WALERIAN BOROWCZYK’S LA BÊTE
Feb. 3, 2006, saw the loss of filmmaker Walerian Borowczyk to congestive heart failure at age 82. If this sad event went by without much fuss outside of certain art-film circles, it comes as no surprise given his outsider status and a world ill prepared for his sublime excesses. Misunderstood and wickedly subversive, he inhabited a unique place among the likes of Buñuel and Fassbinder, often dividing critics on the merits of his work. A hero and trailblazer to many, he was also accused of selling out to pornography by those unable to reconcile the artistry of his later work with its explicit themes. With a career spanning 40 films and a number of genres, Borowczyk would often find himself under fire for his unconventional obsessions.
Long known as a brilliant surrealist painter and sculptor in his homeland of Poland, Borowczyk first gained worldwide recognition in the late ’50s and early ’60s for his bizarre animation shorts like Dom (1958) and Renaissance (1963), inspirations for later visionaries like the Brothers Quay and Terry Gilliam. Darkly humorous and dreamlike, his early work was instantly an international film festival sensation, garnering several prestigious awards. He followed in ’69 with his first live-action feature, and the promise of his shorts seemed to come to fruition: Goto — Island of Love is a B&W surreal fairy tale that recalls the early David Lynch. Garnering much praise for its unique visuals and its portrayal of a doomed fascist regime, it nonetheless went unseen by the masses.
Paradoxically, it was with his first bona fide box office success, 1973’s Immoral Tales, that the press turned on him. The former critic’s darling was now taken to task for his lush, unashamedly erotic imagery and branded a pornographer. Undaunted, he went on to complete his most infamous work, La Bête, a reworking of Beauty and the Beast that skewered the cultural mores of the day and made a pointed jab at the Catholic church. Its portrayal of male sexuality and ego gone mad as a feral, semen-spurting beast that ravaged young virgins made it a scandal at the Cannes film festival, where no one got the joke.
With all the brouhaha, it’s easy to forget just how refined and visionary Borowczyk was. An artist obsessed with detail and setup, he approached live-action film much like animation, lighting inanimate objects until they seem imbued with a life of their own. Antique furniture and insects, baroque classical stylings all helped create a world and style that is at once surreal and dreamlike, uniquely Borowczyk’s own. Ever the keen-eyed satirist, he spared no one with his spot-on political diatribes, ruminations on class warfare, and criticism of church hypocrisy. He was a transgressor way before it was fashionable, his sometimes shocking visions gaining him a notoriety that would hinder his career more than help it.
As is often the case, the timing of his passing couldn’t be more bittersweet. The Annecy Museum in France recently presented “Walerian Borowczyk, the Orchestrating Angel,” an extensive exhibition of his work, ranging from animation to watercolors and collages. Cult Video has released The Films of Walerian Borowczyk, a beautiful three-film box set, each title from a different point in his ever-evolving style: Goto, La Bête and his final feature, a haunting meditation on desire called Cérémonie d’amour (Love Rites).
Although today Borowczyk remains something of a lost filmmaker, with prints of some of his best work hard to find and largely unscreened, his reputation may be on the verge of change. The time seems ripe for a reevaluation of his sadly underappreciated body of work, and recognition for a man who was at once both genius and madman. His death leaves a gaping hole in film that the empty shocks of Catherine Breillat and Gaspar Noé won’t soon fill. In fact, we may never see his kind again.