Walerian Borowczyk: Nature Or Culture?

The Kinoteka 12th Polish Film Festival, organised by the Polish Cultural Institute in London, finished a few weeks ago. A backbone of it was the “Cinema of Desire: Walerian Borowczyk Retrospective”, curated by Daniel Bird. It was accompanied by two shows: “Listening Eye” at the Institute of Contemporary Arts and “Walerian Borowczyk – Posters and Lithography” at the Horse Hospital.

Walerian Borowczyk

Walerian Borowczyk

Walerian Borowczyk was born in 1923. He studied at the Academy of fine Arts in Cracow, where he met Tadeusz Różewicz, Polish poet and dramatist, but also Ligia Branice, his wife, artistic companion and actress in his movies. The breakthrough in Borowczyk’s career was meeting Jan Lenica in 1956. Back then, Lenica was a draftsman for “Szpilki”, the satirical magazine published in communist Poland since 1935.

Borowczyk and Lenica wanted to conquer the world with their innovative animations. Their first joint film “Time Upon a Once”, 1957, based on moving collages, was awarded with Silver Lion of St. Mark at the 7th International Festival of Documentaries and Short Films, Venice. Shortly after that Borowczyk left Poland for France where he continued his work on animations, shorts and feature films.

Walerian Borowczyk was a very special artist and had a broad humanistic approach. His films are full of symbols, quotes from art, myths and iconography. All of his films were closely based on literary fiction. “Blanche”, 1971, is based on Juliusz Słowacki’s book “Mazepa. Tragedy in Five Acts”. “Rosalie”, 1966, drew on the short story by Guy de Maupassant – “Rosalie Prudent”. “The strange case of Dr Jekyll and Miss Osbourn”, 1981, is based on “The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde”, by Robert Louis Stevenson, 1887. Whilst the intellectual background to his films is in line with Western intellectual traditions he wickedly balances this with the needs and desires of real human beings.

Walerian Borowczyk, Blanche,

Walerian Borowczyk, filmstill from Blanche, 1971

“Blanche” is a very accurate group portrait of the Medieval epoch. Two main characters Blanche (Ligia Branice) – the young attractive wife and her repulsive husband Baron (Mchael Simon) take us into the time when the idea of a real love match was a very common concept in theory only. He demonstrated the complexity of their relationship through a focus on their contrasting physiognomies and characteristics.

Domenico Ghirlandaio, An Old Man and his Grandson, 1949

Can the awful baron, like the grandfather in the Domenico Ghirlandaio painting “An Old Man and his Grandson” really be loved by the innocent Blanche?

Musical arrangements drawn from Carmina Burana in the first scene take us to the late medieval summer and celebration of the harvest festival. On the 23rd September, the day of autumn equinox, according to the Slavic tradition a plentiful harvest is celebrated with garlands of cereals and wild flowers. The rustic decorations symbolise the powerful forces of nature which drive the story.

Borowczyk reveals gradually the complexity of this entanglement. Blanche, Baron and his son must eventually reach a dead end like the characters in a Greek tragedy. They are trapped from one side by the power of lust and from the other by morality. At last the harvest decorations announce the inevitability of time, of endings and beginnings.

Rosalie’s life (“Rosalie”, 1966) is parallel to Blanche’s. Her future life was also trapped by requirements of social expectations. Rosalie (Ligia Branice) a poor servant, who in despair killed her new born baby and buried its body in the garden because her beloved one was a man out of her league. This story, intense with drama, shows the absurdity of our actions under the pressure of expectation. “Rosalie” and “Blanche” are telling us that the real character in Borowczyk’ films is dilemma.

The short film “The Private Collection”, 1973, shows us the mechanics of it. The film foregrounds Borowczyk’ s collection of vintage erotica. This unique collection reveals that Borowczyk’s fascinations, extended far beyond sexuality. Artefacts presented indicate the inevitable force of nature, which determines our choices. The sublimation of the ecstatic drive helps us create beauty and harmony, in the face of cultural and social expectations.
Figuratively speaking “The Private Collection” is a kind of backstage for Borowczyk’s work and its mechanisms. It shows his obsessions with moving objects and his attention to craftsmanship. His collection is full of opening curtains, moving bars, tiny objects and boxes – but instead of a bunny a phallus pops out of it. Borowczyk’s attention to moving objects reveals his need to investigate the engineering of human nature.

Walerian Borowczyk, Immoral Tales (Contes immoraux, 1974)

Walerian Borowczyk, filmstill from Immoral Tales (Contes immoraux), 1974

Gianlorenzo Bernini, Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, (detail),

This film originally was intended as a part of the “Immoral Tales”, 1974 (Contes Immoraux) composed of four short stories. The second one – “Thérése Philosophe” is about a teenage girl (Charlotte Alexandra) who, after a visit at the church, and being locked in her room, starts to intermingle her erotic fantasies with her dedication to Christ. Borowczyk points out how religious ecstasy and desire are driven by human sexuality, as depicted in the “Ecstasy of Saint Teresa” by Bernini.

Dr Jekyll and Miss Osbourn', 1981

Walerian Borowczyk, filmstill from Dr Jekyll and Miss Osbourn, 1981

The contradiction of drives and social convention reaches the climax in “The strange case of Dr Jekyll and Miss Osbourn”, 1981, which has two different actors playing the main character: the handsome Udo Kier and Gerald Zalcberg – chosen by Borowczyk for his serial killer’s face. The eroticism of the changed Mr Jekyll disruption middle-class convention. The intensity, irrationalism, hysteria and licentiousness spin faster and faster like dancing bacchantes to depict how the madness of Dr Hide affects all the characters. Growing tension is fuelled by the next murders. The main character is divided into two versions of himself: Mr Jekyll a model future husband and devoted scientist and Mr Hide the creature possessed by lust. They represent human beings dilemma within culture and nature.

For Borowczyk time is a key factor, every dilemma and every drama has its inevitable end. It represents circumstances beyond one’s control. It indicates the multidimensionality of our existence and its complexity. The relentless passage of time is visible when the props in “Rosalie” disappear or when the wreaths in “Blanche” are disposed of.

Borowczyk’s characters are symbiotic with nature. They do not take place in the centre of the Universe. From the perspective of morality and culture they live pathetic lives full of absurdity and mistakes, driven by needs which must be fulfilled. Borowczyk doesn’t give an answer about which to follow – nature or culture. He uses these contradictory forces as a frame for his characters. He creates a convincing simulacrum of reality.

From the perspective of pop culture and its superficial perception, Borowczyk’s films would appear as a vintage style soft porno stories, no more than iconoclastic. If considered in the context of culture fighting with nature, we would see the continuity with Greek tradition where harmony embraced human complexity with all its drives, needs and morality. We would see an eternal contradiction of culture and nature.

Proofreading: Jonathan Coe

Monika Waraxa (b. 1977) is a visual artist based in London. She writes for Obieg. She runs blogs on art: Critic Police, Monika Waraxa Blog and on pop culture: Celebrities Clash. She is currently focused on an audience engagement activities developed in a multimedia project: The Interchange. She is co-founder of Orange Boat for an innovative art education.

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