While Walerian Borowczyk (1923 – 2006) had been a keen amateur filmmaker since his youth, his professional debut was a handful of short films made with another poster artist, Jan Lenica (1928 – 2001). These films took what was interesting about the Polish posters of the 1950s (the economy of means, a ‘hand-made’ quality) and translated it into cinema. In 1958, Borowczyk co-wrote a documentary film on posters (Sztuka ulicy), which connected both mediums in that they express thoughts and feelings through images and text. Unlike posters, however, films are about movement. Borowczyk was not just a filmmaker, but also a painter and sculptor. During his later years, he returned to graphics (using a technique he referred to as pulverographie, or ‘dustography’, which involved colour photocopying) and produced a series of bizarre wooden sound sculptures (34 of Borowczyk’s ‘dustographs’ illustrate his 1992 collection of short stories, L’anatomie du diable (The Anatomy of the Devil) available as part of Arrow Video’s upcoming special edition box set release Camera Obscura: The Walerian Borowczyk Collection. Three of Borowczyk’s sound sculptures are featured in the ICA exhibition ‘Walerian Borowczyk: The Listening Eye’ (The Fox Reading Room, ICA, 20 May-6 July 2014).
Borowczyk was fascinated with early cinema – the motion studies of Etienne-Jules Marey (which feature in Dom), the praxinoscope of Charles-Émile Reynaud (upon which Borowczyk’s 1979 short Jouet joyeux is based), the special effects of Georges Méliès, the physical comedy of Keaton as well as the montage experiments of Eisenstein. Borowczyk did not have a singular style so much as a way of thinking about the world. Some of Borowczyk’s short films are made up from photographs (e.g. Szko?a, Les astronautes), others involve the manipulation of objects (e.g. Renaissance, Le phonographe) or a combination of the two (e.g. Rosalie). In that, he is close Russian Formalist critic Viktor Shklovskii’s conception of a poetic cinema in which objects could be used to express abstract concepts. Shklovskii described Battleship Potemkin as an ‘uprising of dishes’ on account of the plates smashed during a monologue in which a crew member expresses discontent. Borowczyk took this idea to an extreme – objects are not only on a par with actors (e.g. Rosalie, Une collection particulière) but in some cases displace them completely (Renaissance, Le Phonographe).
While Borowczyk considered painting and filmmaking as two separate genres, he nevertheless fulfilled Fernand Léger’s dream of an artist being able to express themselves through paintbrush and film camera (during the 1950s, Borowczyk had travelled to France to make an amateur film about Léger at work in his studio, and would later make a remarkable documentary featuring Ljuba Popović paintingL’amour monstre de tous les temps). Like both Norman McLaren and Len Lye before him, Borowczyk sometimes painted directly onto celluloid (e.g. Sztandar M?odych) or animation cells (e.g. Théâtre de Monsieur & Madame Kabal (The Theatre of Mr and Mrs Kabal) and Scherzo infernal). Alternatively, he used the rostrum camera to make elaborate tracks around paintings (e.g. Les jeux des anges). As with many Polish poster artists of his generation (e.g. Lenica, Roman Cieślewicz, etc.), collage was profoundly important to him. Through cinema, the constituent elements could move (e.g. L’encyclopédie de grand-maman).
In 1968, Borowczyk made his live-action feature debut, Goto, l’île d’amour (Goto, Island of Love). Thematically, it is a love story about the lengths a man goes to possess a woman. Stylistically, it was the culmination of Borowczyk’s formal experiments concerning the use of objects as a means of telling stories (e.g. Rosalie), framing (e.g. Les jeux des anges, Gavotte) and combining black and white with colour (e.g. Renaissance, Diptyque). Divorced from both time and place, Goto works as an adult fairy tale, which attracted the attention of Angela Carter. Goto also paved the way for a generation of graphic artists who wanted to work in film (e.g. the Brothers Quay, Craigie Horsfield, Andrzej Klimowski and John Goto – who liked the film so much he changed his name).
After four years and a couple of shorts, Borowczyk’s next feature film was Blanche, a personal project in which he invested his own money. It is loosely based on Mazepa, a drama by the Polish Romantic poet Julius S?owacki. Set in medieval France, Blanche recreates an entire world through set design and props. In addition to painting the sets, Borowczyk fabricated many of the objects that feature in the film. Ostensibly a period drama, Blanche has a number of surreal touches, like a crucifix that transforms into a crossbow. He was a great fabricator, who loved distressing wood to make it appear antique (e.g. Une collection particulière). At the heart of Blanche is Borowczyk’s wife, Ligia, a woman with a remarkable screen presence whose angelic demeanour conceals a demonic sexual impulse. If Ligia was Dietrich, then like von Sternberg, Borowczyk was a master at creating atmosphere. Blanche bombed at the French box office, although it played for over a year at the Paris Pullman Cinema in London.
With La bête (The Beast), Borowczyk tricked his audience into thinking they were watching a refined costume drama, before confronting them with a Monty Python version of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ involving gallons of fake sperm. Often described as an erotic film, La bête is more of a Rabelaisian comedy. If anything it was a parody of pornography. Both La bête and Contes immoraux (Immoral Tales) were box office smashes in France. In terms of the way Domenico Scarlatti’s harpsichord music is used as a counterpoint, the role played by objects and animals (satin slippers and slimy snails) as well as its dreamlike quality, La bête is pure Borowczyk. The sexual aspect was nothing new (it had always been there, lurking under the surface) but now it was visible. The premiere of Contes immoraux and La bête coincided with the election of Valéry Giscard d’Estaing and the abolition of film censorship.
Borowczyk’s intention was never to solely titillate. Instead, he was interested in sexuality as a theme, just as violence was a theme in Sam Peckinpah’s Westerns. Borowczyk was interested in how people and society had, historically, dealt with sexuality. As a Catholic, he was particularly concerned with the role of the Church, both in Poland (e.g. Dzieje grzechu) and Italy (e.g. the ‘Lucrezia Borgia’ episode of Contes immoraux). Borowczyk believed in the importance of sex in Renaissance art, particularly the significance of Raphael’s mistress (the ‘Margherita’ episode of Les héroïnes du mal). Many of Borowczyk’s films deal with the repression of sexuality, and its manifestation in the form of taboos (Contes immoraux) and dreams (La bête). Borowczyk himself was preoccupied by the idea of sin, and thought of his films not as erotic, but ethical. Critics preoccupied with flesh are blinkered to the more transcendental aspects of Borowczyk’s films (both Renaissance and Goto, l’île d’amour are concerned with resurrection). If the displays of self-sacrifice in Blanche have overtly religious overtones, then it is worth remembering that Borowczyk wished to follow up the film with one about the Passion of Christ…
Between 1983 and 1987, Borowczyk attempted to mount a project about the life of Nefertiti, an adaptation of Dumas’s La reine Margot, a film about Chopin and George Sand, an English-language period drama based on a script by Cherry Potter (The Ancestral Mansion), as well as a return to feature-length animation (an expansion of his 1984 short Scherzo infernal, much like Théâtre de Monsieur & Madame Kabal elaborated on Le concert). However, all of these projects collapsed. Then Alain Siritzky, the producer of the Emmanuelle series, turned to Borowczyk as a means of bringing some artistic prestige to his franchise. In this respect, Borowczyk sold out no more than Sam Mendes did when he signed on to direct Skyfall. The teaser for Emmanuelle 5, in which a dildo is fashioned, origami style, out of a napkin, is typical Borowczyk. However, Siritzky imposed an actress on Borowczyk, Monique Gabrielle. Borowczyk did not speak English and, by all accounts, did not get on with Gabrielle. Having left the main shoot to his assistant director, Borowczyk focused on the second unit photography: close-ups of objects (including those Borowczyk fashioned for Une collection particulière), reportage of the 1986 Cannes Film Festival, not to mention the recreation of a plane crash using scale models (having led an uprising in a harem, Emmanuelle joins her lover, a Howard Hughes type, in an attempt at flying a ‘Spruce Goose’-type seaplane…).
If Borowczyk was guilty of a crime, then it was his inability to delegate work – he had to do everything all by himself on his terms in total freedom. In later years he sought out producers that he thought would allow him to work in complete freedom. He spent much of the 1980s fighting producers (over the title change of Le cas estrange du Dr Jekyll et de Miss Osbourne to Dr Jekyll et les femmes, the inserts from a Joe D’Amato feature spliced into Ars Amandi, not to mention losing control of Nefertiti, which was eventually produced in 1995 as Nefertiti, figlia del sole). Some see Borowczyk as a Jack-of-all-trades, while others see him as a Renaissance man in the vein of Eisenstein or Welles. At his best, Borowczyk made films as if he had invented cinema. At his worst, he filmed like a Martian who had fallen through time and space to make clandestine documentaries about human mating rituals. In many ways, Borowczyk was ahead of his time (his later work deserves to be taken as seriously as, for example, Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac or the films of Catherine Breillat). He was by far the most interesting Polish filmmaker of his generation, and his best films – the shorts of the 1960s and the features from the early 1970s – rank alongside the best of Bresson (in terms of rigour) and Buñuel.