Monday, March 25, 2013

Love Rites (1988)

AKA Queen of the Night

One of Walerian Borowczyk’s key influences was the French surrealist writer André Pieyre de Mandiargues, with Borowczyk having brilliantly adapted many of de Mandiargues’ writings for the screen throughout his career. The first segment of Immoral Tales (1974) “The Tide” was taken from a de Mandiargues’s story, the emotionally draining masterpiece La Marge (1976), staring the late very great Sylvia Kristel was based on de Mandiargues’ 1967 novel of the same name, and the second and most infamous segment in the 1979 anthology Immoral Women, “Marceline” was also based on de Mandiargues’ writing. Borowczyk also showcased de Mandiargues’ unique collection of vintage erotic art in his 1973 short film Une collection particulière, which de Mandiargues provided the narration for. I’m sure most purists will disagree with me, but for my money, Borowczyk never brought de Mandiargues’ work to film more effectively than when he based what was to become his final feature film Love Rites on de Mandiargues’ 1987 book Everything Disappears (Tout disparaîtra). Love Rites is not only my favorite Borowczyk film, it’s one of my all time favorite films in general, easily top 10 material. It’s also a film that happens to be the epitome of “acquired taste”, even for some already accustomed to Borowczyk’s unique body of work, yet given the chance, it’s a film that has the potential to sink it’s claws deep in you and leave a lasting impression on your psyche.

En route to meet a client, fashion salesman Hugo Arnold (Mathieu Carrière) encounters the stunningly beautiful Miriam (Marina Pierro) on the Paris metro and almost immediately after sitting down next to her becomes infatuated. When the train stops and Miriam gets up to leave, Hugo makes a mad dash to catch up with her, and much to his surprise finds her waiting for him. Miriam informs Hugo that she is a prostitute and his mind is now far removed from work and on one thing only. The two spend the day together, walking the streets of Paris waxing philosophic and poetic on a variety of topics while Hugo grows increasingly impatient. When the two finally arrive at a mysterious boudoir owned by Miriam’s friend and Hugo finally gets what he wants, he may be wishing that he’d never left his apartment that day once he discovers what the end result of Miriam’s “services” entail.

Although it may lack the taboo shattering satire of a film like The Beast (1975) or the visceral brutality of say Dr. Jekyll and His Women (1981), Love Rites (Cérémonie d'amour) is nevertheless a haunting and fascinating film. Love Rites is a prime example of doing a lot with a little, minimal on plot and characters yet heavy on ideas. Borowczyk’s way of getting across the films ideas is probably what makes the film so off putting to many. The film is first and foremost dialogue driven, and said dialogue has a tendency to be incredibly dense, but it also happens to be one of the films main strengths. Having Hugo and Miriam discuss things pertaining to the films main themes in almost clinical terms was a masterstroke, as it allowed Borowczyk to cut right to the chase in terms of what the film is trying to say, yet remain somewhat cryptic at the same time, and cryptic is a more than fitting word when discussing this film. There is a strange and incredibly ominous mystery about this film, every frame is foreboding and not in the normal sense of the word. It’s an ambiguous type of discomfort that’s hard to put your finger on while watching the film but it’s there and gets under your skin. Again, this was to become Borowczyk’s final feature film and perhaps he knew that going into it, as the entire film does seem to have this “final” feeling to it, if that makes any sense.

While not all of Borowczyk’s films were period pieces it’s no secret that he thrived on showcasing era’s of the past, finding the modern world rather cold, which plays a big part in the contemporary Paris setting of Love Rites coming off as nihilistic and distant as it does. Borowczyk’s attention to detail is on display in every frame of the film, from the way he shoots Hugo and Miriam’s initial encounter on the subway to the staging of the two attempting to have a conversation, shouting at each other from two separate subway platforms while Miriam sits on bench underneath a poster exclaiming “Everything must go!”. Naturally painting plays a significant role in portions of the film, most notably where Borowczyk lets the camera linger on the fresco’s of the Saint-Germain-des-Prés church while Hugo and Miriam discuss Belli’s version of Abraham’s sacrifice. There are times in the film where Borowczyk will turn away from Hugo and Miriam, voyeuristically focusing the camera on others going about their day and various statues around Paris, all the while the mesmerizing organ score plays atop everything, giving the proceedings a feeling of hypnotic distance. Perhaps the films visual highlight thought is Pierro herself, her portrayal as Miriam, from the way she carries herself to her delivery of the dialogue is nothing short of brilliant, and in my opinion, her finest work as an actress. Borowczyk films her in a such a way that it’s impossible to not find yourself becoming as entranced by her as Hugo.
Italian and German posters under the alternate Queen of the Night

After Love Rites Borowczyk didn’t exactly disappear although he did keep a bit of a low profile, directing 4 episodes of the French television series Série rose, one of which starring Pierro, and had a few book published before, by many accounts, becoming a bit of a hermit in his later years until his passing of heart failure at the age of 82 in 2006. Whatever the reason he decided to bow out of feature filmmaking may be, what is certain is that he left a filmography unlike any other, one that I’m happy to say has seen a bit of a rediscovery thanks to DVD. Obviously not everyone will take to Love Rites the same way I did, and that’s understandable. It requires patience, toys with your expectations, and by the time reach the films conclusion, almost de Sade esque in it’s cruel irony yet pure Borowczyk in it’s sheer bizarreness, there’s a chance you’ll be a bit perplexed as to what it all means, yet that’s part of the film’s beauty. In a body of work such as Borowcayk’s filled with unique and one of a kind films, Love Rites defiantly stands out, and should be seen for many reasons aside from it simply being Borowczyk’s last film, and if you’re willing to go along for the ride with Boro, Hugo and Miriam, you’ll find Love Rites to possess an aura that’s hard to shake.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Dr. Jekyll and His Women (1981)

AKA Bloodbath of Dr. Jekyll, Blood of Dr. Jekyll, Bloodlust, Dr. Jekyll and Lady Osbourne, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne, Dr. Jekyll and His Wives and The Experiment

According to Wikipedia, there have been well over 123 film versions of Robert Lewis Stevenson’s novella Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, all taking various liberties with the content of Stevenson’s original publication. Boasting perhaps as many alternate titles as Stevenson’s story has adaptations (I’m sure there’s a lot more I neglected to mention above), Walerian Borowczyk’s 1981 take on the classic tale Dr. Jekyll and His Women certainly stands out from the rest of the pack as being one of the more original, sexual, violent and quite frankly out there interpretations of the story, that on the surface might seem to some as just an exercise in exploitation, but this film apparently has more in common with Stevenson’s original draft of the story (Borowczyk jokingly claimed to possess a copy for publicity purposes) that, according to legend was burned at the request of his wife Fanny on account of it being far too shocking for it‘s time. Whether or not the legend is true, what is certain is that with Dr. Jekyll and His Women, Borowczyk delivered a transgressive psychosexual horror masterpiece. It’s a film that many fans have hailed as Borowczyk’s best work, and understandably so. Personally speaking, Dr. Jekyll and His Women is not only my favorite of film version of the story, but it stands tied with Love Rites (1988) as being my favorite of Borowczyk’s features. 

In celebration of the engagement of Dr. Henry Jekyll (Udo Kier) and Fanny Osbourne (Marina Pierro), a dinner party is held at Jekyll’s mansion home. When the guests disperse after dinner, Jekyll conveniently disappears from the group, retreating to his laboratory wherein he submerges himself in a bathtub full of chemicals transforming himself into the vicious Edward Hyde (Gerard Zalcberg), who then proceeds to sexually assault and murder the houseguests at random. In the midst of all the chaos, Jekyll is able to go unnoticed throughout the night, that is until Fanny catches a glimpse of him, and decides to join him in his rampage.

Setting aside the savagery for a moment, what really sets Dr. Jekyll and His Women (Dr. Jekyll et Les Femmes) apart from the rest of the pack of screen treatments of the story is the inclusion of Fanny Osbourne as a character. Borowczyk had always been rather antagonistic towards snooty upper-class society in his work and Dr. Jekyll and His Women has been considered by many to be his harshest condemnation of Victorian hyper morality. Here, Hyde is seen as a rebellious liberator, freeing not just Jekyll, but also Fanny of all the standards imposed upon them by “proper” society, the church and their parents, the later being of particular importance in Fanny’s situation, what with all the things expected of a soon to be bride. Another interesting thing about the film was Borowczyk’s choice to have Jekyll and Hyde played by two different actors, which paid off big time as Gerard Zalcberg is an exceptionally creepy looking individual making him not only the perfect Hyde but an excellent contrast to Kier’s Jekyll. Joining Kier, Pierro and Zalcberg are the legendary Patrick Magee and Euro horror icon Howard Vernon, easily one of if not the best ensembles Borowczyk ever had. The real highlight of the cast though is of course Pierro, who’s frustration quietly builds throughout the entire film, finally letting loose with reckless abandon during the films chaotic and destructive finale, one of her finest hours as an actress for sure. 

Having the events of the film take place during one night in one house was another unique touch by Borowczyk, the film plays out almost like a murder mystery type of story. Now obviously we know who the culprit is but nonetheless it was yet another interesting way of telling the story, plus it adds tension in the sense of wondering who we’re going to encounter at any given point in the film, an unassuming Jekyll or a ravenous Hyde. Borowczyk’s knack for period pieces is on display as the Victorian London aesthetic is defiantly felt from the costumes and set design. The film is one of Borowczyk’s more overtly atmospheric, the lighting playing a big part in the films mood, especially whenever Hyde is on screen. Borowczyk also makes memorable use of the color blue and fog in the certain sections of the film, most notably during the unforgettable opening. Another technique Borowczyk makes prominent use of thorough the course of the film is quick cuts, some of which are quite jarring such as cutting to a shot of the prone body of a young girl brutally bludgeoned by Hyde in the beginning of the film while a young dancer entertains the guests of the dinner party. In pure Borowczyk fashion a lot of attention is paid to the artwork in the Jekyll household, with one particular painting being of the utmost importance. You’ll know it when you see it.

As previously mentioned the film is also known by an absurd amount of alternate titles. Borowczyk originally intended the title of the film to be The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne, but the producers changed it to Dr. Jekyll and His Women. The films home video history is an entirely different story in itself, for example the UK getting an heavily edited VHS release under the Bloodbath of Dr. Jekyll title and the US and Canada getting a 92 minute VHS under the name Bloodlust. A Dutch VHS was released dubbed in English under the title Dr. Jekyll en Lady Osborune, yet the title screen says Dr. Jekyll and His Women with a subtitle of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne underneath it! Figure that one out. Unfortunately, the film has yet to see an official DVD release, and I know many share my opinion that one is long overdue. Until that day comes however, the easiest way to see the film is via DVD-R, the most readily available versions being sold are transfers of the Dutch VHS. No matter how you go about seeing the film, the important thing is that you see it, as a film like this is truly one of a kind and it’s unlikely you’ve ever seen the Jekyll and Hyde tale told in this fashion before. Essential Borowczyk. Essential Euro horror.