Foreplays is a column that explores under-known short films by renowned directors. Walerian Borowczyk's The Greatest Love of All Time (1978) is available to watch on MUBI from May 23 - June 22, 2017 in most countries around the world.
In 1977, between his features The Streetwalker (1976) and Behind Convent Walls (1978), Walerian Borowczyk made The Greatest Love of All Time. This short documentary is, like several in his filmography, devoted to the work of another creator (see, for example, Atelier de Fernand Léger  or Venus on the Half-Shell ). In this case, the subject is Ljuba Popovic (1934-2016), a Serbian painter interested in fantastical and erotic themes, highly influenced by Surrealism and Baroque art. In 1963, Popovic moved to Paris where he worked most of his life.
Although Borowczyk himself refused the distinction between shorts and features, and likewise between live-action and animation, The Greatest Love of All Time has not been discussed nearly as much as his standard-length films or his early animations. Yet it stands as one of his most impressive works.
The Greatest Love Of All Time is, as its subtitle duly announces, a portrait. It thus aligns itself with a tradition that values expression over information. Borowczyk avoids the expository treatment of a conventional documentary: there is neither any biography of Popovic given, nor proper identification of the paintings shown. We won’t find interviews with the painter himself, nor with experts on his oeuvre; only an opening quotation from the art critic (and early champion of Popovic), René de Solier—which concisely establishes a defining aspect of the artist’s vision. The original French title (L’amour, monstre de tous les temps, literally Love, the Greatest Monster of All Time) is taken from this quotation, and refers to a painting by Popovic.
Above all, this short offers a portrait of the painter at work—and work must be understood here both as activity, and as place. Personal objects and memorabilia (a box of matches, an exhibition catalogue, an air mail envelope, black and white photographs) that fill the artist’s workspace frequently capture Borowczyk’s attention. The director chooses to start with Popovic crossing the busy streets of Paris on his way to the studio. Just before the final shot, an image of the painter washing his hands marks the completion of a day’s work. At one point, the camera abandons the studio and we see Popovic taking a break in a nearby café, just as any worker would do.
The tools, materials, and hands of the painter are given as much prominence as the paintings themselves. Borowczyk films the movements of Popovic’s fingers as he draws serpentine black lines or smudges color. But he also shows the painter filling a pot with turpentine, hammering a used crystal palette, piling remains on a rubbish bag, or drinking coffee and swallowing a croissant as he works. No hierarchy or differentiation is established between these actions. Through such choices, Borowczyk eschews any contradiction between art and craft; in fact, the art cannot be understood without the craft. Painting is, above all, manual work. The artist, while undoubtedly admired by the director, is desacralized.
The Greatest Love of All Time creates a cinematic form that is a hybrid of hand and eye, a violent fusion of gesture and perception. Its goal is a long way from distant contemplation. In fact, rather than globally seeing things, we partially sense them: the texture of strokes, the movement of hands, sudden explosions of color, gradations of tone, vibrations of lines. Most of the shots are fragmentary close-ups that do not allow us to view the entire canvas. We deduce that Popovic is working on several different paintings, but we are never sure to which whole the parts belong.
By getting very close to a piece of cloth, a patch of skin, or a scrap of canvas, Borowczyk creates abstract shots of pure color and impasto, beyond conventional realism. Swipes and flicks momentarily blind our vision; some images flash on the screen for such a brief period of time that they seem to function purely as visual punctuation. The montage is daring and passionate—a constant clash of aural and visual stimuli, separated by moments of calm. Even when some actions appear to have been filmed in continuity, Borowczyk prefers to break them up, introducing cuts that enhance the sense of instability. When, amidst this extreme fragmentation, we experience longer and quieter shots (especially in the second half of the film), these moments breathe with a strange voluptuousness.
The slight, shaky movement of the handheld camera plunges us into a pulsating world, devoid of any fixity. A sudden wipe from the painting to the artist’s palette reveals an amalgam of similar forms, parallel universes extending from one stage of the process to the other. Borowczyk constantly redefines his relation with what he films, intuitively searching for different angles and distances, variations of movement and rhythm.
The soundscape is treated accordingly. Wagner’s Tannhäuser overture plays a crucial role. This choice of music seems to fit with the mythical themes and grandiloquent character of Popovic’s art. But Borowczyk goes beyond this evident connection: in the same way that he tackles the paintings by portions, he uses the different sections of the music to achieve quite diverse dramatic effects. The sonic space created by the music is sometimes merged with the space of other sounds (mainly traffic noises), and Borowczyk juggles their respective volumes up and down, occasionally substituting one for the other in order to reach varying levels of intensity.
Under the apparently chaotic composition of The Greatest Love Of All Time lies a highly organized and structured piece, reminiscent of those “‘convulsive’, swirling intensities” and “sudden pulsions towards instinct’s reality” that de Solier identified as constitutive of Popovic’s oeuvre. That critic wrote about beauty and horror as a fundamental contradiction in Popovic’s paintings. Another contradiction can be noted: the myriad of figures and shapes that populate the canvases, the elaborate play with multiple planes of depth, the complex geometrical arrangement and disposition—all this contrasts mightily with the sense that these universes are not fully formed, always at the verge of becoming, of transformation. For all the incredible detail in some parts of the paintings, other parts seem to be deliberately half-born or dissipating.
It is precisely in this sense that the specific form conceived by Borowczyk portrays the tensions that animate Popovic’s works. The Greatest Love Of All Time is, like the paintings themselves, a world full of clashes and incrustations. The filmmaker makes sure that we never become masters of what we behold. Rather, we are absorbed by the paintings, driven to the center of their convulsion. These sensations of immersion and disorientation that Borowczyk achieves inside such concrete spaces (both the canvases and the studio itself) is stunning. Some blockbusters could certainly learn a lot from studying the careful construction of this short.
Near the end, there’s an especially beautiful section involving a female visitor. The camera glides around her as she walks through the studio and approaches the paintings, contemplating them with curiosity. Her movements are intercut with those of the painter, still working. A close-up of her face is followed by a shot where the camera circles around the back of her head to finally capture, in the same image, this spectator, the painter, and his work. It all ends with a smooth, vertical movement over a fragment of the painting. This section lasts barely 24 seconds and is comprised only of eight shots, yet is a remarkable choreography of movement, vibrating with an overwhelming emotion of discovery and admiration.
The question of scale and perspective is central to The Greatest Love Of All Time. The ultimate shot of the film is a powerful testimony to Borowczyk’s stance, encapsulated in 55 seconds: it starts right in the mouth of a monster—white, primitive teeth; a nose formed by a pair of black holes; red, minimal lips; multiple curved lines, in different shades of black and green, extending like an overgrown beard. Then the camera pulls back and descends to reveal the lower part of the painting; it executes one last movement to show us the upper half. The monster is now just one further figure in a complex, marvelous, convoluted composition. But Borowczyk would rather begin by plunging us into the very entrails of these tableaux.
When we see the dimensions of Popovic’s canvases for the first time, it’s a shock: these are large-scale paintings, crammed with surreal imagery and fantastical creatures in paroxysmic postures and expressions, barely containable by their frame. With his fragmentary mise en scène, graphic editing, and obsessive attention to detail, Borowczyk implies that all this monumentality means nothing unless we experience it right at its core—unless we are carried away by the smallest gestures that animate everything, unless we can become, as spectators, the thousand little strokes that give birth to a monster, or the blurred, white material that shapes the contour of a breast.