Walerian Borowczyk is a filmmaker whose enduring reputation was far from guaranteed. Initially heralded as a cinematic genius upon his emergence in the 1950s, his later career saw him pigeon-holed as a pornographer. It’s not been until recently that his name has been somewhat rehabilitated. Following a wonderful Blu-ray collection of his work released late last year by Arrow, they’re expanding their Borowczyk line with another impressive restoration, this time of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne (1981). An erotic interpretation of the oft-filmed Stevenson story, it’s an exemplar of why there is much more to Borowczyk’s work than the ‘flesh-flick’.
Supposedly taking a legendarily lusty first draft of the story as its inspiration, this Dr. Jekyll (played by Udo Kier) is transformed into a manifestation of his voracious libido prowling the labyrinthine hallways of a Victorian townhouse and forcing himself on all who take his fancy. Repression is cast aside by more than just Jekyll, however, with more than one of the women trapped in the house seeking gratification from the menacing Hyde (given angular features and disconcertingly piercing eyes by Gérard Zalcberg). Despite opinions during his lifetime, Borowczyk’s films are often examined with regards to his portrayal of female agency and desire, albeit within the confines of erotically charged narratives. This is perfectly encapsulated by Miss Osbourne (Marina Pierro), Jekyll’s fiancée who transpires to be as much his other half as Hyde is.
She wanders the building consumed by yearning which is only heightened when she learns her love’s secret and witnesses his transformation. She tries to follow him but finds her surroundings as difficult to navigate as the audience does. Borowczyk is a master of disorientation, refusing to allow ceiling, floors or even doors into frame unless entirely necessary. Female characters in particular are claustrophobically trapped against walls, but at no time is the contextual geography offered up. As he attacks and kills, the hysteria increases and so does the dreamlike atmosphere. One might expect it to be more nightmarish, but before the final descent, much is bathed in light even while Bernard Parmegiani’s electronic score breeds discord.
The familiar Vaseline-smeared screen effect of 1970s Europe lends itself to the allegation of smut, but the obscenity is far from titillating despite the presence of multiple nubile young women baring their bodies. For every buttock there is a lingering shot of a commonplace object around the home; fetishising sewing machines, paper or decorative sabres was the director’s style. Though the setting is claustrophobic, and the plot filled with terror, the visuals carry with them an almost ecstatic quality which perfectly complements Jekyll’s research into the potential of transcendental medicine. In the final moments, Borowczyk transcends in his own way, crafting an incredible orgiastic montage of destruction and desire that deliciously leaves The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne submitting to its baser impulses.