For a better experience on MUBI, update your browser.

Walerian Borowczyk's Theater of the Body

Exploring the director's preoccupation with the body in "Behind Convent Walls" and "The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Miss Osbourne".
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.
The late 1970s marks a stylistic departure for Walerian Borowczyk, as the Polish director moved away from a controlled, painterly style and toward a ‘corporeal’ style, wherein changes in aesthetic choices allowed him to explore the human body in greater depth than in his previous films. While the liberal portrayal of sex and sexuality (lending itself to the liberal portrayal of bodies, human or otherwise) is present in Borowczyk’s live-action films as early as his anthology Immoral Tales from 1973, the preoccupation with the body specifically comes to the fore with the films Behind Convent Walls  (1978), Immoral Women (1979), L’armoire (1979), Lulu (1980), and The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Miss Osbourne (1981). It is in this four-year period that the viewer will notice Borowczyk's moving away from what artist and animator James Snazell called his ‘2D aesthetic’ and toward a more ‘loose’ filming technique. He accomplished this largely through the use of handheld cameras and diffused light. What results in this new technique is Borowczyk’s exploration of the body not just as a three-dimensional artistic object but as a functional, biological object that is subject not just to sex but also to physical violence and physical change.
Borowczyk’s understanding of the body is not dissimilar to Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s idea of the use of the body as a necessity of perceiving objects and other bodies proposed in his 1945 work Phénoménologie de la perception. For Merleau-Ponty, a body is considered just another object in the world; however, one’s body is also the only vessel through which one is in contact with the world. The body is therefore ‘un espace expressif’ where all actions are at once perceptive and motor, and can involve other bodies and objects interchangeably: “If I were to become accustomed to use a stick to explore objects, then the stick itself would cease to be an instrument for me, and it would become a sort of prolongation of my sense organs. Then the world of objects with which I come in contact by touch would no longer become present to me at the contact of my hand, but rather at the point of my stick, so that the stick would become a prolongation of my arm.” The stick in Merleau-Ponty’s analogy is a means of perception rather than another object. In the case of Borowczyk, the use of a handheld camera not only opens up the body for portrayal in the round, but also draws the viewer’s attention to the movement of the camera operator’s body as well. The filmmakers’ drawing of the viewer’s attention to the use of his or her body is thus a component of portraying the body on film. This is not to say that Borowczyk had this idea of ‘corporeal phenomenology’ in mind by necessity when filming Convent or Jekyll, but Merleau-Ponty’s concept is a useful tool in interpreting Borowczyk’s later films, given not just their content but their nascent style.
To properly explore Borowczyk’s newfound preoccupation with the body in these films, it is necessary to first establish their literary sources, how those sources might have perceived the body, and how Borowczyk might have understood them. Behind Convent Walls is ostensibly based on Stendhal's Promenades dans Rome from 1829. That text is largely a travelogue however, and throughout the 1970s it was not uncommon for exploitation films to (often arbitrarily) cite literary sources in order to lend ‘legitimacy’ to their content. What is more likely is that Borowczyk based his script on a few other sources associated with Stendhal. One is a text written anonymously sometime during the 1570s or 1580s popularly called The Chronicle of the Convent of Sant’Arcangelo at Baiano. This is an allegedly true account of the sexual exploits of Agata Acrimone, Giulia Caracciolo, and Livia Pignatelli, young women from the Neapolitan nobility who were forced to take vows and live in a convent in order to protect their families’ monetary assets (this was also the basis for Domenico Paolella's 1973 The Nun and the Devil). Stendhal wrote an introduction to this text in 1829 when it was first published in France. Borowczyk’s film indirectly reveals this source in an early scene, where a young nun proclaims: “I'll have to stand and shout out the truth in St. Peter's Square that my illustrious father and mother had me take vows when I was too young to realize what I was in for.” Another source is perhaps Stendhal's L’abbesse de Castro from 1839, which follows a 16th-century Italian noblewoman who is sent to a convent, is eventually named an abbess, and becomes pregnant by a bishop. Being about the sexual and murderous exploits of the residents of a convent, Borowczyk’s film easily occupies the well-known ‘nunsploitation’ genre, which began arguably with Ken Russell's The Devils (1971, based indirectly on Huxley’s The Devils of Loudun from 1952) but has origins in Jerzy Kawalerowicz's Mother Joan of the Angels (1962), Powell and Pressburger's Black Narcissus (1947), and perhaps ‘convent pornography’ from the 1910s and 1920s.
The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Miss Osbourne is based of course on Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886). One should know, however, that the Jekyll and Hyde that exist in the popular imagination are not based as much on Stevenson’s novella as they are on an 1887 stage adaptation by Thomas Russell Sullivan. Sullivan’s version of Jekyll made the protagonist more ‘relatable’ to a large audience—specifically by adding female characters including a fiancee for Jekyll, Agnes Carew, and by increasing the contrast in personalities of Jekyll and Hyde. Sullivan’s Jekyll appears in conventional social situations and his Hyde is more blatantly evil, for instance. By contrast, in Stevenson’s novella, there are no women, Jekyll is largely reclusive, and the line between the two personalities is not as clear. Most film adaptations follow the dramatic precedent set by Sullivan’s play. What nearly all of these adaptations have in common is that they star a single actor in the dual roles. This convention in casting also has its origins in Sullivan’s play, which was written for a specific actor, Richard Mansfield, who wanted to use Stevenson’s novella as a platform for demonstrating his range as a performer. In other words, the genesis of our popular notion of Jekyll and Hyde lies largely in the conceit of two distinct personalities residing in the mind of one body. Film versions enhance these personalities by way of makeup: typically Jekyll is handsome while Hyde is grotesque, the best known version perhaps being Rouben Mamoulian’s 1932 version with Frederic March (a 1960 version by Terence Fisher for Hammer Films, The Two Faces of Doctor Jekyll, portrays Jekyll as sickly and socially awkward and Hyde as handsome and charming; Jerry Lewis released a comedic version of the same take on the Jekyll and Hyde subject three years later.)
Why are these literary sources relevant? Borowczyk likely saw in these works that what are largely psychosexual problems are in fact corporeal by nature and often at odds with societal norms, or inherent to what Foucault called the ‘prison of the body’: sexual repression, physical violence, and dissociative identity. These concepts tend to register in genre cinema as body horror, serial killer and slasher films, and even pornography. In Convent and Jekyll, Borowczyk makes unorthodox choices in adapting these sources, and in doing so extrapolates the body as a theater of sex and violence in ways one is not likely to see in previous incarnations of either nunsploitation or Stevenson.
Borowczyk establishes this ‘corporeal’ theme in Convent’s opening sequence: A butcher hauls an animal carcass through the bolted doors of the convent and into its kitchen. The viewer then sees closeup shots of the nuns’ hands preparing food in the kitchen. The film cuts to the convent’s flower garden and eventually its chapel, where Veronica (Marina Pierro) pricks her finger, sucks the blood from it, and turns her head to regard a statue of Saint Sebastian. The film cuts back to the kitchen, where the viewer sees a closeup of the butcher’s knife slicing the carcass open. The butcher then flexes his arm muscles and brags that he could punch a hole through the wall, while a nun observes that the butcher is merely ‘beating meat.’ The images of hands and mouths cutting and sucking flesh, together with the portrayal of flesh as the raw material of both food and sex acts establishes a vocabulary of sorts to explore the uses of the body in the film.
Convent reveals through its editing and through traditional Christian iconography that engagement in sex is no different from the consumption of food. Consider a scene where a nun contorts her legs into the traditional shape of a pretzel while reciting a litany. Pretzels—in that time called pretiola—as a baked good are believed to have originated in the monasteries of ancient Italy, and were given to children as a reward for pious behavior (the word pretiola is colloquial Latin for ‘little reward’). The pretiola shape itself originates with the shape of a pair of arms crossing one’s heart or clasped in prayer. Borowczyk conflates this food (and by implication, pious) imagery with that of a woman’s spread legs. In doing so, Borowczyk implies that there is no shame, necessarily, in perceiving the body as a theater of sexual pleasure, since it is also during this scene that the nun recites a litany paraphrasing Saint Augustine's Contra duas epistulas Pelagianorum libri quattuor: “Let the soul be lord over the flesh, let reason guide the soul.” Augustine uses the phrases ‘rational soul’ and ‘lord over the flesh’ in his writing on Adam and Eve’s ‘disobedience of the flesh’ and humankind’s resulting shame and embarrassment regarding the nude body. Such disobedience according to Augustine “…is not something embarrassing or bothersome for God, if we do not obey him, for we are absolutely unable to diminish his sovereign power. But it is something embarrassing for us that the flesh does not obey our command, because this is the result of weakness which we merited by sinning, and it is called the sin dwelling in our members.”
The relationship between Christianity and sex is a staple of the nunsploitation genre, one used particularly as an indictment against church doctrine regarding premarital sex. While it is inevitable that Convent depicts conventions of this genre, Borowczyk addresses those conventions as they relate to the body’s sexual functions and the mind’s learned repression of them. Early in the film, a man waits until one nun is alone in the convent’s library before they copulate under a loom. She is caught and reprimanded by the mother superior. The young nun doesn't feel remorse for having sex, but for having been caught having sex. She ridicules the church for indoctrinating her at an age where her mind was incapable of understanding either the nature of sin as the church authorities would have it and where her body had not experienced pubertal hormonal changes and thus had not yet experienced sexual attraction.
Convent’s style extrapolates the corporeal experience between bodies and objects rather than the simple interchange between bodies and objects. A scene early in Convent portrays a nun masturbating using a dildo with a man's bearded likeness painted on the base. A similar object first appeared in Borowczyk’s A Private Collection (1973), which takes author and collaborator Andre Pieyre de Mandiargues’ collection of erotic novelties as a subject and documents it as still life. Late in that film, the viewer sees a clothed male figure demonstrating how to use a dildo, filmed clinically at a distance with a long focal length lens. By contrast, the viewer sees a dildo in use in Convent, but from the point of view of a handheld camera moving around the nun’s body. The viewer should bear in mind that, in showing female genitalia (to say nothing of masturbation), Borowczyk portrays the female body in even starker contrast to popular portrayals of women in western art from the century in which the film takes place. The vagina and pubic hair are consistently absent from artistic renderings of the female body up until the nineteenth century, when drawing and painting female nude models became part of the curricula of art academies. Female nudes in the time and place of Convent’s setting are in art historian Ann-Sophie Lehmann’s words “literally without sex.” Borowczyk is explicit in showing the act of masturbation, and in doing so brings not simply female genitalia but female self-pleasure to the fore. When the nun is caught by the mother superior, she is forced to demonstrate what the dildo is for, which results in an act that mimics the clinical portrayal of masturbation in A Private Collection. Borowczyk thus presents the viewer with a relatively frank portrayal of the female body: emphasizing tactile sensations experienced by the body rather than portraying a mere demonstration.
Borowczyk further complicates popular portrayals of the female body in the time that Convent takes place in a sequence late in the film which follows Clara (Ligia Branice), who leaves the cloister one night and visits Rodrigo. They flee the convent and eventually have sex. The sex in this scene is largely implied, consisting of several close-ups of Clara’s face. Her countenance and dialogue bear a strong resemblance to the narrative of Giancarlo Bernini’s sculpture Ecstasy of Saint Theresa (1652), which historians roundly describe as a work relating religious ecstasy with sexual pleasure. In a later scene, the viewer sees Clara with disheveled hair beneath her habit proudly stating: “I took my lover into the convent and he taught me something. Rodrigo Ladriani deflowered this body and it was beautiful!”
Arguably more than in Convent, Borowczyk’s Jekyll is in many ways designed to extrapolate the human form. For example, rather than describing the film’s characters at the script level, Borowczyk made drawings of what they were to look like. While previous versions of Stevenson/Sullivan’s characters commonly featured one actor in a dual role, Borowczyk’s version is distinctive for having two actors—Udo Kier and Gerard Zalcberg—play the two roles of Jekyll and Hyde, respectively. Because of this, the viewer has no ‘point of reference’ as he or she would when comparing two characters being played by one actor. Two personalities emerge primarily because the viewer knows logically that two different bodies personify Jekyll and Hyde. In discussing the film, Borowczyk had remarked on the absurdity of one actor playing two different characters, stating that for an actor to be hidden under so much makeup and prosthetics, it may as well be another actor entirely. Further, the editing in the first half of the film portrays Kier’s Jekyll and Zalcberg’s Hyde as if they were two different characters, implying two separate bodies that can occupy different spaces at once. When Borowczyk reveals the serum and transformation process halfway through the film, it is in a powdered form that Jekyll mixes into a bathtub. Whereas previous portrayals of the transformation depict the serum being taken orally or intravenously, Borowczyk’s version immerses the entire bodies of Jekyll and eventually his fiancee Fanny (named for Stevenson’s wife, again played by Marina Pierro) in the tub, and in both scenes the camera holds on the characters deriving tactile pleasure from immersion. It is ultimately through this displacement of bodies that Boro draws the viewer’s attention to physical transformation rather than to the difference in personalities that earlier adaptations necessitate.
In Jekyll, the viewer notices stylistic changes intended focus on the body as multiple things. One of the hallmarks of Borowczyk’s films throughout the late 1960s and 1970s was the use of long focal length lenses in order to ‘flatten’ images. Jekyll (as well as Convent) is a noticeable departure, and cinematographer Noel Vary has stated that the handheld camera, backlighting, and light diffusion were all intentional. The viewer sees the action through stationary cameras at the start and eventually, after approximately twenty minutes, through handheld cameras. The viewer will also notice the film’s intercutting between bodies as hosts to various actions: The sequence of a ballerina dancing is intercut with the body of a dead girl who has been murdered by Hyde in the street. A dinner scene where Jekyll and Fanny’s colleagues engage in genteel conversation is intercut with shots of Fanny stabbing her mother, Hyde’s erection hovering over a woman’s back, and an anonymous bloodied body hanging by its legs. While the scene at the table—consisting of discussion about science, pseudoscience, and ethics—seeks to parse corporeal experience with words, the intercut scenes show that experience in the forms of sex, violence, and death.
The intercut shots are identical to scenes the viewer will see later in the film. While these shots can function narratively as foreshadowing, they also reveal a climactic scene in the film’s ending. One might conclude, then, that Borowczyk’s use of editing instead demonstrates how the dinner scene, to use Freud’s term, sublimates the body’s propensity to sex and violence into a socially acceptable form. Said Borowczyk on this idea in 1981: “Jekyll is as horrible as Hyde. Hyde allows Jekyll to do whatever is forbidden to him because it gives him another appearance. He allows him impunity and supreme liberty. In the society of the Victorian era, as in that of today, it is necessary to hide. Police and justice are watching. Jekyll had always been prepared to do evil. The hypocrisy of our education alone has prevented it. If he had revealed his true nature, he would have been eliminated at once.”
A recurring image in Jekyll is of hands touching the face and body. There are several shots of Jekyll and Hyde looking into a mirror and fondling his face before and after transformation. The viewer might interpret these scenes in light of Merleau-Ponty’s idea of one being able to see one’s own face only when rendered in two dimensions—specifically a photograph or a mirror—but never in the round. The sense of touch, then, serves to compensate for the sense of sight by experiencing one’s own face in the round. Borowczyk also conflates the satisfaction of the sense of touch with physical change of the body. Jekyll has a dialogue later in the film that affects a turning point: “I am the first who can transform his whole being into a capacity for pure pleasure. I am the first who can face society in a guise of unquestioned respectability and in the next instant like a schoolboy throwing off the tawdry rags of his dreary institution. I throw off all pretense and leap wallowing in an ocean of freedom and pleasure.” It is at that moment that Fanny chooses to change. Leaping into the tub, the camera holds on her as she twirls in the serum. After she emerges, she looks at herself in the mirror and fondles her new body.
Jekyll’s most iconic image is arguably one of Fanny witnessing her husband’s transformation through an opening between two large cabinets. The seven-minute scene cuts between Jekyll moving in and out of view behind the bathtub and a reverse close up of Fanny’s face which is largely obscured either by the cabinets or their shadows. The viewer never sees Fanny’s face entirely while Jekyll’s body is partially submerged in the serum, suggesting visually that the romantic connection between the two is one that exists between two ‘halves’—between one aspect of Jekyll and one aspect of Fanny. Further, upon witnessing the transformation, Fanny is largely intrigued rather than repulsed by the physical change in her husband. One can compare that scene with a later scene where Dr. Lanyon (Howard Vernon) witnesses Hyde’s transformation into Jekyll, wherein Lanyon goes into shock and presumably dies. Instead of feeling disgust or horror at physical change of the body, Fanny embraces it. Borowczyk attests to the character’s plight in that regard: “I imagined a woman who loved Dr. Jekyll and who wanted to hold onto that love, so she had no other option than to change herself, to follow him like Hyde. She was obliged to become not a monster but an individual with a second internal identity.”
Borowczyk’s later films exemplify more generally the tremendous bearing that style has on one’s reception of content, a kind of linguistic relativity pertaining to film images (in this case, the notion that the portrayal of images either influences or determines the viewer’s reception of images). That the image of a dildo in A Private Collection and that in Behind Convent Walls are essentially the same and yet their respective portrayals differ is a case in point. Given Borowczyk’s propensity to view bodies and objects interchangeably in his films—and from a point of view that changed over time—one wonders what someone like Merleau-Ponty might have thought of Borowczyk’s oeuvre. Is there no distinction between the former’s analogical stick and the latter’s camera, since both function at once as an extension of the body and means of perception?
Thank you for the article! I was always interested in a topic that you briefly mention - the birth of the 'nunsploitation' genre. I think that, for Italian producers, the "originary film" was Pasolini's DECAMERON (the 'mute guy' episode). DECAMERON was a huge moneymaker in Italy and, once brought to Court on the charge of obscenity, led Italian judges to rule that 'it is not obscene if it comes from an established literary work'. Hence, probably, Boro's BEHIND CONVENT WALLS - an Italo-French co-production based on the work of an established writer.
I don't doubt it; that makes a lot of sense actually (throwing in a literary reference to avoid censorship/legal consequences). As for the origins of nunsploitation at large, pornography that incorporates religious figures like monks or nuns goes back to at least the eighteenth century. I glossed over it, but I see nunsploitation films mostly as pseudo-political statements about corruption/collusion between church and state in Catholic societies, which has been around from the beginning.
I have had enough of "Boro" films by now. It's getting boring/ We've had 4-5 in close succession now. Let's say that this does not help Borowczyk's reputation. Soft porn thematology, repetitiousness, sexism, Catholicism. And btw Mr. "de Corinth", you failed to pick up on the race theme on your piece on "The Beast".
He's not for everyone I guess. I'm sorry to be the bearer of bad news but a person's reputation varies widely depending on who you ask. Some people might find soft porn thematology or Catholicism interesting. It's true that the article failed to pick up on the race theme in The Beast, but that's because the article isn't about The Beast. Unless you're referring to some other article I wrote about The Beast, which is unlikely since I've never written anything about The Beast.
Lovely article! I thoroughly enjoyed reading your perspective. I'm fairly ignorant when it comes to dissecting cinema... but I feel a bit more educated after reading this. :)

Please to add a new comment.

Previous Features