Monday, December 26, 2016

Lulu (1980)

It makes complete sense that Walerian Borowczyk would adapt Frank Wedekind's “Lulu” plays for the screen. The plays, Earth Spirit, first performed in 1895 and Pandora’s Box in 1904, attracted a considerable amount of controversy upon their premiers due to their treatment of topics considered at the time to be taboo, namely female sexuality, not unlike the controversy that would later surround Borowczyk and several of his films, for instance Immoral Tales (1974) and The Beast (1975). The plays have been adapted a few times, with the most famous being G.W. Pabst’s 1929 film version of Pandora’s Box (starting screen legend Louise Brooks in the role of Lulu) which was first brought to the screen in 1921 by Arzén von Cserépy whereas Earth Spirit was made into a film by Leopold Jessner in 1923. The plays were also turned into an opera via Alban Berg in 1937 and severed as the inspiration for the 2011 album Lulu, the notorious and fiercely divisive collaborative effort between Lou Reed and Metallica. Borowczyk’s version is somewhat of a hidden gem in his filmograpgy. Easily Borowczyk’s most neglected film, Lulu may lack the scandalous reputation of some of Borowczyk’s more well known films and the source material may be Wedekind’s, however said material was prime for a Boro treatment and the resulting film is unmistakably Borowczyk and one of his most interesting films from a stylistic standpoint.

For Lulu, Borowczyk combined both Earth Spirit and Pandora’s Box, detailing the downfall of the titular Lulu (Anne Bennent), a young dancer married to the much older Dr. Goll, who drops dead of a heart attack after discovering Lulu cavorting with Schwarz, a painter whom Lulu was modeling for. Lulu and Schwarz soon marry, although that too ends in tragedy and Lulu soon finds herself married to the affluent Dr. Schoen (Heniz Bennent). Lulu’s luck takes a turn for the worse however when she finds herself implicit in Schoen’s death which sends her and her lover Alwa, Schoen’s son, onto the streets where Lulu is forced into prostitution and makes the fateful decision of taking on Jack the Ripper (Udo Kier) as a client.

If Lulu is remembered for anything its for “featuring Udo Kier as Jack the Ripper!” and while its true that Kier is amazingly wild-eyed and menacing in the role, ultimately it’s a very brief appearance and Lulu has much more going for it than one scene. What makes Lulu a fascinating film is Borowczyk’s approach and handling of the Lulu character. There have been many interpretations of the character over the years, with some claiming that Lulu was a misogynist creation, that her fall from grace was a punishment resulting from her promiscuity while others see Lulu as a positive example of liberated female sexuality. The later is most certainly more akin to Borowczyk’s tastes, with the celebrating of uninhibited females a constant in his work and Lulu is no different. Borowczyk presents Lulu as an archetypal “free spirit” who refuses to be tied down and is eventually brought down not by her lack of inhibitions, but rather the selfish and domineering men that surround her and wish to control her all for themselves. Lulu’s frivolous nature is perfectly captured by Ann Bennent who always has a whimsical nature to her even during the later portion of the film when Lulu is living in squalor which makes the outcome of the film all the more unfortunate. Being based on a play, Borowczyk directs in an appropriate fashion, having the film play out over the course of five confined and meticulously composed scenes, or “acts”, complete with precise staging and Borowczyk’s typically voyeuristic idiosyncrasies.

German actor Heinz Bennent who plays Lulu’s third husband Dr. Schoen was in fact lead actress Anne Bennent’s father. The following year Bennent would go on to work with another Polish master, playing the role of the wonderfully eccentric and hilariously zen Heinrich in Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession (1981). Udo Kier would of course work with Borowczyk again the following year playing Dr. Henry Jekyll in Borowczyk’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osborune (1981). While being interviewed for DVD release of Dr. Jekyll, Kier described working with Borowczyk as amazing due to his aesthetic mindedness and specifically singled out his scene in Lulu as Jack the Ripper, stating that Borowczyk took an unusual amount of time in getting the position of the hat Kier was wearing in the scene just right. Interestingly, Kier also reminisces about Borowczyk wanting him to play the role of the infamous French child murderer and compadre of Joan of Arc, Gilles de Rais in a film centering around his trial although the film never came to fruition. Just one of several projects Borowczyk was unable to find support for in the 80’s. Lulu however did get made and again, the film may be one of Borowczyk’s most ignored but the films visual design along with Borowczyk’s approach to Wedekind’s plays and the instances of Boro’s odd humor make Lulu well worth the time for Borowczyk fans.

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