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Sexual Objects: The Films of Walerian Borowczyk

3. Blanche

Last month, UK distributor Arrow Films – known for their lavish DVD and BluRay reissues – released new editions of five extraordinary films by the Polish auteur Walerian Borowczyk.  Available as a box set (limited to 1,000 copies and now sold out), as well as individual discs, the beautifully remastered editions make this a perfect time to investigate Browczyk’s bizarre and beautiful oeuvre.

Born in 1923, Borowczyk studied painting and lithography in Kraków before embarking on a career as an animator.  Working first in Poland and later in Paris, Borowczyk produced an incredible array of short animation pieces, including the striking stop-motion film Renaissance (1963), and the disturbing collage piece Angel Games (1964).  The latter has been cited by Terry Gilliam as one of the greatest of all animated films, and its influence on Gilliam’s own animations for Monty Python is immediately apparent.  These shorts, along with Borowczyk’s animated feature Mr. and Mrs. Kabal’s Theatre (1967), would be enough to claim Borowczyk’s place in film history, but he is now best known for the unusual trajectory of his career as a live action filmmaker.

His first two live action films, Goto, Isle of Love (1968) and Blanche (1971) cast his own wife, Ligia Branice, in stories of extra-marital desire and spousal jealousy.  Both films are remarkable for the minute attention Borowczyk pays to objects – which receive as much screen-time as his living characters.  Borowczyk drew no qualitative distinction between the animate and inanimate “players” in his live-action films – a result of his interest in animation, perhaps – lending the films a mysterious quality, as the viewer’s attention is repeatedly drawn toward totemic objects, the significance of which is not always immediately apparent.  A fascination with things is, of course, one way of defining “fetishism”, and the warped eroticism of Borowczyk’s output grew more pronounced as the 70s wore on.

His next film, A Story of Sin (1975), which has not been reissued by Arrow, adapted a Polish literary classic by Stefan Źeromski.  The most successful of Borowczyk’s literary adaptations – which also include versions of Frank Wedekind’s Lulu and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde A Story of Sin has a certain perverse quality associated with Borowczyk’s countryman Roman Polanski, but largely absent from Polanski’s own classic lit adaptation, Tess (1979).  Borowczyk’s next two films, Immoral Tales (1974) and The Beast (1975) saw him move increasingly toward explicit sexual imagery, perhaps as an extension of his surrealistic tendencies, but also as a result of French filmgoers’ growing appetite for softcore erotica, in the wake of Emmanuelle (1974).  While some French critics lauded Immoral Tales and The Beast, many more bemoaned Borowczyk’s slide into “sexploitation”, which would see him go on to direct salacious, but still intriguingly askew, items such as Behind Convent Walls (1977), The Art of Love (1983) and Rites of Love (1988).  The nadir of Borowczyk’s career came with softcore sequel Emmanuelle 5 (1987) which – bar a brief film-within-a-film sequence – bears little of Borowczyk’s distinctive touch.

Borowczyk’s reputation has grown again in recent years, as contemporary audiences and critics have found his artistic and pornographic impulses easier to reconcile.  In this way, he anticipates a number of contemporary fine artists – most particularly Matthew Barney – who have included explicit sexual content in their work.  While Arrow’s reissue series concludes with The Beast, missing out the later, arguably more compromised phase of Borowczyk’s career, it offers a terrific overview of a fascinating and unique film artist.

Mr. and Mrs. Kabal’s Theatre (1967)

1. Mr and Mrs Kabal

Borowczyk’s first feature is a 75-minute animation, in which a grotesquely mismatched but oddly affectionate married couple perform a series of vaudeville-style “acts”, with a surreal – and occasionally shocking – bent.  Making use of hand-drawn animation that showcases Borowczyk’s masterful control of line, as well as cut-and-paste clippings and photographs, the film anticipates the work of many later animators, from Bill Plympton to Phil Molloy, as well as several visual and audio techniques that would become familiar to fans of Monty Pyton’s Flying Circus (1969-1974).  Arrow’s reissue of the film also includes an extensive sampling of Borowczyk’s animated shorts.

Goto, Isle of Love (1968)

2. Goto Isle of Love

Borowczyk’s first live-action feature, Goto, Isle of Love involves a love triangle in the eponymous archipelago, which has developed its own warped social structure after being cut off from the rest of the world by an earthquake.  Hauntingly photographed in luminous black-and-white, the film offers a veiled critique of Polish communism as well as a full immersion in a meticulously realised surreal world.  The sets and props, many of which were fabricated by Borowczyk himself, announce the love affair with objects that would lend his live-action films their curious quality.

Blanche (1971)


Borowczyk’s most beautiful film, Blanche casts Borowczyk’s wife Ligia Branice (whose otherworldly presence also graced Goto) as a 13th-century noblewoman who finds herself the object of multiple suitors’ unwanted attention.  As well as a range of fascinating props constructed by Borowczyk, the film affords great attention to the characters’ pets (including a dove and a monkey), further breaking down the presumed supremacy of human actors as the lone subject of cinema’s gaze.  Evoking 13th-centry tapestry in its visual style, the film is also remarkable for its soundtrack, created using only instruments from the period.

Immoral Tales (1974)

4. Immoral Tales

Borowczyk’s migration to erotica begins in earnest with this film, which comprises four vignettes on the subjects of virginity, masturbation, bloodlust and incest.  Critics decried the film as the beginning of the end for Borowczyk’s artistic credibility, and it is among his less arresting works – although the third story, which stars Pablo Picasso’s youngest daughter Paloma as the notorious “vampire” Countess Elizabeth Báthory, is very striking.  Immoral Tales bears a superficial similarity to the erotic portmanteau films of Pier Paolo Pasolini (including Arabian Nights, also released in 1974), but it has a detached, dreamlike quality that is particular to Borowczyk.

The Beast (1975)

5. The Beast

Originally conceived as a fifth episode for Immoral Tales, The Beast is Borowczyk’s most notorious film.  Loosely adapted from the novella Lokis by 19th-century author Prosper Mérimée, although sometimes mistakenly thought to be an adaptation of Beauty and the Beast, Borowczyk’s film features a baroque plot that somehow boils down into a sexual liaison between a beautiful girl and a fur-covered beast-man.  Outrageous enough to risk prosecution under the Obscene Publications Act after it was shown in London in 1978, The Beast is a one-of-a-kind film that lacks the meticulous construction of Borowczyk’s earlier features but is worth seeing for its sheer outlandishness.

Arrow Film’s Borowczyk reissues are available from


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