Walerian Borowczyk: Short Films and Animation Review

The first of five reviews of one of the releases of the year.

There are many factors which affect a filmmaker’s reputation. Talent and ability can go cold: for many people they are at their peak when they are younger, hungrier and have things to prove. Or their career choices, good, bad or otherwise, can change our perception of what has gone before. And, especially with filmmakers, simple availability of their work can be another factor. When we are able to see the work itself, and not have to rely on other sources which can be the decades-old memories of those who saw the film on its original release, it can seem much better than we expected, or for that matter may not have stood the test of time. To give two examples from other distributors, a film like Rapture, largely forgotten since the 1960s, when it was made, becomes a rediscovery when we can watch it on Blu-ray, as we can from Eureka in the UK. Miklós Jancsó was considered a giant of world cinema, but for over three decades his work was all but impossible to see in the UK before Second Run started releasing his work on DVD. In both those cases this happened while the directors concerned were still alive. Arrow Academy’s series of releases – a limited-edition box set and five individual dual-format editions – aims to do the same for another director from the former Eastern Bloc, though one now deceased, Walerian Borowczyk.

In the 1960s and early 1970s, Borowczyk’s reputation could hardly be higher. David Thomson, in the The New Biographical Dictionary of Film calls him “one of the major artists of modern cinema” and that wasn’t an isolated opinion. Yet, following such once-scandalous – and much-banned – works like Immoral Tales and The Beast, he had the reputation of being an arty pornographer, one who by 1986 was the director of Emmanuelle 5. This reputation actually prevented other projects of his from being funded, of which more in a later review. Meanwhile, the earlier work which had established his name slowly slipped out of circulation, available prints becoming increasingly damaged, faded and less playable. Arrow are releasing his first five features and the majority of his short films, which I will be covering in five reviews. I had seen both Immoral Tales and The Beast before, over twenty years ago at what was then called the National Film Theatre in London, but it’s fair to say that opportunities to see the other films have been limited, in over thirty years of active filmgoing.

Walerian Borowczyk was born in 1923 in Poland. He trained as an artist and began his career designing posters and advertisements, before beginning to make short films in the later 1940s. He made films in Poland before relocating to France in 1959. Les astronautes was co-directed with Chris Marker, but Marker always insisted that was a favour to allow Borowczyk, a foreign national not yet naturalised in France, to make the film, and Marker himself had very little input into it.

This disc does not contain all of Borowczyk’s short films. The earliest work is now believed lost, and the Polish-made shorts were not available. A Private Collection (which exists in two versions) and Venus on the Half Shell were intended as curtain-raisers to the features Immoral Tales and The Beast respectively, and are included as extras on those discs. The original short film version of The Beast was intended as a fifth episode of Immoral Tales and can also be found on the release of the latter. I will describe these in more detail in my reviews of these discs.

Terry Gilliam provides a brief introduction and I can’t think of a more appropriate person to do so. Borowczyk was an avowed influence on him, especially in his use of cut-out animation, and if you didn’t know otherwise some of these films could have quite easily formed part of an episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. However, what is noticeable is the range of style and technique on display here: line drawing, cut-outs, stop-motion. Some of the films are purely animated, while others are entirely live-action, and many combine both. From the start, there is an attention to the textures of things, and a fascination with objects (props often made by Borowczyk himself) that sometimes supplants narrative in the conventional sense. Take Renaissance (the first short if you select Play All), made in 1963. At first all we see is debris, which slowly begins to reassemble itself into what it was before it was destroyed. You could give this film an allegorical reading, as the things that are reconstituted before our eyes are various aspects of society: the arts, the law, the Church. Finally, a bomb restores itself…and then blows up. The imagery of the animated Angels’ Games (1964) evokes the concentration camps of Borowczyk’s native country. Other shorts are exercises in surrealism, blackly funny or disturbing or both. Yet there’s that emphasis on texture, playing off between line drawing and cut out, between animation and live-action, or even between black and white and colour. In the case of Diptych (1967) this becomes part of the very structure of the film. As the title suggests, it is made up of two “volets” (panels). The first is a short documentary portrait, in grainy black and white (if not 16mm, it certainly looks like it) of an elderly farm worker about to celebrate his hundredth birthday. The second is a series of rapturous colour and 35mm images of flowers, and a very cute cat, accompanied by “Romance du Nadir”, sung by Tino Rossi. Even in the purely live action Rosalie, the closest of the shorts to a conventional narrative, inspired by Guy de Maupassant’s story “Rosalie Prudent”, which takes the form of a monologue by the title character (played by Ligia Branice, Borowczyk’s wife), there is an emphasis on objects, on a table especially. Rosalie’s face, often in close-up, becomes another texture. As Gilliam points out in his introduction: the sound plays as much a part as the visuals do: whether it be music or odd bangs and thumps and scrapes often generated by the filmmaker himself.

Borowczyk made his first feature film in 1967, of which more in a moment, which inevitably reduced his output of shorts. That said, Immoral Tales is a portmanteau film of four, originally five, shorts and the feature The Beast started life as that excised fifth. His last short film – if you don’t count episodes of the French TV series Série rose, his final directorial credits – is Scherzo Infernal – a brief hand-drawn skit in which a rebel angel meets a horny devil, with definitely family-unfriendly results.

One of the shorts was The Concert from 1962, which introduced the characters (if that’s the word) of Mr and Mrs Kabal, who then became the leads in Borowczyk’s first feature film, The Theatre of Mr and Mrs Kabal (Le théâtre de Monsieur et Madame Kabal), made in 1967. Introduced by “Boro” (a black and white live-action superimposition – he appears to have been bearded in 1967), this is less a story in the normal sense but a series of episodes, funny, brutal and surreal all at once. It’s mostly black and white line drawing with some blocks of colour, but as with the short films, other textures come to play as well, not least live-action inserts in 35mm Eastmancolour and documentary footage, some of it in 16mm, black and white and colour both. There’s little dialogue, much of it deliberately nonsensical cut-ups of human speech. Some of it receives onscreen multilingual subtitles, as in the screengrab below. There’s also a hint of the erotic preoccupations of the director’s later work, given that Mr Kabal is given to voyeurism with a pair of binoculars. Many of the live-action inserts are what he sees, often women in bikinis and/or various stages of undress, and usually interrupted by a grumpy balding bearded man who takes exception at being spied upon.

In a sense, Theatre is a culmination of Borowczyk’s short films to that point, in particular the animated ones. His later feature films are all live-action, though you can see the influence of the earlier animation in many of them. So if Theatre is a dead end of sorts, it’s a delightful, bizarre and sometimes disconcerting one.

The Disc

Walerian Borowczyk: Short Films and Animations, is one fifth of a box set, Camera Obscura: The Walerian Borowczyk Collection, which is limited to a thousand copies and, as of this writing, sold out. However, the five dual-format editions which make it up with be released separately. The difference between the box set and the individual releases is that some of the book (some 340 pages) which accompanies the set has been redistributed between five individual booklets, but not all of it. I will detail the difference between the booklets and the book in the final review of this series.

Short Films and Animation is an all-regions, dual-format release comprising one Blu-ray and two DVDs, a single-layered disc for The Theatre of Mr and Mrs Kabal (which runs 77:05) and a dual-layered disc for the short films and the extras. This review is from a Blu-ray checkdisc, and my comments refer to that rather than the DVDs.

The short films are listed in chronological order on the menu, but Borowczyk never intended them to be watched in that way. The Play All option (running 112:29) adds a brief explanatory caption at the start and the shorts then follow accordingly:

Renaissance (1963) (9:18)
The Concert (Le concert, 1962) (7:01)
The Astronauts (Les astronautes, 1959) (12:37)
Joachim’s Dictionary (Le dictionnaire de Joachim, 1965) (9:26)
Scherzo Infernal (1984) (5:14)
Gavotte (1968) (10:41)
Grandma’s Encyclopaedia) (L’encyclopédie de grand-maman en 13 volumes, 1963) (6:51)
The Phonograph (Le phonographe, 1969) (5:41)
Rosalie (1966) (15:07)
Diptych (Diptyque, 1967) (8:41)
The Greatest Love of All Time (L’amour monstre de tous le temps, 1977) (9:38)
Angels’ Games (Les jeux des anges, 1964)

You can Play All with or without Terry Gilliam’s introduction, which runs 1:04. This introduction is separately accessible via the extras menu.

The Theatre of Mr and Mrs Kabal had a UK cinema release in 1968, though the Monthly Film Bulletin rather belatedly covered it in its August 1969 issue. The film was not submitted to the BBFC, though there isn’t anything in the feature that would have troubled the censor (despite referring to itself in its opening credits as being for adults) then or now. While no one would suggest that much of Borowczyk’s work should be put before children, this one does sit on the borderline between a PG and a 12. (It was certified in 2014 as part of a package with all the short films in the set, which inevitably gained an 18 certificate as a whole.)

The aspect ratio of the feature is 1.33:1 which seems correct, though I’m in no doubt that many cinemas would have shown it in 1.66:1 (but hopefully no wider) in 1967. 4:3 is also the aspect ratio of all of the shorts, except Angels’ Games which is 1.85:1 and The Greatest Love of All Time, which is 1.66:1. All of them have been restored into 2K resolution from 35mm elements (detailed in the booklet) and look marvellous. Those textures referred to above certainly come over very well.

The soundtrack is mono in all cases, rendered as LPCM 1.0. As mentioned above, the sound design is as important to the effect of these films as the visuals, and it’s clear and well balanced. English subtitles are optionally available where necessary: many of the short films have no dialogue, which is in French when it appears. This is also the case with the extras except for the two items in the English language, Gilliam’s introduction and Holy Smoke! (see below).

As for those extras, I’ve mentioned the introduction already. “Film is Not a Sausage” (28:21) is a newly-produced featurette about Borowczyk’s court-métrages, topped and tailed with archive footage of the man himself. Interviewed are André Heinrich, who was a director of Les Cinéastes Associés (the production house for which many of these shorts were made) and Borowczyk’s regular producer Dominique Duvergé-Ségrétin. Both speak in French, as does Borowczyk. English subtitles are available, and the captions are in English.

“Blow Ups” (4:43) is an English-captioned overview of Borowczyk’s paintings and poster work, with several full-colour and HD reproductions. Borowczyk also made some commercials during his career and three examples are presented here. Two are quite short black and white pieces made for French television and advertising pasta: The Museum (Le musée, live action) and Tom Thumb (Le petit poucet, animation), both from 1964 and running 1:50 each. The third is Holy Smoke! (9:55), again made for television for a cigarette company. Given its length I wonder if this also had cinema showings. It’s in colour, which is far-sighted on someone’s part as other than in the USA colour television broadcasting was at least four years away in 1963. A riot of cut-out animation, this could almost be another of Gilliam’s Python pieces, especially given that it’s in the English language and it’s a delightful piece.

The booklet for Short Films and Animation runs to 32 pages. After credits listings for each film, it begins with “The Magician”, an overview of Borowczyk’s short films by Daniel Bird. A 1965 piece from Film Quarterly about Renaissance and Angels’ Games is by Peter Graham, who as a result met and became friends with Borowczyk. (They later collaborated on the short documentary Gunpoint in 1972, which appears as an extra on the release of Blanche.) Accompanying The Theatre of Mr and Mrs Kabal is the director’s statement from 1967, a new essay by Bird, “Scratched into the Screen with a Blunt Fork”, and extracts from contemporary reviews, mostly from British sources but also Variety and Positif. As the booklet points out, British critics were much more hesitant about this film than their overseas counterparts were. Finally, there is the whole of Patrice Leconte’s review, “So Common, Yet So Uncanny” from Cahiers du Cinéma in 1968. Leconte went on to become Borowczyk’s second assistant director on Blanche and later became a director in his own right, still active today. The booklet concludes with detailed restoration and projection notes.


Updated: Sep 04, 2014

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