“A genius who also happened to be a pornographer,” is the trademark denomination for Walerian Borowczyk. His infinite compulsion for sex and the dissection of human fetishes was as compelling as it was contrived. Ultimately, the ineffable surrealism of his early work seems almost undue when smeared with his exhaustive fondness for softcore, which may be why Borowczyk is one of cinema’s most applauded unknowns. He was something of a renaissance man to the modern day animation and short film scene, making The Astronaut (1959), The Concert (1962) and Grandmother’s Encyclopedia (1963), while early features Immoral Tales (1974) and The Beast (1975) were dangerous and coarse.
Between 1946 and 1988, Borowczyk directed a total of forty films, and yet it seems over time that his canon has been perverted by his latter day perversions. Beyond all the naked bodies and blowjobs is a warped, nightmarish reality akin to the movies of Luis Buñuel and a filmic paradigm for future libertines such as Peter Greenaway and Jan Švankmajer. Goto, Island of Love (1968) was Borowczyk’s debut partition from his celebrated short filmmaking and entrée into the realm of the live-action feature length picture. Shot almost exclusively in full profile of his subjects, void of establishing that which confines them, realism has been abandoned. Instead, Goto’s ambiguous allegorical fabling encapsulates a Kafkaesque dreamscape ensnared within a government-run bathhouse-cum-brothel, full of archetypal surrealist imagery.
The Ken Russell era begins with Blanche (1971), complete all of its flamboyancy and contention in tow. It’s a salient comparison, but an important one nonetheless. Russell and Borowczyk were hellbent on the sexual discharge of the seventies but were also vanguards of the period piece. Blanche was one of the first films of its kind to incorporate a palpable baroque-themed musical score. Set in 13th century France, an ageing baron (Michel Simon) resides with his young beauty Blanche (Ligia Branice) – a salacious temptress lusted over by both king and country. Aesthetically flawless, Borowczyk’s time in animation is truly perceptible. Made between Blanche and Story of Sin (1975), meanwhile, Immoral Tales’ (1974) pornographic portmanteau remains the peak of Borowczyk’s sexual symbolism. Three stories of women from contradicting historical periods, accompanied by a contemporary surrealist text are used to explore the taboos of eroticism.
Much like “the shark we never see”, Immoral Tales depends on suggestion rather than confrontation. It’s deeply sensual with a constant inviting quality unmatched by the film’s racy parallels. Finally, and a significant turning point for Borowczyk, The Beast’s (1975) fairytale farce is part B-movie horror, part-bestial romp, part-highbrow erotica. An orphaned daughter (Lisbeth Hummel) finds sexual pleasure from an undefinable monster. Despite the film’s general success, it was refused release by the BBFC for its sexual obscenity and scenes of bestiality. It’s an upmarket exploration of vulgarity and one that defines the director’s conscious uncoupling from being thought-provoking to just plain provocative. The Beast remains an important inclusion in the chronicles of Borowczyk’s filmmaking, if only for its absurdity and lack of intention.
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