Objects of Beauty
Mr. and Mrs. Kabal’s Theatre (1967)
Fine art, arthouse, and grindhouse collide in the multi-faceted work of Polish director Walerian Borowczyk.
Our Walerian Borowczyk spotlight Anatomy of the Devil screens at Metrograph from July 23.
”Borowczyk is of major importance to the cinema. He is nigh on a genius. Simultaneously, he is both a realist and a surrealist, good with his hands and highly cultured. He is a filmmaker with a feeling for framing, but also for off-centring, combined with a sense of rhythm and light. One might think there were several Borowczyks, but his drawings and his shots as a filmmaker overlap. His work is so diverse, yet the same elements are to be found in his rapid short films and his feature productions. In addition to their technical quality and originality, his films always contain a touch of humour.
I once advised Michel Simon to act in the film Blanche. Initially, Simon found the prospect rather unappealing and refused, but then he met Borowczyk and changed his mind. ’This guy is incredible. He hammers in nails, he paints, he designs costumes, and he has an unpronounceable surname. I want to do a film with him!’
That’s who Borowczyk was.”
—Freddy Buache (journalist, critic, film historian, and director of La Cinémathèque suisse from 1951–1996)
According to Stanisław Różewicz, the split in Walerian Borowczyk’s career was “a splinter that hurt him all his life.”
Borowczyk was not in exile—he was an émigré. When he arrived in Paris in 1958, Borowczyk had brought with him a sensibility forged in his homeland. Still, he readily engaged with French culture throughout the 1960s: he shared a directing credit with Chris Marker on The Astronauts (1959), collaborated with the composer Bernard Parmegiani on several occasions, and adapted a short story by Guy de Maupassant, Rosalie (1966). Above all else, Borowczyk’s adopted homeland embraced him as an honorary surrealist. In his memoirs, Borowczyk recalled that André Breton had hugged him before comparing his imagination to a bolt of lightning at the opening of the “Camera Obscura” exhibition of his artwork at Théâtre le Ranelagh in 1965. Two years later, Borowczyk was awarded the Prix Max Ernst.
According to the Czech animator Jan Švankmajer, however, Borowczyk was not a surrealist, but an existentialist. In an interview in 1984, Borowczyk was keen to dissociate himself from the surrealistic tradition in his homeland, though he did recognize the influence of an earlier movement—Polish Romanticism:
At home and at school I got to know about Mieszko and Mickiewicz. Every one of my projects is inspired by the Polish language… Since my youth, I memorised Pan Tadeusz. I memorised every note played by Jankiel, and when I close my eyes, I see Jankiel.
For fellow émigré Andrzej Żuławski, the surrealist aspect of twentieth-century Polish culture was the result of a distension of Polish Romanticism. Surrealism and Polish Romanticism collide head-on in Blanche (1971), Borowczyk’s follow-up to Goto, Isle of Love (1968), though the original script for Blanche preceded it. In 1967, Borowczyk wrote a script in Polish based on Mazepa by the Polish romantic poet Juliusz Słowacki. He sent it to Stanisław Różewicz, the filmmaker brother of Borowczyk’s friend from Kraków, Tadeusz. Różewicz had recently been involved in the establishment of a new Polish film group, Tor. Enthusiastic about the script, Różewicz set about putting what would have been Borowczyk’s feature-length debut into production. However, it was not to be:
Some bad forces came into play, both from the film industry (possibly from some directors jealous of the name and position Borowczyk had already started to make for himself) and from political circles, ‘The director comes from the West, we can’t predict what he’s going to do, etc.’ So, the whole idea was stalled. Unfortunately, I was unable to counter those forces and Borowczyk’s Mazepa did not materialise.
The problem with filmmaking in Poland during the 1960s and 1970s was, for Borowczyk, the lack of freedom. Almost immediately after he left Poland in 1958, the freedoms he had enjoyed in the previous two years were curtailed. In a 1985 interview with Susan Adler for Cinema Papers, Borowczyk voiced his credo:
True art is freedom and sincerity: an artist expressing himself by doing what he loves to do most, in total freedom, with absolutely no interference.
After the success of Goto, Isle of Love, Borowczyk returned to Mazepa, relocating the action to medieval France. If Blanche has a theme, it is how unfulfilled sexual desire manifests itself as violence and bloodshed. With its dank castle and dungeon, virginal protagonist, and lecherous admirers, not to mention blasphemous images of weaponry disguised as religious paraphernalia, there is a Gothic, even Sadean aspect to Blanche. However, like Theatre of Mr. and Mrs. Kabal (1967), and Goto, Isle of Love, Blanche was first and foremost an excuse for Borowczyk to construct an entire world from scratch.
Goto, Island of Love (1968)
In his memoirs, Borowczyk recalled that André Breton had hugged him before comparing his imagination to a bolt of lightning.
To make the film in total freedom, Borowczyk and Dominique Duvergé produced the film through their own company, Abel et Charton. The producer was Philippe d’Argila, who had produced Costa-Gavras’s Z (1969), starring Jacques Perrin. Not only did d’Argila recruit Perrin for one of the leading roles, he also persuaded him to be a silent partner. Compared to Goto, Isle of Love, Blanche was a much larger production. André Heinrich, Borowczyk’s friend from his days at Les Cinéastes Associés, was hired as assistant director. Two key crew members were brought in by d’Argila: production designer Jacques d’Ovidio and costumer Piet Bolscher, and they would go on to work extensively with Borowczyk throughout the 1970s. Filming took place in the Fontainebleau Forest, and exteriors were filmed at the fortifications of the Château de Vincennes and at the Château d’Anjony. Interiors were shot entirely in a studio, with sets, costumes and props which were either supervised or designed by Borowczyk. Guy Durban returned as cinematographer, and Noël Véry was promoted to first camera assistant.
For the role of Blanche, Borowczyk cast his wife, Ligia. Like Rosalie, Blanche is constructed around Ligia’s performance. Perrin, however, wanted Catherine Deneuve and the resultant dispute led to the production being suspended. Ultimately, Borowczyk got his way. As an actress Ligia’s range is narrow but focused like a bolt of lightning. The intensity of her performance stems from a suppressed hysteria, in which perpetual emotional turmoil is offset by a brittle, stoic demeanor.
Freddy Buache, founder of the Cinémathèque suisse, recommended the actor Michel Simon, and Patrice Leconte, then a student at L’lnstitut des Hautes Études Cinématographiques (IDHEC), was hired as a second assistant director on the basis of the articles he had written on Theatre of Mr. and Mrs. Kabal and Goto, Isle of Love for Cahiers du Cinéma. Leconte was thus able to witness Borowczyk realizing a passion project, and recalled the director standing on a stepladder, painting the sets while the cast looked on nonplussed. If Borowczyk was guilty of a sin, it was his inability to delegate:
I also eliminate the collaborators who dare to try and barter their own ideas with me. I know everything. And that very often drives members of my crew to tears.
Duvergé and Heinrich accommodated Borowczyk’s meticulousness and diffused the tensions that arose among actors who felt upstaged by sets, costumes, and props. Borowczyk was interested in actors, he merely expected them to perform without the need for subtext, according to the director Florence Dauman. According to Borowczyk:
Orators and bad actors “act” in life. Great actors live on the stage. That’s called sincerity. The unforgettable moment is when their lives are fixed onto celluloid. And it is they who are the best witnesses to their epoch.
Blanche, like all Borowczyk’s films, is marked by the director’s approach to composition. He treated framing and editing as facets of montage, like Sergei Eisenstein. In essence, both framing and editing involve selection, determining what is to be included and (equally important) what is to be excluded:
I look through the viewfinder and I eliminate things. That’s the secret.
To the English director Leslie Megahey, Borowczyk’s approach to filming the medieval era in Blanche was “a revelation.” The Giotto-esque fresco look of Blanche rejects the idea of the film camera as a surrogate for eyes in an imaginary, albeit realistic, space. Instead, Borowczyk calls upon a simpler, almost graphic means of conceiving cinematic space. His sense of composition is painterly, not in terms of aestheticism, but concerning the significance bestowed upon details that might otherwise be considered extraneous to the action. This is most evident in terms of the equal importance Borowczyk attributes to props and animals, as well as to actors and locations. At first glance, the world conjured up by Borowczyk appears familiar. However, his constant tugging of the viewer’s attention towards specific details is disconcerting. Consequently, the medieval world rendered in Blanche—while not as strange as the imaginary isle of Goto—is far from conventional.
In addition to the framing, one of the more influential aspects of Blanche is Borowczyk’s use of medieval music, and the film features arrangements based on the Carmina Burana book of songs. Borowczyk is clearly fascinated by musical instruments, as he was in Goto, Isle of Love. Instruments of all kinds are of particular importance, particularly the religious paraphernalia handled by the monks who chaperone the king. These objects, constructed by Borowczyk, either conceal or transform into weapons. Both subtle and surreal, they embody the relationship between the church and war, a theme of Borowczyk’s Daumier-esque satirical drawings from the 1950s. In addition to Blanche’s missal, which conceals the poison she uses to take her own life, Borowczyk constructed the crucifix (modeled on Giotto’s Rimini crucifix) and the rattle used by the dwarf to announce the king’s arrival.
Borowczyk’s eye was also drawn to animals. Both Blanche and the king have pets—the former a dove, the latter a monkey, which have clear, almost transparent symbolic associations: imprisonment and mischief. Through a combination of framing and editing, Borowczyk elevates objects and animals to the status of supporting players. Just as the framing in Gavotte (1967) is calibrated to accommodate the stature of two dwarfs, Borowczyk hones in on the movements of animals (especially dogs) and all but excludes the limbs of extras. Of course, the dove is not just a symbol for the heroine’s soul—Borowczyk is as concerned with the dove’s fate as that of Blanche.While the climax of the film may be bloody, at least Blanche’s dove gets to escape from its cage.
While Blanche was a hit with international critics, it had very little impact at the French box office. It was more successful in England, where it played at the Paris Pullman Cinema in London for a whole year. According to d’Argila, Blanche was bought by the Polish authorities but never publicly distributed.
[Poles] don’t know anything about my previous movies, like Goto, Isle of Love or Blanche… they were never screened in cinemas or on television in Poland. They are still banned under the PRL [Polish People’s Republic] censorship ruling. I consider these my best films.
The Story of Sin (1975)
“To this day I am fascinated by moving pictures—sculptures that are mechanical.”
Shortly after the release of Blanche, Borowczyk began work on a short film provisionally titled Pornography: Erotic Naïf Art. Presented at the International Short Film Festival Oberhausen the following year, A Private Collection (1972) was a succès de scandale. Purporting to be an illustrated lecture on antique erotic artefacts by the surrealist writer André Pieyre de Mandiargues, A Private Collection features, among other things, an extract from an early black-and-white film of a woman being pleasured by a dog.
In some ways, A Private Collection is the linchpin of Borowczyk’s entire career. Like many of his films of the 1960s, it concerns objects. Regardless of their authenticity, these objects are presented as folk art, a subject that Borowczyk associated with his father, Wawrzyniec, and one he had explored in a film made with Jan Lenica, Rewarded Feelings (1957). A Private Collection also marks Borowczyk’s first collaboration with de Mandiargues, a writer whose works and thinking would have considerable impact on the rest of his career.
The erotic aspect of A Private Collection took many of Borowczyk’s supporters by surprise. However, a close look at the director’s previous work suggests that it was always present, if not always visible. In The Astronauts, Michel Boschet spies on a half-naked Ligia through a window via a periscope. There is a strong sexual undercurrent in both Angels’ Games (1964) and the cycle of paintings from which it emerged. Theatre of Mr. and Mrs. Kabal features a succession of mostly passive women in various stages of undress being spied upon through binoculars by Mr. Kabal. If Rosalie, Goto, Isle of Love and Blanche are not sexually explicit, they are stories concerning individuals under the thrall of primal urges. However, A Private Collection is the first instance of sexuality coming to the fore. Borowczyk gave some clue as to how this came about in an interview with critic Bernard Tremege around the time of the release of Blanche. Tremege had noted the presence of despots in both Blanche and Goto, Isle of Love, and Borowczyk replied:
The stories are different, but love, desire, and the roles of the two sexes remain. The king does not behave like a ruler in front of Blanche—he wields his power like a teacher before a pupil. He is ridiculous in the role of seducer—he is unable to seduce and only knows how to be king. Only when faced with competition from the lord does he revert to being a despot. Absurdity multiplies proportionally to conferred power.
This was nowhere more apparent to the director than in the actions of the conservative French politician Jean Royer. During the late 1960s, while the mayor of Tours, Royer signed a decree prohibiting the projection of pornographic films. Borowczyk conceived of Pornography: Erotic Naïf Art as an affront to Royer:
It is too much of an honour for Royer, but I should set an example: Mr. Royer will be strictly banned from [seeing] this film.
For Borowczyk the problem was that the question, “Is it pornographic?” was no less subjective than, “Is it art?”
Anything that’s beautiful is definitely not pornography. The very term belongs to legislation, not to art. From the point of view of manners or morals, ‘pornography’ is something forbidden. The criteria for defining what’s harmful and what isn’t depends on the period, the society, the context. Almost no two countries agree on what to forbid. ‘Pornography’ is a word that basically says nothing; anything can constitute pornography. There was a time when pornography meant looking at a lady’s rear… In a word, pornography is in the eye of the beholder. I consider that a morally normal man can look at everything without any of it harming him, including eroticism. It is simply love without the aim of procreation. That seems to me the best definition. Erotic films show the fascination that physical love exerts on us. Art has the right to engage itself with the most secret realms of our thoughts; that is its privilege.
“Erotic films show the fascination that physical love exerts on us."
A Private Collection was produced by Anatole Dauman, who had introduced Borowczyk to de Mandiargues. We hear de Mandiargues’s voice and see his hands but only once do we, briefly, glimpse his face. The antiquarian pornographic photos belonged to Simon, one of the stars of Blanche. Borowczyk claimed to have found many of the objects presented in A Private Collection at a flea market, though much of this “folk art” appears to have been fabricated by Borowczyk himself. He deemed industrial products to be soulless, while folk art betrayed “the trace of man’s hand.” It follows, therefore, that a film about erotic naïf art would provide an (albeit indirect) insight into man’s sexuality.
Recognising the authorities’ efforts to suppress pornography, Borowczyk’s film features items that cunningly hide their functions as sexual stimuli. He constructed these objects to appear much older than they are—they were either fashioned from reclaimed wood or distressed to seem like neglected antiques.
Several items in A Private Collection are assemblages reminiscent of Joseph Cornell’s work. One such object is a book. On one page is a treatise in Latin concerning ejaculation and masturbation, rendered in Borowczyk’s inimitable handwriting and attributed to the Catholic theologian and craftsman Jean-Baptiste Bouvier. On the other is a hollowed-out space in which a robed figurine sits, clutching a phallus below a miniature of the Virgin Mary. While not claiming to be the creator of this item, Borowczyk nevertheless sheds light on it in this passage from his memoirs:
In 1827 Archbishop Bouvier, the general viceroy in the school for clerics in Le Mans, wrote in his tutorial for confessors. In the chapter concerning ejaculation, he made a list of sins. One of the biggest sins is masturbating in front of a sculpture of the Virgin Mary. This sin is very popular among young clerics.
Borowczyk did claim to have created at least one item featured in the film: The Grasshopper Cylinder. The curious are invited to pick up a phallic piece of wood by its red tip and drop it on a metal lamina, producing an insect-like sound. This was one of several wooden sound sculptures created by Borowczyk from around the time that he made A Private Collection. The Turning Soundbox features a sound box which, when rotated, vibrates wooden laminae. The Great Rattle can only be operated with one finger and creates a hellish cacophony. According to curator Maurice Corbet, High-Precision Turntable was fashioned from a single plank of wood:
Borowczyk always insisted on this peculiarity. No nails, no vice, no glue. “Everything comes from the same tree—from the same plank.”
The Red Organ is a wooden organ with a single key that results in a single sound. Taking its name from a book by de Mandiargues, The Profligate Door is a wooden door which, in place of a knocker, has multiple wooden hammers that fall like dominoes when touched.
Many of Borowczyk’s wooden constructions have a primal quality, such as complementary “male” and “female” parts (two wooden discs, one distinguished by a “nipple,” the other by hard wedges lining its circumference). In Abstraction and Empathy (1953) Wilhelm Worringer argued that there are two types of art: that which is abstract and that which is empathic. Worringer associated abstract art with a “primitive” worldview and realism with the post-Renaissance tradition. Borowczyk’s sculptures are primitivist (they are both tools and totems), modernist (blasphemous surrealist assemblages), and postmodernist (examples of fakelore). When it comes to decoration, they are often just varnished, sometimes partially colored red. What binds these seemingly disparate works is a sensuous quality: not just in the erotic sense, but also in terms of the appeal they hold for the spectator’s eyes, ears, and fingers. There is a strong sense that Borowczyk’s objects are not just organic or autonomous, but alive. Silence, for example, unfurls its wings depending on the air pressure (an action facilitated, ingeniously, by a barometer). Above all else, they are objects of beauty.
This text is adapted from Boro: Walerian Borowczyk (2017), published by Le Chineur Éditions/Carlotta Films/les Éditions du Centre Pompidou, republished with the permission of Friends of Walerian Borowczyk.
Daniel Bird worked as Andrzej Żuławski’s assistant and is the co-founder of Friends of Walerian Borowczyk. He directs the Hamo Bek-Nazarov Project, which is concerned with film preservation and restoration in the South Caucasus and Central Asia. Recently he has co-produced restorations of Franciszka & Stefan Themerson’s Europa (1931), Stephen Sayadian’s Dr Caligari (1989), and Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975).
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne (1981)