Eve is traditionally the temptress, but in The Story of Sin, it is Ewa who is tempted when a handsome anthropologist, Lukasz, comes to stay as a lodger in her parents’ house. Already married, Lukasz is in the process of seeking a divorce – no easy task for a Catholic. In the meantime, a relationship begins between him and Ewa with, on her side, all the passion of first love… and all its obsessed desperation when Lukasz suddenly departs. Ewa leaves her job and family to go in search of him, a bold decision for a woman living around the turn of the century. As she and Lukasz are successively reunited and separated by a series of melodramatic events, Ewa’s downfall is assured by the predatory men she encounters on her travels.
Made the same year as The Beast (La Bête), with its fantasy sequences of bestiality, The Story of Sin has been subject to critical debate about whether it is art or soft-core pornography – the same debate that has surrounded the majority of director Walerian Borowczyk‘s features. Adapted from a novel by Stefan ?eromski, it has a period setting, complete with its costumes and manners. When the film departs from the expected tropes of the period piece, the effect is startling. Ewa and Lukasz meet each other with all the expected formality, so buttoned-up that a corset left carelessly on a bedpost intrigues Lukasz and mortifies Ewa. Just a couple of scenes later, Lukasz is groping Ewa in a public park. They begin writing ardent letters to each other, Ewa slipping her billets doux discreetly into Lukasz’s mailbox, only to lie stark naked in bed as she reads his replies. The film’s artistic credentials are boosted by Borowczyk’s virtuoso use of close-ups and point-of-view shots, which lend something of the unexpected to an otherwise slavish blow-by-blow, over-long enactment of the novel.
Most scenes in the film are permeated with sexual threat, from the lascivious artist (another lodger), to the priapic villain who propositions Ewa in a village tavern and, when she refuses, improbably pursues her across Europe. If every man lusts after Ewa (apart from her father and one homosexual character), it is not that she is irresistible: it is that they see Ewa, like all women, as nothing more than prey, which they have a god-given right, as men, to use for their pleasure. Even Lukasz may be a fly-by-night – it is Ewa who makes all the effort to find him, while he never seems to be around when she needs him most. There is just one scene in the film where male and female bodies, in lovemaking, appear equally vulnerable and desirable beneath the camera’s gaze. Yet even this image is severely compromised by the fact that Ewa is being forced: her partner, completely in love with her, doesn’t realise that another man has orchestrated the encounter against her will. All in all, The Story of Sin makes for uncomfortable viewing.