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.