Alas, Poor Boro, I Knew Him Well...
This is the sorry tale of one cinephile's descent into the underworld. Between the tender ages of sixteen and eighteen, he slid from dutifully attending stately arthouse cinemas in Melbourne called the Longford or the Rivoli to frequenting sordid porn barns with names like the Barrel and the Shaft. I confess: that cinephile is me. But it was all for the sake of tracking an elusive, enigmatic and remarkable filmmaker: Walerian Borowczyk (1923-2006).
In 1968, Goto, Isle of Love (1968) was, to many connoisseurs, merely the jewel in the crown of an already extremely illustrious career. When Cahiers du cinéma encountered young Roman Polanski in 1966, it described his work as 'Polish pictorialism, Borowczyk-style'. He was, even then, a reference point. And his subsequent path, although bumpy, has never ceased attracting fierce admirers.
In the 1950s and '60s, Borowczyk achieved fame as an innovative and experimental animator, collaborating with Jan Lenica and Chris Marker. Dom (1958), Les Jeux des anges (1964) and the series devoted to the Théâtre de Monsieur et Madame Kabal are among the works that inspired later filmmakers including the Brothers Quay, Terry Gilliam and Jan Svankmajer.
Borowczyk's often disquieting, perverse and characteristically Eastern European vision delighted in giving ghostly life to the strange, inanimate objects he so lovingly collected. (His 1973 short A Particular Collection offers a guided tour to his personal museum of antique sex aids and erotic toys.) He elaborated a form of Surrealism in which an over-rational, controlling society collided with the irrational forces of human desire.
This is the story played out in Goto, Isle of Love and Blanche (1971). These masterpieces, along with A Story of Sin (1975) made in his native Poland, cemented his reputation in the '70s as a virtuoso alongside Luis Buñuel. Critics acclaimed his idiosyncratic sense of architecture and design, his fondness for the wordless acting styles of the silent era, and his unbeatable eye for arresting, mysterious images.
But then something calamitous happened. Eroticism had always been present as a driving element in Borowczyk's work; but, suddenly. he steeped himself in the production of full-out sex-films. In the era of erotic chic, Borowczyk signed such lush flesh-feasts as Immoral Tales (1974), The Beast (1975) and The Margin (1976).
To his diehard fans, these films continued Borowczyk's artistic journey in every respect (one reviewer rightly called The Margin "Bresson on aphrodisiac"). But to film culture at large, he became disrespectable, an outcast.
As Borowczyk became more prolific, his work became harder to see. Expelled from the arthouses, it fell into the porn circuit, in those long-lost, pre-video days when even sex cinemas still projected 35 millimetre. The last one I managed to catch on a big screen, amidst an audience of strange men wearing raincoats, was Three Immoral Women (1979) — which I gamely defended in a student newspaper, at the age of 20, in an essay titled "Between Art and Porn".
But no one seemed to paying attention. Daily reviewers, film festival programmers and cinema theorists had turned away their gaze in shame and disapproval. Even Positif magazine, once a loyal supporter, began a capsule review of Emmanuelle 5 (1987) with the lament: "Poor Boro...". By then, he had become an auteur one occasionally found in the darkened, erotica section of video shops, represented by magnificently delirious films like The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Miss Osbourne (1981).
But, in his old age, Borowczyk perhaps took solace in the fact that his star arose once more. The global market in DVD and Blu-ray, plus the rising interest in cult cinema through specialist fan publications and Internet sites, at last created the conditions for a Boro revival. As I can well testify, as one who made the effort to see Boro's Behind Convent Walls (1977) at the Barrel, his work can lead even the most genteel cinephile to the most flagrant declarations of amour fou.
Adrian Martin | Cristina Álvarez López