That bad boy of (mostly) French cinema Walerian Borowczyk has been converting doubters into fans for sixty years, even though his pictures were never easy to see. Before he took a headlong leap into soft-core epics, he made some of the most creative and influential short films of his time — and they eventually became more erotic as well.
The Walerian Borowczyk Short Film Collection
1959-1984 / B&W and Color / 1:66, 1:78 and 1:37 flat Academy / 144 min. / Street Date April 25, 2017 / available through the Olive Films website / 24.95
Directed by Walerian Borowczyk
This release brings back memories of traveling short subject shows, usually several reels’ worth of experimental films that would tour college campuses. Even in High School I’d drag my girlfriend to the University of Riverside, where huge crowds looking for the ‘In’ place to be would stare in attention at hours of abstract visuals, expressing their approval when something struck them as particularly worthy. Every once in a while an odd French or Italian picture would sneak in. That’s where I saw my first picture by Walerian Borowczyk, an odd little epic with just one camera angle, on a dwarf dressed up in a 17th century costume, looking bored and getting into trouble while some official event is happening in the next room. The audience roared with laughter. I can’t say I fully understood the little movie, but it was certainly different.
I haven’t encountered another filmmaker remotely like Walerian Borowczyk, a highly individual artist who split his career between brilliant investigations of the short film form, non-conformist artistic features, and finally, a later string of commercial soft-core porn features. The Polish-born director filmed all but one of his features in France. He’s credited with an Emmanuele movie, a choice that would banish most filmmakers from polite discussion. But back in Poland he also made Story of Sin, an unheralded masterpiece.
Borowczyk’s short films followed no specific style or trend. He used a number of animation techniques, the most influential probably being his collage approach to semi-abstract narratives. We’re told that European theaters were by law required to show short films with their features. We saw them in film festivals but also at specialized college-town theaters that catered to foreign fare considered sufficiently commercial. At the Plaza in Westwood, a late-night show might be preceded by De Düve, a parody of Ingmar Bergman, or Bruno Bozzetto’s funny animation Life in a Tin. Every once in a while a Borowczyk short film would play. I myself remember showing The Astronauts before a screening of Harryhausen’s First Men in the Moon.
Olive films is picking up scattered European titles this year; along with The Walerian Borowczyk Short Film Collection they’re also offering his features Theatre of Mr. & Mrs. Kabal; Goto, Isle of Love and Blanche. It’s difficult to say what one should see first. The Short Film Collection begins with the filmmaker’s earlier, graphically experimental shorts, and eventually reaches his more extreme erotic- themed work, ending with a short so notorious that a few of its cuts needed to be censored — by law.
Perhaps wisely, Olive doesn’t present the shorts in strict chronological order.
The Concert (1962) Le Concert de M. et Mme. Kabal 6 min.
This humorous standard animation item presents rigid little figures, engaged in a strange struggle, almost like a Punch and Judy show. The extreme design — the Mme. is an angular apparition with a nose like a banana knife — is matched by the odd sound effects. It was later extrapolated into a feature, Theatre of Mr. & Mrs. Kabal. Get ready for more shorts with no obvious reason for being — the show seems inspired by its own nonsensical logic.
The Astronauts (1959) Les Astronautes 14 min.
Borowczyk’s first French short is a furious little animation that delights in the manipulation of cutout still images. A scientist (Michel Boschet) builds a spaceship (from folded newspapers?) and flies about the cosmos. His most arresting moments involve peeping through his periscope at a girl in a window (Ligia Branice, Borowczyk’s wife) and fighting a ray gun battle to save a little dart-like spaceship from a larger, more aggressive one. Prolific producer Anatole Dauman (Until the End of the World) appears in cutout paper form as the scientist’s chauffeur.
Angels’ Games (1964) Les Jeux des Anges 13 min.
This collage film surely made Borowczyk’s reputation as a serious filmmaker. As if cobbled from details in a Hieronymous Bosch painting, we see what looks like the dismembering of an angel, or angels. The sight of a severed wing, a simple drawing oozing blue blood, seems traumatic. Other nightmare visions include armless, legless decapitated torsos struggling, and heads being chopped off on an assembly line. The audio is just as important to the film’s strange effect, as the show begins with a blurred moving background and train-like noises. Selected machine noises are chosen for the bits of cruel violence. The film suggests a concentration camp; in high school we found it wholly disturbing.
Renaissance (1963) 10 min.
This serious concept picture is the kind of thing film students think up, but aren’t capable of carrying off. We start with an obliterated corner of a room, and the remnants of several objects. They then re-integrate themselves with precise, excellent stop-motion photography, becoming untwisted, un-burned and un-shredded: books, a doll, a stuffed owl, a trumpet. Books and furniture reassemble themselves, and the little corner returns to pristine condition, awaiting another cycle of destruction and creation. Technically stunning and fascinating while we try to guess the items being reclaimed, the movie achieves that ‘art film’ status of inspiring us to think of much bigger ideas.
Joachim’s Dictionary (1965) Le Dictionnaire de Joachim / based on Ligia Branice drawings
This little show is typical of Borowczyk’s work at the Pantalon Company, where he was the resident genius. It is basically a joke book, in which the director takes the same odd pencil sketch of a man (reportedly a drawing by Ligia Branice) and adds graffiti-like animation to illustrate 27 French words, one for every letter of the alphabet. Some are silly, others clever and some are mild sex jokes (very mild) that would suggest what’s on the man’s mind. At nine minutes it feels a tad long.
The Greatest Love of All Time (1978) L’Amour Monstre de tous les temps
This very active color film shows the creation of a painting, in this case a strange surreal creation by Serbian painter Ljubomir Popovic. Filmed in a more standard form — with frequent cuts covering the action in Popvic’s studio, jumping from his easel to his brushstrokes to details in the painting, this is as much a docu of an artist at work as H.G. Clouzot’s famous The Mystery of Picasso. We get a feeling of the creative fervor and an up-close look at the painter’s skills, and Borowczyk even allows the show to end conventionally, with a glimpse of the finished painting.
Diptyque (1967) 8 min.
Of all the films this is the most like an experiment that didn’t pan out, but looked great anyway. Half of the film is a veritable documentary, with Borowczyk’s B&W camera fascinated by a 100-year-old farmer (Léon Boyer) who has his own way of doing everything, and is clearly not part of the modern world. This fits in with Borowczyk’s obsession with old objects and machinery. The second half jumps to color for close examination of glossy, pretty things: porcelain vases, flowers and a kitten. When this one finishes, you can almost feel the sensation of a question mark rising above your head.
Grandma’s Encyclopedia (1963) L’encyclopedie de Grand-Maman 6 min.
This collage-animated piece focuses on old steel engravings of cars and other devices of ‘grandma’s world.’ Unlike the previous Dictionary it only gets a little way through the alphabet; the film seems enraptured by the old illustrations.
Venus on the Half-Shell (1975) Escargot de Vénus 5 min.
We’ve all seen erotic art that disturbs. This color animation examines illustrations by the French painter and poet Bona (Bona Tibertelli de Pisis, aka Bona de Mandriargues), who is described as a surrealist often concerned with erotic concepts: her “Colimaconneries” (1974) are said to express oral obsessions. The drawings mesh human figures with snails, while Ms. de Pisis is seen reciting a poetic statement about ‘natural’ lovemaking, describing the way snails are each male and female and alternate roles in the sex act. As we see details in Bona’s erotic paintings, with her creatures coupling in myriad ways. The speech basically promotes the glory of pansexual ecstasy. It’s far more refined than a stick figure Kama Sutra, an expression of intense erotic daydreaming.
Gavotte (1967) 10 min.
This amusing short is one of Borowczyk’s most widely shown, possibly because it has no erotic content and plays like a broad comedy. Dwarf actor ‘Roberto’ is a 17th century nobleman who appears to live a life in a fine house, but is ignored by the standard-sized people we see only from the waist down. Apparently forced to attend some musical presentation, he sits in a fancy chair in a hallway and begins to do oddball things to pass the time. He’s eventually engaged in a no-holds-barred wrestling match with another little person (Ludo). Remaining focused on just a few square feet of space, this is a marvelously self-contained work.
The Phonograph (1969) Le Phonograph 5 min.
Borowczyk’s fascination with antique objects and the past is the entire reason for this simple show, which uses pixilation to animate an ancient phonograph, the kind that plays shellac cylinders. The intricate tube-holders and labels, and the sound of the phonograph are complimented by loving close-ups of a vintage photo of a woman, who might have been wooed with such a device.
Rosalie (1966) 15 min.
One of the longest films is a stunning departure from extreme content, taken from a story by Guy de Maupassant. It’s a one-woman show for Ligia Branice, who in a single angle pulls off the closest performance I’ve seen to that of Maria Falconetti. Branice’s Rosalie defends herself at trial for he murder of her newborn child. Borowczyk begins by trucking past a series of evidence exhibits, and cuts frequently to them during the monologue, especially the photo of the man who seduced Rosalie. By the finale we’re willing to forgive and acquit any woman in such a situation. To some degree Borowczyk’s great Story of Sin is an expansion of this film. Ms. Branice, by the way, plays a ‘woman from the future’ in Chris Marker’s science fiction film La Jetée. As most of that Marker classic is composed of ‘animated’ stills, I wonder if it was inspired by his exposure to Borowczyk’s ideas.
Scherzo Infernal (1984) 6 min.
Strange scribble animation enters fairly blasphemous territory with an open mind. A young female angel doesn’t see why she can’t pursue her highly sexualized feelings; she interacts with a creation of the devil with equally outrageous ideas. The design is purposely sketchy and the anatomical details are straight bathroom wall porn — yet the film retains Borowczyk’s tone of artistic purity.
A Private Collection [Long Version, Censored] Une Collection Particulière – Version Longue Censored (1973)
We’re told that this was initially made to be part of Borowczyk’s feature Immoral Tales. It’s essentially an elegant tour of (presumably) Borowczyk’s personal collection of vintage pornography, combining his overriding interests in antiquity and sex. The setting is a room with various objects and books on display. A ‘showman’ appears, and we never see his face as he turns various framed items toward the camera. The first batch of objects are very old illustrations, basically dirty pictures before the advent of photography, with all manner of forbidden sex situations illustrated like classy 18th century artwork. Then the subject changes to pornographic ‘gimmick’ items, mechanical laugh-getters that mimic sexual actions. He even shows some sex toys. Interestingly, the jointed ‘characters’ in some of the mechanical items remind us of Borowczyk’s animation techniques. Did Borowczyk make some of these things himself? The stuff is two hundred years old and as bawdy as can be imagined; causing us to picture a group of be-wigged gentlemen slapping their knees at the outrageousness of it all. Near the end Borowczyk adds a glimpse of a vintage porn film so beyond the pale (it involves bestiality) that it’s been censored — one would think possessing the thing might be a felony. It was apparently shown intact at film festivals in 1973, which must have raised some eyebrows, or hackles, or both.
A Private Collection [Short Version] Une Collection Particulière – Short Version (1973)
This is simply a shorter cut, eliminating a number of the devices and the remnant of the porn loop film. A look at Amos Vogel’s book Film as a Subversive Art gives us plenty of evidence of films demonstrating beyond-the-pale sex behavior much farther out of reach than anything in commercial porn.
Borowczyk is simply saying, ‘this is what was.’ As an artistic explorer of the outer reaches of the erotic, he certainly seems legit in his aims. Even if I don’t want to sit through his The Beast, I’m a big booster of Story of SIn. It has no extreme sex scenes but its appalling tale of infanticide and corruption is actually wholly sympathetic. Besides, such disturbing subject matter is still a part of the universal human condition. The same can be said for Borowczyk’s harmless sex toy entertainments, which to me are more wholesome than the average modern comedy with crude sex humor and scatalogical jokes.
The restorations of Borowczyk’s films done in the last few years have made it much easier to evaluate his work, which amounts to far more than just the soft-core extremes of The Beast. Various discussions of Borowczyk can be found online, but it helps greatly if one reads French. Olive provides no program notes but includes a couple of video extras. An introduction with Terry Gilliam looks like the briefest of excerpts from a longer interview, and is on screen barely long enough for him to say that Borowczyk’s movies “get in there, into the world that I find activates a part of my brain that few other things do.” Gilliam credits Borowczyk with inspiring his own ‘found graphic collage animations,’ as made famous on the Monty Python TV shows and films. The kinship is not difficult to see.
Much more instructive is an Arrow-produced interview featurette called Film is not a Sausage. The filmmakers located three collaborators on Borowczyk’s French animation output, producer Dominique Duvergé-Ségrétin, assistant André Heinrich and composer Bernard Parmegiani. They fill in a few knowledge gaps not covered in film festival programs. We learn that Borowczyk was a lone wolf who, even when contracted with an established animation company, did most of his work alone, at home. His brilliance goes unquestioned, and one of the interviewees offers the odd observation that, in his opinion Borowczyk was far more inspired than his fellow Pole Roman Polanski. We’re also told that the shared director’s credit with filmmaker Chris Marker on Les Astronautes was a calculated move to qualify Borowczyk for official status as a director in France. Work-rights details aside, when the utter genius Chris Marker elects to sponsor a filmmaker, no higher endorsement is possible.
Olive Films’ Blu-ray of The Walerian Borowczyk Short Film Collection remasters these shows to prime condition and looking far better than the 16mm prints we once saw. Colors are precise, the images are sharp, clear and stable. Those soundtracks are also in fine shape, allowing us to appreciate the equally progressive audio work in some of the pictures — in the ‘light’ animations the sound effects do not serve the same function as they do in American studio-made cartoon fare. Some of the strange noises and ‘atmospheres’ we hear remind us of the work of David Lynch.
The restorations were approved by Borowczyk’s widow, Ligia Branice. So far the definitive Borowczyk disc releases are for Region B, by Arrow films, as they include more text and featurette content; to access the research of Daniel Bird and Michael Brooke, viewers will have to go all-region.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Walerian Borowczyk Short Film Collection
Supplements: Intro by Terry Gilliam, featurette Film is not a Sausage.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 11, 2017
Text © Copyright 2017 Glenn Erickson