There’s plenty of Sin in Walerian Boroczyk’s searing movie, but little of it can be laid at the feet of its heroine, no matter what terrible crimes she commits. In pre-WW1 Poland, the innocent Ewa’s tragedy is to fall hopelessly in love, without restraint; Boroczyk’s camera doesn’t flinch as the hapless Ewa falls from grace. Amour fou has been crazier than this, but rarely as destructive. Artistically this show is flawless, and in terms of sex politics it’s a scream of protest.
Story of Sin
Blu-ray + DVD
Arrow Academy USA
1975 / Color / 1:66 widescreen / 130 min. / Dzieje grzechu / Street Date March 28, 2017 / Available from Arrow Video / 39.95
Starring: Grazyna Dlugolecka, Jerzy Zelnik, Olgierd Lukaszewicz, Roman Wilhelmi, Marek Walczewski, Karolina Lubienska, Zdzislaw Mrozewski, Mieczyslaw Voit, Marek Bargielowski.
Cinematography: Zygmunt Samosiuk
Film Editor: Lidia Pacewicz
Written by Walerian Borowczyk from the novel by Stefan Zeromski
Directed by Walerian Borowczyk
Walerian Borowczyk’s short animated films always interested me; his work popped up frequently at festivals, where his strange animations and inventive soundtracks frequently drew applause. In 1975 or 1976 I was a volunteer at the Los Angeles Film Exposition, FILMEX. I slipped into a screening of Borowczyk’s Story of Sin and was blown away. The maverick director filmed almost all of his movies in France but returned to Poland for just this one feature, a remake of a classic Polish novel by Stefan Zeromski. Written in 1908, it had been filmed twice previously, in 1911 and 1933.
Story of Sin is nothing like the director’s soft-core sex fantasies. Steeped in period detail, it is the oft-told story of The Fallen Woman, told without moralizing lectures. There are no lessons to be learned, except that society’s injustice to women knows no bounds. Our heroine is no saint, like Joan Fontaine’s Lisa Berndle in Letter from an Unknown Woman, who makes tragic life choices in the name of a self-defined, abnegating love. She’s also not Louise Brooks’ hallucinatory vision of innocent eroticism, as Lulu Schön in Pandora’s Box, or her Thymian in Diary of a Lost Girl. This movie’s heroine becomes a criminal, a murderess unlikely to be shown mercy in a courtroom. Director Borowczyk expresses a completely non- P.C. view of feminine vulnerability — in which a sheltered heroine becomes the victim of her own sexuality. It’s amour fou all the way — the movie begins in a confession box, where a young girl is sternly entreated to suppress her natural feelings and desires. The priest then savors the opportunity to eye her carefully as she leaves.
Repression is absolute in the Pobratynska household, where bad times have forced the family to take in boarders. Daughter Ewa (Grazyna Dlugolecka) has a job but her father is unemployed. One libidinous roomer brings in a prostitute in the afternoons. Then a new boarder arrives and Ewa almost literally catches fire. Lukasz Niepolomski (Jerzy Zelnick) is handsome, soft spoken and apparently well connected; he helps Ewa’s father find a job. He’s also married, but he and Ewa begin a delirious affair. Their first separation comes when Lukasz is wounded in a duel over Ewa’s honor with the local Count Zygmunt Szcerbic (Olgierd Lukasziewicz), a young man who has just come into his inheritance. Lucasz leaves to seek a divorce and Ewa’s real troubles begin. She tracks her lover down and makes mad love with him in a horse carriage. In due time her mother throws her out. She rents a room from a Jewish man and takes a job in a workhouse. There, on her own and with no knowledge of the process, she gives birth to a child…
Ewa is also singled out for grief by con man and scoundrel Antoni Pochron (Roman Wilhelmi), who finds it easy to mislead her with promises that he can reunite her with her beloved Lucasz. The missing lover is jailed in Italy, but is released before Ewa can reach him. Antoni tracks Ewa down, rapes her, and with his equally ruthless associate Plaza-Splawski (Marek Walczewski) terrorizes Ewa so she will aid them in their crimes. One of their targets is Count Szcerbic, who they’ve discovered is in love with her as well. Ewa’s ‘sins’ are compounded as she loses her will to resist these men, who manipulate her charms to suit their ugly schemes.
Story of Sin may sound like another potentially pornographic Borowczyk film, but it’s definitely not — it’s as legit as any of the classics I touched on above. There is plenty of nudity, which doesn’t follow the contemporary rule of the ‘zipless f___’ laid down by Pauline Kael when talking about Last Tango in Paris. But the sex is abbreviated and discreet, just long enough to show the passionate intensity of Ewa’s commitment. The most famous still shows Ewa rhapsodizing over her absent lover by lying naked on a bed and covering herself in rose petals. There isn’t a sinful thought in this young woman’s head. One odd episode shows Ewa being brought onto the enlightened commune of Count Bodzanta (Mieczyslaw Voit), a rich man trying to establish a Utopia. But Ewa’s mad love is her undoing — all that Plaza-Splawski need do is suggest that he’ll take her to Lucasz, and she goes with him.
This movie takes the plight of abandoned and abused women all the way. Its central scene of taboo horror happens all the time, everywhere: infanticide. Its trauma explains the modest, devout Ewa’s complete breakdown of self-worth, why she no longer cares what happens to her or what crimes she helps commit. Men will use her to steal and kill, and for a while she’ll turn to prostitution, a more honest activity for a woman banished from decent society. The FILMEX audience for Story of Sin gasped out loud, with one voice — by 1975 mainstream movies had depicted most every torture in bloody detail, yet nothing like this. Borowczyk’s coverage is actually quite discreet. A suddenly hand-held shot of Ewa running is the closest thing a movie has come to the emotional chaos of Kirsanov’s Ménilmontant — another violent story of a woman in panic mode.
This is the truth of sexual repression as inflicted on women given no education and no options. Ewa is the antithesis of the modern ’empowered,’ assertive woman in control of her destiny. Conservative thought insists that simple biology dictates that women remain under tight societal restrictions. Story of Sin tells the truth without moralizing hogwash. Ewa does become a literal femme fatale, but only because she’s ceded control to a series of monstrous villains. The movie is about sin, all right, but the lesson is one of understanding, not condemnation. So much of today’s ‘moral culture’ seems to be about blaming the victims, and using moral tradition as a club against the defenseless.
Story of Sin is a finely crafted picture. We understand that the Polish film company asked for Borowczyk by name, and gave him access to better resources. The story jumps from Poland to Paris, to Italy and Vienna, and we keep our bearings without establishing shots — we know we are in Italy when we see a slow-witted Italian jailer try to pronounce a Polish name. The impressive set dressing and costumes express a rich period feel. All the clothing looks strange, yet lived-in.
Walerian Borowczyk retains the somewhat stark visual style from his animations; he often chooses to look at things head-on. When he moves the camera it’s for a definite purpose, and when he goes in for a decorative composition, it’s usually when he wants to express Ewa’s (few) moments of joy and rapture. When they are in a room together, the camera suddenly observes through a trio of round mirrors. Borowczyk does seem fixated on objects, but they are always chosen to express character. Lukasz Niepolomski is a gentleman, but no prince charming; he reads 1905’s equivalent of photo-illustrated pornography, and enlists one photo to suggest a sex position to Ewa.
The happy scenes of romance and lovemaking are overwhelmed by the raw realism of Ewa’s world. Sweatshop laundresses are quick to sneer at a woman ‘in trouble,’ and the gambling parlors swarm with all manner of schemers and sexual predators. Borowczyk’s camera takes it all in without expressing shock; his camera also refuses to blink during scenes of murder. Antonin and Plaza-Splawski comport themselves like noblemen while ambushing their unsuspecting victims. Antonin desires Ewa yet gives her not a shred of sympathy; she’s a package of meat to be used and abused for profit. At the conclusion he gathers a trio of rat-like hoods, who dress in tatty tailcoats and hats and hide their cheap pistols in cracks in the walls and floor. They surely imagine themselves to be master criminals, not the vermin they are.
We understand why Ewa is an easy mark for the villains, especially in her demoralized state. But the ‘forces of good’ let her down as well. Her father is a sweetheart, but has nothing to give her but tears. Ewa’s reputation is gone long before anything has really happened to her, and her mother calls her a whore and wants her out of the house. It’s not even a matter of a double standard at work – any woman who leaves the straight and narrow unsupervised, is a slut. Ewa in some ways is a femme fatale in that she turns men into proverbial moths around a flame. The slick Count Szczerbic proves a fool, easily trapped, while the pioneering socialist Count Bodzanta finds himself enraptured by Ewa as well. Is his attempt to establish a haven for lost women, really a subconscious attempt to set up some kind of utopian harem?
Finally there’s Lukasz Niepolomski himself, Ewa’s object of obsession and a real disappointment. We wonder why he isn’t coming to her rescue, and then remember that he has returned to Warsaw when Ewa wasn’t there, and that the villains have been feeding Ewa lies about him all along — that he has remarried, etc. His final caring gestures can’t begin to match Ewa’s selfless efforts on his behalf. The conclusion of Story of Sin is a real jolt, that reduces Ewa to the state of a wounded animal.
I have a feeling that what I saw at FILMEX is a slightly different cut; either that or I was so transfixed by a shot of Ewa in feral mode that I blanked on the final few shots. But I remembered the exact way that Grazyna Dlugolecka wails her lover’s name, like a cat in heat: Loo-kash Neepoh-wohmski! Loo-kash Neepoh-wohmski! Young men, be careful that you don’t fully awaken the primal woman within – it can set loose an all- consuming fire.
Story of Sin is for me a shattering but intensely human and empathetic movie. If society moves to turn back the clock to this earlier era of back-alley abortions, with women’s reproductive options replaced by shame and hatred, we’ll be in need of more shocks like this. An excellent, if equally tragic, movie about sex and political repression is Claude Chabrol’s superb Une affaire de femmes (1988) with Isabelle Huppert. It too is about controversial sex politics in a time of even greater repression, the German occupation of France.
Arrow Academy USA’s Blu-ray + DVD of Story of Sin is the latest in their restorations of the once largely unavailable filmography of Walerian Borowczyk. His pornographic French monster movie The Beast pretty much set his DVD-era reputation; don’t let that film dissuade you from giving Story of Sin a chance. The immaculate 1:66 scan from original elements has more delicate colors than the FILMEX print I saw so long ago, which I remember as slightly dupe-y and bluish. If you’re in search of sex scenes, be advised that they’re erotic but in no way exploitative — as things get serious we cut not to biological details but to the next scene. There are several shots of full-frontal male nudity — shots where the nudity is almost incidental.
Arrow is releasing concurrent UK and US editions of Story of Sin, and have made wise use of their access to the rest of his filmography. The feature is accompanied by a long list of extras (below) that range from a score of his short subjects, which include animation classics and films that he co-wrote. Some of the experts enlisted are Polish academics. The commentary is by Samm Deighan and Kat Ellinger, but an introduction, a visual essay and several interview featurettes are by artists who worked with Borowczyk and knew him well. The most striking interview is with the star Grazyna Diugolecka, who comes off as a wholly independent spirit for whom an extreme film like Story of Sin was just another legit artistic endeavor. Forty-two years later, Ms. Diuglocka still looks ready to defy any political obstacle that might happen her way — she laughs when saying that today’s ‘liberated’ Poland is less forgiving of Story of Sin than the Communist regime was in 1975.
Arrow says that disc producer Daniel Bird’s insert booklet will be included only in initial first pressing copies of Story of Sin. Forty-three pages and with color illustrations, it offers text interview content with the film’s producer and an art historian, as well as new-to-English translations of excerpts from Borowczyk’s memoirs.
Arrow’s new cover art is tasteful in the style of Polish poster art. It’s reversible, and the original Polish poster image on the other side is much more graphically abstract.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Story of Sin Blu-ray + DVD rates:
Supplements: New introduction by poster designer Andrzej Klimowski; Audio Commentary by Samm Deighan and Kat Ellinger; New 2K restorations from the original negatives of Borowczyk’s ground-breaking Polish shorts: Once Upon a Time (co-directed by Jan Lenica), Dom (co-directed by Lenica) and The School, with optional audio commentaries by art historian Szymon Bojko (Once Upon a Time), composer Wlodzimierz Kotonsk (Dom) and Daniel Bird (The School); The First Sinner, a new interview with Story of Sin lead actor Grazyna Dlugolecka; The Music Box, film critic and documentarian David Thompson on the use of classic music in Borowczyk’s films; Stories of Sin, a video essay by Daniel Bird (co-founder Friends of Walerian Borowczyk) concerning the director’s obsessions; Miscellaneous, a video essay on Borowczyk and Lenica’s contributions to newsreels and documentaries on art history; Street Art, a short newsreel documentary about poster art co-written by Borowczyk; Tools of the Trade, an interview with Juliusz Zamecznik, son of photographer and graphic artist Wojciech Zamecznik; Poster Girl, an interview with poster artist, illustrator and print maker Teresa Byszewska, who appears (briefly) in Dom; Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Andrzej Klimowski.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: March 1, 2017
Text © Copyright 2017 Glenn Erickson