CAMERA OBSCURA: THE WALERIAN BOROWCZYK COLLECTION

CAMERA OBSCURA: THE WALERIAN BOROWCZYK COLLECTION

Allow me to begin by apologising for the length of this review. It's longer than THE BEAST's ever-erect cock...

Well, this is Arrow's much anticipated dual format box set of late Polish filmmaker and artist extraordinaire Walerian Borowczyk. If you don't much about the guy, I'm not going to drag my review out any longer than it's already going to be - instead I'll say 'Google' him and then disregard half of what you read about him in the results. The man was a genius, pure and simple. And now it's time for the world to find out why...

We were sent the blu-ray discs for review. And so, on to the films...

Disc one:

THEATRE OF MR AND MRS KABAL (a.k.a. THEATRE DE MONSIEUR ET MADAME KABAL) kicks off proceedings, with the joyous tune of "The Wedding March" playing beneath the opening titles.

Classical music appears sporadically in this mischievously subversive 77-minute film - "intended for mature audiences only", the opening text warns.

If the 6-minute introduction of a superimposed man speaking to an animated woman who's just finished destroying several potential heads that her illustrator has designed for her, isn't weird enough, then just wait for the ensuing "show" as the curtains are raised and Borowczyk lets his surreal creativity run wild.

What plays out is like a mixture of Terry Gilliam's animation for Monty Python (Borowczyk's witty, rudimentary and blocky style is a clear influence) and abstract photos, live action snippets - a woman posing in her bikini, for example - with occasional dialogue interspersed between the mainly unusual sound design. Challenging? Perhaps. Entertaining? Hmm, in its own curious way, I'm going to say Ďyesí...

Next we have a fine selection of Borowczyk's short films, spanning from 1959 to 1984.

From the offset, the director won awards for his early colour effort THE ASTRONAUTS. It's a beguiling proffering of theme and suggestion over explanation, using stop-motion and cut-and-paste techniques, married with industrial sounds, to conjure an odd tale of invention.

ANGELS' GAMES is a minor masterwork, a bizarre and baroque 12-minute metaphor for the holocaust, which manages to be simultaneously haunting and calming. The box setís striking cover illustration comes from this one.

THE GREATEST LOVE OF ALL TIME, from 1978, takes its inspiration from a Rene de Solier quote and merges classical Wagner strains with documentary-style footage of the artist at work with his brush and canvas.

1984's SCHERZO INFERNAL combines Walerian's traditionally basic illustrations with filmed footage to tell a tale of devils and angels with rocky nipples. Interesting stuff...

Elsewhere, we get THE CONCERT, GRANDMA'S ENCYCLOPEDIA, RENAISSANCE, JOACHIM'S DICTIONARY, ROSALIE, GAVOTTE, DIPTYCH and THE PHONOGRAPH. Between them, they offer a wealth of strange Python-style animations, strange sound effects, obscure narratives and meticulously edited wholes.

They're not for everyone, admittedly, but do provide a fascinating insight into a side of Borowczyk that many probably weren't aware of.

Disc two:

GOTO, ISLAND OF LOVE (a.k.a GOTO L'ILE DE AMOUR) boasts a deeply ironic title.

There's no love in evidence during this tale of a secluded isle in a state of recovery following a natural disaster: only anger, and occasional lust.

Within this isolated realm, Goto (Pierre Brasseur) presides as the ruthless governor over the island, teaching a way of life secluded from the outside world. He also oversees for a prison dissidents where he seeks to keep its inmates oppressed. His ideology extends to allowing them to engage in combat occasionally - the winner of these fight-till-death contests earning their freedom on the stuck-in-time island.

Into this mix come underdog Grozo (Guy Saint-Jean) and Goto's wife Glyssia (Ligia Branice - who later became Borowczyk's wife). The former has designs on the latter, a disposition that compels him to rebel against his arrested development...

It's a strange, absorbing film; far more concerned with its political agenda than its director's subsequently traditional erotica (we get brief nudity during early shower scenes, that's it). But the black-and-white photography teams with the antagonistic mood of the film to create a quietly disturbing drama, populated by fatalistic macho performances and a sense of uneasy voyeurism which is as potent as it is troubling.

The spirit of European arthouse cinema and surrealism runs through GOTO, resulting in a constantly engaging and satisfyingly challenging political drama which also happens to be blessed with keen compositions. But it is admittedly tame in comparison to later Borowczyk masterpieces.

Disc three:

BLANCHE, based upon Juliusz Slowacki's epic poem "Mazepa", is next.

In it, Blanche (Ligia Branice) is a pretty young thing who's married to a Count (Michel Simon), who effectively incarcerates her in his castle. His son Nicholas (Lawrence Trimble) has designs on her, as do the King (George Wilson) and his servant Bartolomeo (Jacques Perrin) when they visit. To her credit, Blanche is a timid lady with a strong sense of honour - she will not give in to their advances.

And that's a problem that progresses this slow-burning yarn into the realms of tragedy...

Flawless Medieval settings and costume designs, convincing performances, exquisite cinematography and a wonderfully literate script from Borowczyk all work to make BLANCHE an unheralded classic ripe for discovery.

There's precious little of eroticism Borowczyk later became infamous for on offer - the only nudity is at the very start, and even that feels as though it's been snuck in - but BLANCHE doesn't need it. It's a great, subtly haunting film, an austere period piece that flirts with Luis Bunuel flourishes before descending into a Macbeth-style denouement.

Disc four:

IMMORAL TALES (a.k.a. CONTES IMMORAUX) is a portmanteau of four stories which seek to reinforce the ultimate expression of love through sexual activity.

It opens with THE TIDE, in which a 20-year-old boy seduces his 16-year-old cousin (Lise Danvers) - she's beautiful - on the beach during one sunny afternoon. He coaxes her into performing oral sex on him, while offering a sermon on the nature of the tide - likening it to his impending climax. There's a hint of Tinto Brass about this cheeky, attractively shot piece. It's the only present-tense tale herein.

THERESE PHILOSOPHER follows. Set in the 19th Century, this finds the titular character (Charlotte Alexandra) confined to her bedroom when she reaches puberty - and quickly discovering the sexual worth of the objects around her. Photographs become arousing, cucumbers are no longer just for eating ... This feels less substantial but is no less pretty to look at.

ELIZABETH BATHORY is excellent. It echoes Pasolini in its artful period detail and seamless blending of erotica and horror, when a group of nubile young women are handpicked from a village to visit Bathory's (Paloma Picasso) chateau and strip naked for bathing, cavorting and ultimate slaying. It's not as frivolous as it perhaps sounds: Bathory does indeed bathe in the girls' blood - an unforgettable scene - and Borowczyk's understanding of the politics concerning this theme make for as good an account of this legend as you're likely to see. This is stirring stuff.

In comparison, LUCREZIA BORGIA can be seen as something as an anti-climax. But it's still very easy on the eye, filled with nudity, and quietly compelling as the church and the state debate over Lucrezia's (Florence Bellamy) fate. Religious satire, immaculate photography and colourful costume design are all strengths.

Medieval music, austere beauty and frequent nudity keep things consistent throughout this wonderfully baroque blurring of arthouse and exploitation.

Disc five:

THE BEAST (a.k.a. LA BETE) is arguably the director's most well-known film. Ironically, it almost never existed as a feature-length venture. When shooting began in 1973, it was originally intended as one segment of TALES. But Borowczyk liked what he saw and decided to extend it into a yarn rich with commentary on social mores, bourgeois excesses and sexual liberation.

It starts with the credits rolling out on a black screen to the sound of horses cantering and neighing. The opening scene's action centres on close-up shots of a couple of randy horses in a farmhouse yard. Explicit horse penetration ensues - and less well-endowed viewers may well develop a penis-envy complex at this point...

The film then quickly settles down into an enjoyably low-key period art romp, documenting young Lucy's (Sirpa Lane) visit to a French manor. Led there by her Aunt, Lucy is to be wed to the heir of a French aristocratic dynasty. Unfortunately the bearded heir, Mathurin (Pierre Benedetti), appears to be three sandwiches short of a picnic.

The rest of Mathurin's family are eager to see the wedding go through successfully, aside from his father who believes him to be evil and wishes him dead. Could that have anything to do with the legend of a beast that roams the countryside raping young women?

The motive for the wedding is revealed early on: it is the express wish of Lucy's late father that she marry Mathurin, thus entitling her to her inheritance. Mathurin, you see, is considered to be of impeccable background ... Well, his family seem to know better, and are just as keen to see him marry into money.

Lucy arrives at the luscious chateau and is told of the legendary beast that roams the woodlands outside. Her imagination running wild, Lucy dreams erotic visions of the beast in full rape mode. This being a 70s slice of low-budget exploitation, would it startle anyone to hear that Lucy gets horny and takes a stroll into the woods to meet said beast?!

THE BEAST is a truly odd, albeit visually beautiful, film that plays like a stately drama punctuated by moments of frank nudity and masturbation for its first hour, and then descends into comedic, near-porn madness for its final third.

Performances are solid and likeable throughout; Borowczyk once again casts gorgeous women and directs softcore sex scenes with a true sense for what constitutes erotica (Mathurin's sister's trysts with the family's black manservant are a sexy highlight). Each frame is meticulously composed, while the classical-style music and country manor setting afford events a deceptive sense of respectability.

Newcomers may get an hour into THE BEAST and wonder why it was ever banned. But stay tuned because once Lucy meets the beast (don't laugh, it's a man in a furry suit), its huge phallus gets a lot of screen-time and she rides it almost constantly, only dismounting occasionally to let it spurt thick jets of cum here, there and everywhere. Lane is undeniably sexy as she runs through the woods in a corset and with her bottom bared...

Political, satirical, sumptuous, erotic, funny ... it's difficult to classify the film in terms of genre. It even features in many horror books, so I suppose you could say it has a little bit of everything. Whatever it is, it's unique, thrillingly gorgeous and constantly entertaining.

Now, on to the specifications.

All the transfers benefit from 2k restoration work and are, of course, amazing.

I hadn't seen THEATRE before but I never imagined such an obscure, independent feature from 1967 would look so good. The print is mostly clean, the 1.33:1 pillarboxed framing is clearly correct, and the images are beautifully crisp with fine, textured contrast helping the stark visuals often punch you in the face. French mono audio is reliable throughout.

The short films mostly look incredible too (a couple have a softer hue than others, but that's not a quibble). The aspect ratios change throughout, of course, but they all appear to be true. Colours are bold and warm where applicable; blacks are strong; prints are, once again, cleaner than I'd anticipated. Once again, mono audio doesn't present any qualms.

GOTO looks better than ever, uncut and in its original 1.66:1 framing. It's suffered some wear and tear over the years, but this presentation - with deep blacks, sharp detail and strong contrast - will be revelatory to fans of old. The film opens with a disclaimer regarding the restoration ("the restoration relied on using the highest quality surviving film and audio elements ...", but Arrow needn't worry: it looks as good as I imagine it ever could. In fact, the monochrome images are frequently sharper and brighter than most other films from the 60s.

BLANCHE gets a nice 1.66:1 treatment. It's a tad softer and darker than the other feature films in this collection but it still looks great to these eyes. I'd never seen it before so admittedly I don't have a reference point, but for a 40-year-old film I daresay this is as good as it'll ever look.

We see IMMORAL TALES in its original 1.66:1 setting, in a transfer that is light years above previous presentations. A clean print and controlled restoration combine to ensure the clearest, sharpest and brightest rendition of the film imaginable while a lack of DNR or image enhancement help retain an authentic filmic feel throughout. For some reason, the THERESE PHILOSOPHER segment looks softer than the rest of the transfer, but by-and-large this really is a joy.

THE BEAST is presented in its original 1.66.1 aspect too, and looks incredible. Colours, detail and depth have never been so evident as they are here. A transfer as respectful as this really does allow for renewed appreciation of Borowczyk as a true artist. It's the full 98-minute version here, incidentally.

All films come with original mono audio (predominantly French), clean and problem-free, complemented by well-written and easily readable optional English subtitles.

None of the discs have scene selection menus for their main features but each film does possess chapters that can be activated by pressing 'skip' on your remote control handset.

And, onto the copious bonus features:

Disc one:

Fittingly, Terry Gilliam provides an optional 1-minute video introduction to the shorts disc. His comments are more train-of-thought that totally cohesive, but it's nice to have him included regardless.

"Film Is Not A Sausage" is a 28-minute featurette in which sometime assistant Andre Heinreich and producer/Borowczyk business partner Dominique Duverge discuss the early days of Borowczyk's animated shorts and commercials. He's heralded as a "genius" and we learn that he even had his own house built to his own architectural plans, and then made the furniture himself. There's also an explanation in here as to the nature of this box setís title: it's named after an exhibition of Borowczyk's animated shorts that ran a couple of decades ago.

"Blow Ups" is a 5-minute collection of paintings and artwork from Borowczyk's time studying the form in Krakow during the late 1940s and early 1950s, where among his classmates was fellow future filmmaker Andrej Wajda. From the start, it's apparent that he was intelligent and subversive in equal measures. We also get a couple examples of the director's much later, post-filmmaking works of art.

Finally there are three early TV commercials he directed in the early 1960s - Holy Smoke, The Museum and Tom Thumb - which further demonstrate his styles of playfully anti-Disney animation and Bunuelesque live action.

Disc two:

Craigie Horsfield provides an endearing 8-minute video introduction to GOTO, describing with affection how it influenced him.

A Making Of GOTO entitled "The Conversation Universe" is an unexpected treat. Jean-Pierre Andreani Gono marvels over Walerian's attention to detail; Noel Very remains in awe of a colleague with "a world of his own". Focus-puller Jean-Pierre Platel is also involved in this wonderful insight into a film that no-one could realistically have demanded such a feature for.

GOTO's original trailer is another great addition, stylish and exciting at just under 4 minutes in length.

Disc three:

Extra features for BLANCHE commence with a 4-minute introduction from director Leslie Megahey, produced by the BFI. He rates the film highly for showing how period drama on film could be done "differently".

"Ballad of Imprisonment" offers a 28-minute Making Of retrospective, including onscreen recollections from second assistant director Patrice Leconte, co-producer Dominique Duverge, assistant director Andre Heinrich and camera assistant Noel Very. Wow.

The 63-minute documentary "Obscure Pleasures: A Portrait of Walerian Borowczyk" is similarly brilliant. This offers a great, articulate interview with the director punctuated by clips from his shorts, animations, films and so on. In French with English subtitles.

"Gunpoint" is an 11-minute short film from 1972 credited to Peter Graham which looks into the disturbing nature of caging animals, hunting them etc. Borowczyk gets a credit too, hence its inclusion. It's more documentary-style than anything else in this set but remains equally riveting in its own distressing way.

We also get a 5-minute interview with Graham discussing the making of "Gunpoint", which he reveals was a veiled attack on hunting. He also speaks of Borowczyk's help with the making of the film.

Disc four:

IMMORAL TALES gets 4-minute text introduction from Daniel Bird, interspersed with scenes from the film.

We next get an excellent 16-minute Making Of featurette containing behind-the-scenes footage and comments from directorial assistant Duverge. Camera assistant Very also has interesting bits of trivia to share. Both are in French with English subtitles.

"Boro Brunch" is a truly heartening 7-minute video account of a 2014 reunion between Duverge, Levy, Florence Dauman (daughter of the film's producer, Anatole), and Phillipe d'Argila - widow of Borowczyk's costume designer Piet Bolscher. They argue casually over finer details of making the film while eating their meal.

"A Private Collection" is Borowczk's 1973 short (12 minutes) shows us - in stunning 16x9 HD - the director's array of stunning vintage photographs, paintings and sex toys. Who knew that folk in olden times were so kinky?!

There's also a 14-minute "director's cut" of "A Private Collection" which features alternate scenes showing much more detail in the photographs - explicit penetration, fellatio and so on. There's even a couple of questionable photos of young girls spreading their legs to reveal open vaginas. Arrow have had to optically censor a few seconds in order to meet with UK laws: these relate to archive film footage of a woman getting sexually serviced by her dog.

IMMORAL TALES' original trailer looks lovely and runs for just over 2 minutes.

The most substantial extra on the IMMORAL TALES is the "L'Age D'Or" cut of the film - in HD - which runs for an extra 22 minutes. This was an early festival print that contained one extra segment - LA BETE.

The feature version of the latter is covered below in this already massive review so I'll try and be succinct. LA BETE cuts out all the wedding backdrop and essentially just features Sirpa Lane, the monster and an unfortunate lamb in what amounts to a story of a woman shagging her would-be rapist to death. Its inclusion here is a great, unexpected bonus: I love this version of TALES even more than the theatrical cut! Brilliant stuff.

Disc five:

Extras for THE BEAST begin with an introduction from film critic Peter Bradshaw (105 seconds), who observes the film as being everything from "erotic" and "hilarious" to "incendiary" and "porn".

A brilliant new 57-minute Making Of documentary. This finds assistant cameraman Very speaking over fascinating pillar-boxed archive footage taken on the shoot of the film. We get real insight into Borowczyk's serious, focused approach to his work and great visual evidence of his attention to minute detail. The director's rapport with his performers shines through too in this excellent addition. Very speaks in perfectly good English.

"Frenzy of Ecstasy: The Evolution of the Beast" is a fantastic 4-minute translation of a letter Borowczyk wrote to his producer in late 1972, complete with the director's very specific accompanying sketches, detailing how he intended to make the film. "The image of such a member (erect) emerging from the long hair of the beast will make for a terrifying sight ..." he wrote. Indeed!

VENUS ON THE HALF-SHELL is a 4-minute short from 1975, illustrated and directed by Borowczyk, and produced by Argos Films. It's full of surreal, Dali-esque depictions of erotica at its most challenging.

We also get THE BEAST's original French theatrical trailer. This is long at almost 4 minutes in length and pretty scratchy. It is, however, great to see here - even though all signs of the creature's phallus are blanked out.

Capping it all off, this set also comes with a stunning 250-page book which offers a plethora of revealing, stylish photographs - stills of the maestro at work, stills from his work (not all of which are safe to show to faint-hearted relatives ...), plus an exhaustive amount of text including archive interviews, reviews, new essays ... Lavish to the last.

What can I say? If you've managed to get through this review so far (apologies again for its length), then you must surely know by now that this release is pretty bloody essential.

If you weren't fortunate (or affluent) enough to pre-order this set - which has sold out and, I'm informed by an employee of Arrow, is not due to be reprinted - the good news is that each disc is also available to buy as a standalone release, each with its own booklet which contain excerpts from the box setís mammoth 250-page tome.

This, in my opinion, is easily the pinnacle of Arrow's achievements so far, a high benchmark in the history of blu-ray culture, and a sure-fire way to make the likes of Criterion sit up and say "holy fuck, we're being dethroned" ...

Whether bought as a box or as individual releases (which are also dual format), this is absolutely essential for anyone with an interest in art-house cinema, erotica, the arts, or just film itself.

Review by Stuart Willis


 
Released by Arrow Academy
Region B
Rated 18
Extras :
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