whose name is on Emmanuelle 5 (1987), and who conformed to the soft-core market (never mind that he still made shorts).  Although he never acknowledged himself as one, surrealists like André Breton, Max Ernst, Ado Kyro, and Robert Benayoun applauded his work.  Recognizing his reputation, Benayoun wrote: “Let us say that his work now belongs to the Museum of the Rare, where it will one day be exhibited.”  Thanks to the persistent support and scholarship of Daniel Bird, to the traveling retrospective making the rounds and playing at New York's Film Society of Lincoln Center April 2 - 7, and to the recent limited edition box set Arrow Films recently put out, that day has finally arrived. 

Bird says Boro “did not have a singular style so much as a way of thinking about the world.”  True.  Steeped in his films, one recognizes a worldview where eroticism rules the day, and is entwined with beauty and the beautiful.  His cinema is about obsessional love, one that leads to death drives.  Secrets and intrigues lie hidden within walls that, once discovered, reveal amour fou.  Spin it anyway you want, but looking at his films, one discovers, at least I do, formal signatures in his work that develop, mutate, and break off into new directions as his career progresses to the supposed abominable depths of soft-core.


The Beast

Given that he trained as a painter and lithographer, created animations and sculptures, Boro would be drawn to objects, to the extent that they are as equal as the actors in his films.  Raw meat, mirrors, genitals, flowers, and poison, these are just a few of the things that you can expect in a Boro work.  Interspersed throughout the black-and-white Goto, there are blink-and-you-miss-it cuts to color sequences of blue slippers, letters, chunks of meat, and a threadbare room. In the opening of Blanche, set in 13th century France, he cuts between a woman dressing, a caged dove, and exterior shots of a remote castle perched on top of a hill surrounded by trees.  If there’s a chance to use a cutaway, Boro will take it for maximum poetic effect.  Look at that snail inching across a lost blue slipper.   

Phallic objects are erect and abound.  The eponymous character in The Beast, looking part rat and part wolf, endowed with an ungodly erection, spews that white liquid in a film that’s at turns, playful, puckish, and prurient.  In Behind Convent Walls (1978), nuns release their inhibitions, which are all of the “deviant” variety.  One finds a stubby small tree limb and carves it into a dildo with Jesus’ face on the back of it.  “Through objects you discover human nature,” Borowczyk once said in an interview with Carlos Clarens.  It’s not for nothing that he made A Private Collection (1973), a short about his collection of antique erotica.  In Boro’s cinema, through objects you discover human sexuality.



In Boro’s early features, lighting is rather unremarkable, overshadowed by the rhythmic editing and keen, nuanced sense of planimetric compositions.  The flat lighting works rather well in the totalitarian world of Goto, creating a chalky, or ashen, monochromatic look.  In Boro’s late works the lighting does an about face; it becomes, lush, plush and sensual.  The soft-focus lighting and lensing in Behind Convent Walls, Immoral Women, and The Art of Love (1983) grace the films with gauzy, fuzzy glows outlining anything and everything—bodies, faces, fruits, and flowers.  In Lulu (1980), a not-bad and overlooked work based on Frank Wedekind’s two plays, the haze only appears at the beginning of the film, an innocent time.  It disappears though.  As Lulu’s lovers die, and in walks Jack the Ripper, lighting turns harsh, and sharp shadows appear.


Boro’s films are islands of love.  Whether in a château, convent, castle or on an island, they are set in closed-off spaces, locking in passions.  Even La marge (1976), shot in sprawling Paris, still feels like it’s in a self-contained space.  When not in a bedroom with Joe Dallesandro and Sylvia Kristel, we are often in a café-cum-bordello off of Rue Saint-Denis where prostitutes hangout, sit, eat, chat, catch a John.  Within these confined spaces, there are moments in which characters hide their actions.  In Behind Convent Walls, nuns fondle each other in a confessional before discovering a peeping camera, and shut the confessional’s curtains on it.  In The Beast, a father, whilst shaving his son, shuts the bathroom door on a priest as well the camera. 

La marge

Camera eye, yes, but let us not forget human eyes too.  Like Alfred Hitchcock or Brian De Palma, scenes of looking and being looked at thread throughout Boro’s work.  In Goto, the governor of the island espies, via binoculars, his wife just leaving a horse trainer she just had sex with.  In Story of Sin, the two main characters first lock eyes in a one-two pair of extreme close-ups—an instant connection.  A brief intricate moment occurs—a series of looks—when Kristel first sees Dallesandro in La marge: she’s at a table in the café applying lipstick with a pocket mirror.  The camera captures her in the reflection of a glass cabinet, moving this way and that in her seat, trying to get a good look at Little Joe.  The camera pans and Kristel the reflection becomes Kristel the human figure.  It’s here especially that Thompson’s comment on the director’s optic sensibility is apt: “The act of looking becomes the art of looking at things.”  Boro only has eyes for you, and perhaps breasts and buttocks too.

Borowczyk’s career path shouldn’t be seen as parabolic, but like any filmmaker worth his or her salt, as one with peaks and valleys.  It’s not like, after The Story of Sin, Boro became a new and dirtier filmmaker.  The latent sexuality just became overt and his play with objects, lighting, and ways of looking continued, modulating as he worked up until the Nineties.   

[1] Although Marker didn’t really work with Boro on Les Astronauts (1959).  According to David Thompson, he was credited as a director only to help with the production, which his sole contribution was suggesting to put one of his favorite animals into the film—an owl.  Boro did.

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