Walerian Borowczyk

Art-house director whose films finally tipped over into pornography


Walerian Borowczyk, animator, film director, artist and writer: born Kwilcz, Poland 2 September 1923; married Ligia Branice; died Paris 3 February 2006.

The film director Walerian Borowczyk's rising and falling career took him from influential avant-garde animation, through acclaimed 1970s art-house erotica, to a reputation as a mere pornographer.

The son of an artist, Borowczyk was an award-winning graphic artist in Warsaw before becoming an animator, using stop motion, drawings or painting directly on to the film. He moved to Paris, where his many short films include the Bafta-nominated Dom ("The House", 1958), as well as the short Le Concert de M et Mme Kabal ("Mr and Mrs Kabal's Concert", 1962) and the full-length Le Théâtre de M et Mme Kabal (1967), in which the fearsome couple inflict increasing, macabre violence on each other. Surreal black humour and nightmarish violence also feature in Renaissance (1966), in which a series of shattered household objects reassemble themselves until the rebirth of a bomb, which blows them all apart again.

Borowczyk moved into live-action films regularly featuring his wife Ligia Branice, including the short Rosalie (1966), a monologue based on a Maupassant story about a young woman on trial for infanticide. After this came Goto, l'île d'amour (Goto, Island of Love, 1968), set in a fictional repressive state, and banned both in Communist countries and Fascist Spain, and Blanche (1971), a claustrophobic medieval story of forced seduction and suicide. These films cemented his reputation as a stylistically sensitive director, tackling difficult subjects.

His early films were object-fixated, but the four-part portmanteau Les Contes immoraux (Immoral Tales, 1974) upped the ante, overtly tackling taboos such as incest, female masturbation, sexual murder and the relationships between sex and murder and religion.

For those who hadn't yet seen it, Borowczyk's fascination with sexual and social transgression, anti-clericalism, and voyeurism and its attendant fetishisation of objects was now clear. At his best, he is able to find sensuality everywhere (he claimed that Disney's Snow White had a "stench of unsatisfied desire"), though he also met regular charges of misogyny and pornography. But he often portrayed women sympathetically as suffering at the hands of men or bravely choosing to transgress. Nevertheless, Immoral Tales was the beginning of Borowczyk's critical fall.

Immoral Tales spawned two other films. The short Une Collection particulière ("A Peculiar Collection", 1973) is a trip through the director's vintage erotica, but the feature La Bête (The Beast, 1975) became the high point of his notoriety. In retelling Beauty and the Beast, Borowczyk merges reality and fantasy in a characteristic dream-like fairytale, while unexpected comedy undercuts the eroticism: at one point the heroine escapes through a forest and has her clothes gradually ripped off by passing branches, like a sort of hardcore Benny Hill. But bestiality and the heroine's clear enjoyment of her rape meant that the film remained censored in Britain until 2001.

Borowczyk's work was increasingly difficult to place - too soft for the grindhouse, and too hard for the high street - and his films were sometimes either cut to indecipherability or had the requisite hardcore scenes inserted. Critics condemned him on the basis of these butchered prints, but meanwhile he influenced film-makers including the Brothers Quay, Terry Gilliam and Neil Jordan.

La Marge (The Streetwalker, 1976) is a story of hellish obsession, starring Joe Dallesandro and the original Emmanuelle, Sylvia Kristel, and Interno di un convento ("Behind Convent Walls", 1977) reinforced Borowczyk's reputation as a classy pornographer as he filled the screen with young women wearing little but their wimples (the notorious dildo scene was for many years cut from British prints).

Collections privées ("Private Collections", 1979) was another portmanteau film but, with other segments directed by his fellow eroticists Just Jaeklin (of Emmanuelle) and Shuji Terayama, it did not enhance Borowczyk's reputation.

Often inspired by literature, Borowczyk made loose adaptations of Wedekind (Lulu, 1980) and Stevenson (the semi-farcical Docteur Jekyll et les femmes, most luridly translated as "The Bloodbath of Dr Jekyll", 1981), as well as the Ovid-inspired Ars amandi (The Art of Love, 1983). But by now many had him down as a purveyor of upmarket exploitation. His (minimal) involvement in Emmanuelle 5 (1987) was the final insult and, while Cérémonie d'amour (Love Rites, 1988) marked a slight upturn, it was a long way from his finest work.

An episode of television erotica in 1990 was the sad end to Borowczyk's film career and he returned to painting and writing.

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