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The Sex Objects of Walerian Borowczyk

The fatal fetishes of Walerian Borowczyk.
MUBI's retrospective The Many Sins of Walerian Borowczyk is showing February 12 - June 18, 2017 in the United States and in many other countries around the world.
If you were making a period movie in the classic era, it need not noticeably be any more or less unreal than a conventional contemporary film: in both cases, almost everything would be shot in the studio and every prop or costume would be made specially or brought in from a prop store. Nothing would be real.
By the sixties and seventies, this approach was becoming extinct and a new generation were making films on location, with natural light, natural actors, natural clothing. For a period movie, this meant finding locations that were largely unchanged since the period in question, and bringing to them appropriate props and costumes. A filmmaker might be tempted to focus more closely on these details in order to bring to life the constructed "reality" of the story world.
This fetishistic attention to detail might be amplified in the sex films, and quasi-sex films, that were starting to appear: changing attitudes and censorship laws gave a new semi-legitimacy to this form of cinema, and a blurring of the lines occurred between the two branches of semi-legitimate indie cinema, the art film and the skin-film.
Into this heady period of sex-art-fetishism-on-location, now insert Walerian Borowczyk, well-greased with the lubricant of visionary zeal, whose early films had been entirely fetishistic, being as how they were animated shorts. Manipulating objects (drawings and photographs), giving them life, imbuing them with dramatic significance, was essential to his art. Like another master of cut-out animation, Terry Gilliam, Borowczyk plunged into the creation of detailed fictive worlds, places you could inhabit and get dirty in (in W.B.'s case, in both senses of the phrase).
As Borowczyk drifted by increments from pure arthouse to impure pornography (impure in the sense that it remained, in his hands, tainted with artistry), he retained an unusual integrity, at least as long as he maintained artistic control. What seems to unite his films is that loving gaze he applies to spats, cash registers, phonographs and other props, which are at least as erotic to him as the (generally very attractive) bodies he allows to wander naked into view. Also, there's a moral neutrality, or else a moral attitude subtle to the point of being deeply mysterious. Ordinary pornographers must come to some kind of compromise with their material, often amounting to a total indifference. Borowczyk includes so many elements of darkness, crime and out-and-out horror, all presented with the same unflinching, aestheticizing, yet cynical eye, and washes out the most awful moments with strangely beautiful music, so that it is generally impossible to tell what his attitude is to what he's showing. All we can be sure of is that it isn't straightforward.
This may, if I'm lucky, allow me to bypass questions about sex and porn and feminism and what is and is not OK, which nobody seems to care about nowadays anyway. But I don't want to suggest that the filmmaker is a mere hack blessed with awesome visual skills (the look of W.B.'s films, which we'll come to, is uncannily consistent across genres, periods and national boundaries). It's just that while he's extremely clear about what he doesn't want you to feel—conventional dramatic identification, conventional moral outrage, conventional anything—he doesn't seem to care to make himself so crystal clear about what he feels or might want us to feel, other than a certain scientific interest.
The Beast (1975) ought to provide some clues as to what our auteur is up to. Not just because of its more extreme elements: a rape by some kind of shaggy monster in the woods, itself perhaps a fantasy occurring in the mind of a young bride-to-be. It's the film's humor that might give us an insight into Borowczyk's private thoughts: often, what a filmmaker chooses to find funny will tell you the most about their sensibilities. Here the answer may be: everything. A dark, wry amusement is applied to the whole film, which can get audiences hysterical (but I can advise against sitting in the front row: some of Boro's close-ups can be rather overwhelming). The grotesque and pervy bestiality plot, featuring a splendidly fake man-monster, more puppet than special effect, with a perpetually erect and oozing member, is deeply, joyously stupid, which may militate against its more distasteful aspects (i.e. all of its aspects, everything about it). A parody of porn? Of sex fantasies?
Boro's films are liberally sprinkled with quotations, printed as frontispiece or endpiece, but these rarely seem like conclusive authorial statements, more like ironic winks. He means something by what he shows you, but nothing said in his films should be taken at face value. A key example is The Story of Sin (1975), made on a rare return to his native Poland, which begins with a speech by a priest to a girl at confession, in which he describes the slippery slope sin leads to: all sin is essentially the same, but a small one will inevitably lead to larger ones. And this is exactly what Boroczyk goes on to illustrate in the unfolding story, with his dispassionate use of Mendelssohn and Pachelbel to elide the distinction between sex, theft, the killing of an infant, premeditated murder... But the priest's monologue is nothing but a joke: as the girl leaves, his eyes follow her, evidently checking out her curves.
Music is routinely used in Borowczyk films to flatten whatever affect we might otherwise be likely to experience. One episode of Immoral Tales (1973), dealing with the depredations of Elizabeth "Countess Dracula" Bathory, seems set to evoke the Holocaust: village round-ups and inspections, prisoners sent to the showers then killed. But authentic mediaeval music is not dramatic: it's beautiful and alien and cold, and piped into this story it has a chilling effect, along with the incessant closeups of nipples and muff. This could resemble the vile Italian-produced Holocaust-porn of the seventies, but it doesn't. The short A Private Collection (1973), which showcases the director's prodigious collection of vintage erotica, sets the tone for sex in his films: we view bodies with a taxonomist's detached gaze, comparing shapes and sizes and colors. The feminist accusation that porn objectifies is absolutely accurate in this instance, but it's perhaps more of a descriptor than a condemnation: Boro is interested in bodies in just the same way he's interested in anvils, crystal goblets or a Bulova Accutron wristwatch.
All this is washed over with a slight soft focus, just enough to animate the dancing film grain. Adding diffusion, of course, is the classic softcore sleazemeister's idea of rendering his material classy. Boro avoids slapping it on so thick that the audience feels myopic, as in that icon of "tasteful" erotica, Emmanuelle, which resembles a Seurat painting viewed through frosted glass. When the filmmaker slathers his lens with Vaseline, he is preparing to vanish up his own arse.
At this point it is customary to evoke the names of eros and thanatos, or at any rate to admit that sex is celebrated in Borowczyk's work, but not as what we might think of as a wholly positive force. Whether it is the raunchy beast succumbing to the desires of a woman even more voracious than himself, or the lacerated subway romancer of Love Rites (1987), sex often leads to death in these films. Which doesn't blunt the filmmaker's enthusiasm any. As a survivor of Nazism and Eastern Block communism and a partial survivor of the international film scene, Borowczyk seems to position sex and society at loggerheads, and indicates that the quiet, celibate life stands in opposition not just to good, clean, sexy fun, but to mayhem and bloodletting and rape, which seem intimately connected to coitus.
It's an unsettling vision. Where Borowczyk can seem corny is when he (rarely) treads too close to naturalism. His films depict social reality and sexual fantasy at war, without however getting too deep into psychology, ever. Particularly in the contemporary films, it's possible to inject, "But it just isn't like that!" In Love Rites, a woman painstakingly applies lipstick on the Paris Metro, then licks her lips repeatedly, an action which seems both counterproductive to good cosmetic effect, and a porno cliché. Elsewhere, however, the film is a surprising attempt at a sexed-up version of Godard's Two or Three Things I Know About Her, and it's amusing to imagine what skin-flick consumers in their raincoats would have made of it.
Borowczyk: Is he sexy? is what you probably want to know. Intermittently, would be my best answer. He's also disturbing, silly, weird, nightmarish. And very definitely obsessed. We need our filmmakers to be obsessed, don't we? And in a way, it doesn't even matter what with.
A shame Boro's "Le Marge" ("The Streetwalker") isn't included here as it stars Sylvia Kristel and Joe Dallesandro

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