Text and video by Violet Lucca
Explicit or not, eroticism lurks in every scene of Walerian Borowczyk’s films. Under the Polish director’s gaze, any part of the mise en scène could become an incitement to excitation: a headboard in La Bête (75), an illustration inside a book in The Story of Sin (75), the tide in Immoral Tales (74), or a collection of stones labeled with text from a pornographic novel in A Private Collection (73).
In Borowczyk’s films, everyday items are often the first stop on the protagonist’s exploration of sexual pleasure. This focus on quotidian in some ways reflects the filmmaker’s early work in animation. In stop-motion shorts like Renaissance (64), Le Phonographe (69), or Dom (House, 59), objects quite literally possess a life of their own. Single-mindedly reorganizing, destroying, or consuming their surroundings, these living antiques have an existence independent of their human caretakers.
The flat, frontal framing and static camera in these shorts recurs throughout his work. But Borowczyk carries it to the extreme in his first two all-live-action features: Goto, the Island of Love (69), a tale of punishment and lust set in a dictatorship intentionally frozen in the year 1877; and Blanche (72), a blood-soaked fable about fixating on purity, which was based on a Polish epic poem. In Blanche, many shots replicate famous medieval paintings, as an ancient baron, his son, and much younger second wife Blanche scuttle through their stultifying, barren castle. After the king and his equally horny page pay a visit, father and son take opposing views about Blanche’s honor, repeatedly staking their reputations—and futures—on it. Blanche’s gray clothing, which eerily blends into the walls, swallows her up, literally objectifying her. (In addition to Blanche’s affection, the king also wants the baron’s castle.) The film’s suddenly frenzied climax serves as a kind of sexual release: the page who precipitated their dispute is sentenced to be dragged to death by a horse, and the camera drops its exquisitely composed remove and assumes his bouncing, battered point of view. His blood flows in place of Blanche’s virginal blood, the frenzy of his death a quasi-orgasmic crescendo.
While there is point of view in Borowczyk’s work, there are never traditional shot/reverse-shot constructions that establish the kind of male gaze described by Laura Mulvey, and that typifies classical Hollywood films. The director moved onto more explicitly sexual material following the end of French state censorship in 1974, and his compositions and camera movement became freer. According to his camera operator Noel Véry, Borowczyk’s frequent impatience with setting up scenes led him to insist on nearly everything being shot handheld. Handheld shots have the potential to put the spectator more firmly inside the world of the film. Whip pans can mimic turning necks, but the shakiness of such movement can also serve as a reminder of the camera’s presence.
In La Bête, a 17th-century French countess is chased through the woods of her estate by a half-bear, half-wolf creature with a gigantic, erect phallus that’s almost constantly spewing semen. This prolonged pursuit—dreamed, or perhaps telepathically transmitted to a lovestruck American heiress engaged to the family’s ugly, horse breeding-obsessed scion—is decidedly from the countess’s perspective. The sequence unfolds like a Looney Tunes wolf cartoon gone pornographically awry: her clothing is ripped to shreds by the underbrush, and she repeatedly glances back at the beast’s member in legitimate terror. But the close-ups feel like they express her terrified and inflamed imagination more than mere point of view. When she flips her approach and successfully screws the beast until it dies, the close-ups switch to the areas of her body experiencing pleasure.
Behind Covent Walls (78) also walks the line between voyeurism and female identification. When it shows a nun who pleasures herself with a homemade dildo, Borowczyk expresses a tactile perspective rather than a visual one. The parts of the body that are sites of sensual gratification don’t exactly align with those used for voyeuristic purposes. The inclusion of this particular scene came at the insistence of Borowczyk’s producers, but it bears the filmmaker’s unnerving touch. Are these shots uncomfortable because they’re so close to what we see or feel while experiencing sex ourselves? Borowczyk’s camera catches those details of sex that we try to put out of our minds. And yet, for someone looking to get off, these images aren’t quite satisfying either.
Borowczyk’s emphasis on female desire was rare at the time of these films’ making, and it continues to be rare now. His films gain added force because they are set in past eras when expressing that desire could mean imprisonment, exile to a convent, or simply death. His female protagonists are paralyzed by society’s rules, groped and manipulated by the men (or male creatures) around them. Yet they more often than not triumph, realizing pleasure, and, in the case of Immoral Women (79), getting their revenge.
Borowczyk’s authorial intent can be hard to pinpoint, and producers often pressured him to include (or just inserted) more explicitly pornographic material, which means that any interpretation of his legacy—much like any sexual experience—is intimately subjective.