The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Miss Osbourne (Dr. Jekyll et les femmes) Review


Until quite recently, the prevailing narrative of the career of Walerian Borowczyk (1923-2006), born in Poland, who spent most of his filmmaking career in France, was that with his early short films and first three features, both animation and live action, was high indeed. David Thomson was not alone in his opinion that Borowczyk was "one of the major artists of modern cinema" Steeped in a surrealist tradition, his animation, at times dark, horrific and oddly beautiful, not to mention erotic, was an avowed influence on Terry Gilliam, amongst others. However, says the narrative, in the mid-70s, Borowczyk "went erotic" with the then-scandalous and much banned or censored Immoral Tales and The Beast and sold out, becoming in many eyes an arty pornographer. By 1986 he was the credited director of Emmanuelle 5, his reputation at an ebb that could hardly have been lower. Arrow Academy's elease in 2014 of Camera Obscura: The Walerian Borowczyk Collection was one of the Blu-ray and DVD events of the year and has done much to restore the filmmaker's reputation, not least in making available in new restorations the earlier features and short films which had become very hard to see in playable versions by then. I reviewed this release, which was a limited edition box set (which sold out before release) and five separate dual-format releases for this site. The reviews are linked above for the last two features in the set and also here: Walerian Borowczyk: Short Films and Animation, Goto Isle of Love and Blanche.

In between Immoral Tales and The Beast, Borowczyk returned to Poland to make The Story of Sin, which is available on DVD from Nouveaux. His later films, including Interno di un convento (Behind Convent Walls) and La marge (which translates as The Margin but, with its casting of a post-Emmanuelle Sylvia Kristel and Warhol acolyte Joe Dallesandro, was given the more dirty-mac-friendly title of The Streetwalker in the UK) were sold as sexploitation, often troubling the BBFC who passed them with cuts. On the face of it, what was originally released as The Blood of Dr Jekyll seemed no different. (This release uses Borowczyk's preferred title of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne. The producers' title was Dr. Jekyll et les femmes, which the English-language credits at the start translate as Dr. Jekyll and His Women, with the Strange Case title in brackets underneath.)

Strange Case (which I will call it from here onwards, for reasons of brevity) is a free adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson's 1886 novella Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, already much filmed. Fredric March's dual role in Rouben Mamoulian's 1932 Pre-Code version won him an Oscar, and there have been several other versions on large and small screens since. Borowczyk's take on the material departs from the usual convention by having separate actors playing Jekyll and Hyde, respectively Udo Kier and Gérard Zalcberg. The transformation from one to the other is carried out by chemicals not here ingested but by means of self-immersion in a bathtub. Henry Jekyll is engaged to Miss Fanny Osbourne (the name of Stevenson's real-life wife, played by Alissa Pierro). Meanwhile, a series of murders have taken place nearby, with the victims ravished by means of an organ described by the pathologist as "extremely long and pointed".

The film was released in London in 1984, in one cinema with little publicity and no press showing, though one of the viewers in its first and only week was one of the producers of this release, sneaking in underage (tsk tsk). The BBFC spared delicate sensibilities by removing one minute and fifty-one seconds, including no doubt all the brief glimpses of that long and pointed member. By the next Friday, the film was gone, though Time Out and Evening Standard had been able to run positive reviews while it was still showing. However, a year later, the Institute of Contemporary Arts in The Mall (the Queen's local cinema, though I somehow doubt she often goes there), by means of its club licence, showed the film uncut as part of a Borowczyk retrospective, and this time the film was shown to the press. A video release in 1987 lost forty-four seconds in addition to the film cuts. Since then, the film has not been easy to see in any form, with rights issues preventing DVD or Blu-ray releases, now resolved. In the BFI's retrospective in 2014, using many of the 2K digital restorations of the earlier features and shorts, Strange Case was shown in a 35mm print, one of the few remaining in the world, from a Swiss archive (French soundtrack, German subtitles on the print, plus projected English subtitles).

Strange Case takes place mostly in one house, over the course of one night. Noël Véry's camerawork uses a lot of diffusion with muted colours in the interior scenes, though nighttime exteriors feature strong blue backlighting. (Véry, a longtime camera operator who was one of the four credited directors of photography on Immoral Tales, took over as DP partway through. The original DP was Martin Bell, who had photographed Sir Henry at Rawlinson End, a film Borowczyk had seen and admired, but who worked too slowly so Véry replaced him.) If you are familiar with Borowczyk's earlier work, you will recognise many of the motifs here: the fixation on objects (Borowczyk designed the film as well as writing and directing), the often "flat" framing emphasising the two-dimensionality of the film image, and of course the interest in eroticism, often seen as a liberating as well as destructive force. While Borowczyk could hardly escape the contention that cinema has a male gaze, specifically a heterosexual male one with male filmmakers gazing at on-screen women, as he was both of those things, his films often feature women trapped in their societies like butterflies, often breaking out of their confines, said confines especially including patriarchies. This results in Strange Case's extraordinary finale, a climactic in all senses and literally incendiary orgy of violence and copulation after Fanny partakes of her fiancé's method of transformation and transforms herself. Bernard Parmegiani's electronic score only adds to the effect.

Where you place Strange Case in Borowczyk's filmography is up to you. Many people, myself included, would rank Blanche as his best, greater than the more overtly erotic and now better-known work that followed it. You could also say that Strange Case is Borowczyk's last gasp artistically: Emmanuelle 5, most of which he did not direct though it's his name on the credits, was just four years away. Whichever way you look at it, it's a film well worth re-examining and this Arrow release does it justice.


The Disc

Arrow Academy's release of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne is dual-format, a Blu-ray (Regions A and B) and a DVD (Regions 1 and 2, NTSC, not received for review) in the same package.

The film is transferred in a ratio of 1.66:1. The large amount of diffusion used by Borowczyk and Véry makes for quite a soft image, but that's certainly intended and in line with the archival 35mm print I saw, referred to above. Véry himself authorised the transfer, which was a 2K restoration from the original negative, so this has to be definitive for Blu-ray resolution at least.

There are two soundtrack options, French and English, both in LPCM 1.0 as per the original mono. While this is certainly a French-made film, it's not accurate to describe the English version as a dub, as this is one of those European productions where different languages were spoken on set. Patrick Magee, whose voice is unmistakeable, clearly spoke his lines in English (pronouncing Jekyll the way Stevenson did, with a long E sound), while other cast members delivered theirs in French. The result of this is that lipsynch does vary in places, but that reflects the way the film was made. There are two sets of English subtitles available, one hard-of-hearing, the other not.

The extras begin with a commentary. This is introduced by Daniel Bird, one of the two producers of this release, and is assembled from interviews with Noël Véry, critic, director and writer Noël Simsolo, Michael Levy (assistant to Borowczyk, who also appears in the film as Poole) and Borowczyk himself, from an archival interview made while he was editing the film. A third set of subtitles translates into English those who speak in French, which includes Borowczyk.

Two short films are included. The first is Happy Toy (Joyeux jouet, 2:17). This charming, very short piece escaped most Borowczyk filmographies and was recently rediscovered. It explicitly draws on Borowczyk's strong interest in early cinema, specifically the pioneer Charles-Emile Reynaud's praxinoscope device. The second is Himorogi (16:58), a homage to Borowczyk's work made after his death by Alessio Pierro and Borowczyk's leading lady in Strange Case, Marina Pierro. The title is a term for a sacred space, and the imagery draws on Borowczyk's. Both films have music only with no dialogue, the latter making use of Bernard Parmegiani's work.

Next up are interviews. Udo Kier, speaking in English, talks about his role in the film (11:19) followed by Marina Pierro (sound only over film clips, 2017) who discusses Borowczyk's work in some depth, talking about his literary and cinematic influences. She knew him very well, and worked with him on five of his feature films. Alessio Pierro (10:36) talks about Borowczyk's work and his and Marina's homage to it, Himorogi, referred to above. Finally, Sarah Mallinson (10:01), an English filmmaker who was also the partner and collaborator of the Hungarian-born Peter Foldes, and also sometime assistant to Borowczyk, talks about both men.

The other producer of this set, Michael Brooke (former reviewer for this site) gives an overview of Borowczyk's career (32:57) beginning with his first experience of the man's films, the first run of what was then called The Blood of Dr. Jekyll. This is aimed more at those unfamiliar with Borowczyk's earlier films, who will be brought up to speed with the aid of many clips, including some of the Polish-made shorts which aren't included in the Camera Obscura set. "Phantasmagoria of the Interior" (24:39) is a visual essay on Strange Case by Adrian Martin and Cristina Álvarez López, which details some aspects of Borowczyk's mise-en-scène, such as the interiors seen without corners or windows. It also details how differently women and men are seen in this film's world: women associated with "flat" framing, as if to emphasise their static position in this society, the men associated with deep space, emphasised by tracking shots and compositions emphasising a third dimension.

"Eyes That Listen" (10:02) is a profile of Bernard Parmegiani, an important figure in musique concrère, whose score draws on his work Pour en finir avec le pouvoir d'Orphée. He died in 2013 and is represented here by an interview from 2008. As well as clips from Strange Case, this item also features extracts from his other collaborations with Borowczyk, including the earlier shorts Angels' Games and Joachim's Dictionary and the later Scherzo Infernal. It also features his work for other directors, such as Borowczyk's co-director on his earlier Polish shorts, Jan Lenica on his solo-directed A from 1965, Piotr Kamler's The Spider-Elephant (1967) and Peter Foldes's Plus vite (1965). Sarah Mallinson appears again, in an extract from her interview elsewhere. We also hear about AndrzeJ Markowski, who scored the Borowczyk/Chris Marker-directed The Astronauts and Wlodzimierz Kotoński, who did likewise on the Borowczyk/Lenica Home.

"Return to Méliès: Borowczyk and Early Cinema" (6:50) explores Borowczyk's abiding interest in silent cinema and pre-cinema means of producing moving pictures, such as the praxinoscope. When asked to name his favourite film directors, Borowczyk named those who were primarily or mainly known for their silent films, including Chaplin and Keaton. This short piece is illustrated by clips from Borowczyk's short films Happy Toy, which is elsewhere on this disc, the shorts A Private Collection (on the Immoral Tales disc), Diptych and Rosalie (to be found on the Short Films and Animations disc) and the earlier Polish shorts Home and School, as well as Strange Case itself.

The final on-disc extra is the theatrical trailer (1:44), presented with either extracts from Parmegiani's score, the English voiceover from the UK video release (the original French voiceover being lost) and a commentary from editor Khadicha Bariha. A commentary on a trailer is something you don't see every day, and Bariha talks about Borowczyk's method in preparing publicity methods, using actual frames from the film rather than using specially-shot stills.

The forty-page booklet begins, after film credits, with "A Bath Full of Solicor", an essay by Daniel Bird along the lines of his essays on the five films in the Camera Obscura set. Next up is a short piece by Surrealist writer and friend of Borowczyk André Pieyre de Mandiargues, whose work was adapted as "The Tide" episode of Immoral Tales and La marge. This piece was part of the introduction of a book published at the same time as Strange Case's French release, including stills from the film and Borowczyk's earlier work, as well as essays. A selection of extracts from UK reviews follows, which shows that the 1985 uncut reissue met with a decidedly mixed reaction. The rest of the booklet comprises a script extract (the finale) plus pieces on Happy Toy and Himorogi, both by Daniel Bird, transfer notes, disc credits and acknowledgements.

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Walerian Borowczyk's wild adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson comes to Blu-ray from Arrow.



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