Walerian Borowczyk, if remembered at all nowadays, is recalled for the wrong reasons. He has been regarded in this country as a pseudo-cultured pornographer ever since The Beast, which ends with a sexual encounter in a forest between something that looks like a well-hung ape and a woman, was shown at the National Film Theatre to a pretentiously horrified audience. The film then came out commercially, minus most of the coupling, thanks to the censor of the day.
It is true that Borowczyk, a Polish film-maker who has a small museum of historic erotic implements, seems to have spent his last years in France, working in the soft-porn genre. But if it is indeed true, as the novelist Vladimir Nabokov says, that the letter “s” is the only difference between the cosmic and the comic, especially as far as sex is concerned, some of us are right to regard him as a precious talent. Indeed, David Thomson, in his Biographical Dictionary of Film, calls Borowczyk one of the major artists of modern cinema.
Born in 1923, he started off as an animator of pinpoint delicacy and the kind of surreal edge that reminded one of Dada and Luis Buñuel considerably more than Walt Disney. When he went into features there was the same eye for miniaturist detail. If his most infamous films were Immoral Tales and The Beast, his most famous were Goto, Isle of Love and Blanche. Both are classics of their kind, starring Ligia Branice, his wife and collaborator.
My favourite is Blanche, which also contains one of the last performances on film of the great Michel Simon. When I showed it to a class of students who had never heard of Borowczyk or Simon, the film completely up-ended them. Admittedly, it is weird enough to make them sit up and pay attention, and the musical score, just about the first to use period instruments, would almost certainly be fashionable if put on record today.
Blanche is set in 13th-century France where Simon, who must have been well over 80 at the time, plays an almost senile baron with a simple but beautiful young wife (Branice) who everyone, including the King, lusts after. There is a lecherous page and a handsome but rather vacant lover too, and the film is a kind of fairytale dance of death where tragedy is probable, even if a happy outcome isn’t entirely out of the question.
Almost the whole film takes place in the Baron’s castle, where the king comes to stay. And its winding stone staircases, gloomy corridors and rooms full of bizarre decor and mechanical devices are as important as any characters in the film. Once again, every tiny detail is made to count double.
Blanche, who climbs naked out of her bath early in the film, has a pet white dove in a cage, which is almost her alter ego as she flutters round her admirers, half frightened and half fascinated. She is a creature made for trouble and it isn’t a total surprise when she is bricked into one of the castle walls.
Borowczyk’s art, which often looks like a carefully animated painting, and has the pessimistic urge one associates with Franz Kafka, is invariably about sex, love and death – the ape in The Beast eventually dies of pleasure. But his eye is so sharp and his ironic sense of humour so audacious that even the worst of his films, such as Emmanuelle 5, are worth something. The best inhabit a world you are unlikely to forget.