Kinoteka Polish Film Festival: Love Express - The Disappearance of Walerian Borowczyk Review

“I’ve seen a lot of your films and I think you’re a huge pervert.”

That’s one way to break the ice, but in the archival interview which begins Love Express: The Disappearance of Walerian Borowczyk, the great man seems unfazed. “Well, who isn’t?” he replies. “I can only film what people dream about.”

Artists, including filmmakers, have reputations which go up and down, often for reasons beyond their control and little to do with the quality of their work. Often simple availability is the key. In the 1960s and 1970s, the Hungarian Miklós Jancsó was spoken of in similar terms to Fellini, Bergman and Antonioni, but by the time I was beginning to watch world cinema in the 1980s, his films were very hard to see, in the UK at least, with no television showings and viewable prints being scarce. It was only towards the end of his life, with a series of disc releases by Second Run, that we were able to see what the fuss was about forty-odd years earlier. Polish-born, French-resident Walerian Borowczyk was a slightly different case. He had had a high reputation for his early short films, many of them animated, an avowed influence on other filmmakers and animators such as Terry Gilliam. His second feature, and first fully in live action, Goto Isle of Love (1969), had had a substantial cult following, and a British artist had paid tribute to it by changing his name by deed poll – to John Goto. The medieval drama Blanche (1972), which I would suggest is his best feature film, was a considerable success on an arthouse release. But for many, Borowczyk was known for his “films érotiques”, commercial successes and scandals both, and problematic to censors worldwide including in the UK, Immoral Tales (1973) and The Beast (1975).

The Beast (1975)

Later films continued in this vein, and Borowczyk became known more as a film director whose works, however artistic they might be, straddled the line between art and pornography and in the view of many crossed it. By 1987 Borowczyk’s star had fallen to such an extent that he was the credited director of Emmanuelle V, though he in fact shot very little of the film. He died in 2006. Again, a British distributor helped to restore his reputation, that being Arrow with their 2014 box set Camera Obscura (reviewed by me for this site over five reviews: Short Films and Animations (including his first feature The Theatre of Mr and Mrs Kabal), Goto Isle of Love, Blanche, Immoral Tales, The Beast). Arrow have since released on Blu-ray Borowczyk’s 1982 film The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Miss Osborne and the 1975 film he made in his native Poland between Immoral Tales and The Beast, The Story of Sin, which despite its title is less of a film érotique than the ones immediately before and after.

Kuba Mikurda’s documentary tells the story of this progression in Borowczyk’s work in chronological fashion, with chapter headings taken from the films along the way, accompanied by archival interviews with the man himself and newly-shot ones with collaborators (including, briefly, Andrzej Wajda, who knew him at film school, Lisbeth Hummel, who played the lead role in The Beast, and regular cinematographer Noël Véry), critics (including The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw, for whom The Beast was an experience not to be forgotten) and other filmmakers. As well as Gilliam, these include Neil Jordan, Patrice Leconte (who was the assistant director on Blanche), Bertrand Bonello and Bertrand Mandico. The sexuality was in Borowczyk’s work from the outset: a tactility and sensuality with objects and their textures often as interesting as the human beings the story is actually about. As Mark Cousins says, by the end of the 1960s, cinema was a fully adult medium about many things, but adolescent about others, especially about sex. Borowczyk was one of the leading directors aiming for a more forthright and frank look at the subject – Bertolucci, Makavejev and Oshima were others. It’s a male and heterosexual gaze that Borowczyk brings to his work – something Cherry Potter, who worked with Borowczyk with an unproduced screenplay, points out - but then he was both of those things. For other gazes, go to other directors.

However, in Borowczyk’s case his succès de scandale, of Immoral Tales and The Beast in particular, changed his career. His next film was La Marge (literally The Margin, but released as The Streetwalker in the UK), which featured two actors best known for their often unclothed roles in previous sometimes-scandalous hits, Sylvia Kristel and Joe Dallessandro. Borowczyk came under pressure from the producers to maximise their investment and to include more nudity, of Kristel in particular. The sorry tale of Emmanuelle V, which became Borowczyk’s penultimate feature, is told by Thierry Bazin, who was credited as the second assistant director but ended up making most of the film after Borowczyk left.

Renaissance (1963)

Thanks to the recent Blu-ray releases, Borowczyk’s reputation has been re-established, and for those interested there is plenty of supplementary material to be found on those discs for further viewing and reading. Love Express is an excellent addition to them and a sobering look at how circumstances, commercial and artistic both, can make reputations fade and talent go cold. Fortunately, Borowczyk may have disappeared before, but not any longer.

Love Express: The Disappearance of Walerian Borowczyk shows at the ICA on 11 April at 6.30pm as part of the 17th Kinoteka Polish Film Festival.

Overall

A fine documentary on how artistic reputations can change, not always for the better, Love Express details the strange case of Walerian Borowczyk from arthouse darling to alleged pornographer.

8

out of 10

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