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Walerian Borowzcyk

Perversions of Mise-en-Scene     


At one stage in the interview that accompanies Walerian Borowczyk’s The Story of a Sin on DVD, the belligerent interviewer insists the Polish filmmaker is a pervert. After some circuitous and not always convincing argumentation, Borowczyk insists he’s not. Let us suggest however that actually he is, and see this not as a cause for condemnation, but instead affectionate celebration. For if we propose that the difference between, say, a voyeur and a pervert lies in the difference between observing a mise-en-scene and creating one, then Borowczyk is a pervert rather than a voyeur. His originality lies in his very ‘pervertedness’ if we agree that the voyeur is someone who accepts the material in front of him and who becomes excited by it, while the pervert wants to generate his own sexual world. More than just about any other filmmaker of the erotic, Borowczyk creates a sexual universe from his own imagination.

This sexual imaginativeness may stem partially from Borowczyk’s career origins: he was originally an animator, and didn’t move into making live action work until the mid-sixties, eight or so years after debuting in animation. As a number of critics have noted, subjects and objects seem to have equal weight in Borowczyk: Cathal Tohill and Pete Tombs note in Immoral Tales, “he directs from a very precise script and chooses very carefully all the objects that feature in the frame, giving the same weight to everything that appears on the screen – whether it’s an actor’s body or an inanimate object.”  This has led others, like David Thompson, who has written usefully on the director in both Sight and Sound and Film Comment, to wonder whether if “objects become living matter for Borowczyk, does that mean people become objectified by his camera?”

It is a comment that probably needs to be understood in relation to his particularly perverted sense of mise-en-scene. Where as we’ve suggested a voyeur accepts the surprise element of what he happens to see; will a ‘pervert’ want to generate his own world? One of the classic examples of voyeurism, and well utilised in anything from Rear Window to A Short Film About Love, is of somebody who happens to watch events taking place in an apartment across the way. Part of the pleasure in the watching lies in the relative helplessness of the viewer in relation to the events viewed. What’s important is what the voyeur sees in relation to the contingent events. If the space is too elaborately sexually arranged, it misses that sense of serendipity: it loses the capacity to feel like a lucky accident of casual viewing turned into desirous gazing. If at any moment the curtains could be closed, the sexual pleasure curtailed, then we must accept much of the pleasure resides in the little the viewer sees in relation to the possibility of what they will no longer see, and we’re to assume this sexual pleasure lies not in the mise-en-scene, but in the specifics of the sexual allure: the body’s form. So often in pornography there is basically an absence of mise-en-scene, so that when Yann Lardeau in an article many years ago in Cahiers du cinema, called ‘Cold Sex’, suggested pornographic film was a cinema of the close-up, was it because it had taken off from the contingency of voyeurism but removed the contingency and upped the explicit? It is as if it has dulled voyeurism by making it only about the body within the frame, even though we know it’s staged, and that because it’s been staged – unlike serendipitous voyeurism – we have plenty of time to focus on the surrounding space. It is as though the purpose of Borowczyk’s work is to explore as readily the medium long shot, a shot where the pornographic gives way to the erotic, and the explicit gives way to the implicit. If subjects and objects have equal validity, it is partly because Borowczyk sexualises not just the body at its centre, but also the imagery on its apparent periphery: he finds objective correlatives for sexual desire.

Thus his equivalence of subjects and objects isn’t to undermine the human; not at all, it is instead to give to the human not the anatomical specifics of pornography, but the fetishistic possibilities of subjectivity. In ‘The Sexual Aberrations’, Freud talks about examples where “the normal sexual object is replaced by another which bears some relation to it, but it is entirely unsuited to serve the normal sexual aim.” Borowczyk’s fetishism often meets with his pervertedness, and so whether it’s a bed-board being utilised in The Beast, eggs in the The Streetwalker, or petals in a number of his films, including The Beast, The Streetwalker and The Story of Sin, it is as though Borowczyk wants to personalise the sexual imagination by generating festishistic, perverted moments. When he suggests in that circuitous argumentation on the DVD mentioned above, that we should not confuse the client with the prostitute, when he defends himself against attacks that he’s a pervert, then he seems to be defending himself with the argument of the pornographer – as if he is some impersonal purveyor of extreme images that the public just happens to lap up; and that he can consequently make a living out of their voyeurism. But doesn’t Borowczyk have a famously impressive collection of erotica, explored in his own Une collection particulière, and isn’t much of his own work an extension of the erotic possibilities of art? To defend himself from attacks by talking about the consumer over the creator is actually to do a disservice to his own work. Where pornography has no equivalence of subjects and objects, with objects usually mere background props to the sexual scene, what is often so fascinating about Borowczyk’s work is, as we’ve suggested, the degree to which he makes sexual moments singular by utilising the surrounding, apparently un-sexual space. Think of the fellatio scene on the beach in the opening segment of Immoral Tales, where the waves come lapping in, or the moment where the aroused Marina Piero in Behind Convent walls presses her hands against a statue of Mary with a crown of thorns, and claims she now has Jesus’s wounds.     

There is an interesting passage from fellow Pole Witold Gombrowicz’s diary where the writer suggests “I do not believe in a non-erotic philosophy”, and goes on to say that “it’s hard to believe that Hegel’s Science of Logic and Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason could have been conceived if their authors had not kept a certain distance from their bodies.” When he insists “the artist must plunge the philosopher into enchantment, charm and grace” we could almost say that Borowczyk would say the same of the pornographer: that there are more similarities between the philosopher and the pornographer than there are between the pornographer and the eroticist. It’s as though pornography comes out of some Protestant minimalism, and the erotic out of Catholic permeation: just as Catholicism finds much of its religiosity out of the many icons and mosaics it deploys, eroticism does likewise.

But it is through the erotic in Borowczyk that the purposeful simultaneously reveals itself and destroys itself. This is certainly the case in what Tombs and Cathal believe is the director’s least interesting film, The Streetwalker, but what is in some way his most ambitious. Here Joe Dallesdandro’s central character insists to his wife as they make love in their rural house that he’ll always be faithful, before he goes off to work in Paris and becomes involved with a prostitute. One morning while in Paris he goes to pick up his mail and there is a letter telling him his wife has died – and also his son, though the director curiously withholds the information about his son’s death until near the end of the film. As he reads the letter we have the maid’s voiceover saying that his wife ran to a tower and jumped, but we don’t know why she jumped. At this stage of the film two questions are forced upon the viewer: why did she jump and why, afterwards, doesn’t he return promptly to his young son? David Mamet’s insistence that the audience will believe anything they’ve been given no reason to disbelieve is interestingly inverted here by Borowzcyk, and he leaves the two questions to dangle until the end of the film, consequently creating not so much suspense in the narratively predictable sense of the term – where the audience is less disbelieving than merely waiting for the resolution of the puzzle – but almost belief in the ontological sense. The audience really does feel it has a choice to stay or go, because the film seems to have deserted plot and psycho-logic. While the Mametian viewer would give up on the film, perhaps the spiritual viewer, aligned to a certain sexual curiosity, would stay in their place. Why we might ask does Dallesandro continue his affair with Sylvia Kristel’s prostitute, why does he wander around the streets of Paris so astutely captured by Borowczyk in almost documentary fashion as we see the city looking like a building site during the end of the Pompidou years? It is as though the director wants not for the viewer to wonder what will happen next, but how does this man feel, just as in the films numerous sex scenes the film asks not what pleasures is this man seeking, so much as what state of mind is he in before and after the letter. In each instance, before and after the letter, he seems lonely but we may notice these are rather different shades of loneliness. Can we assume that every time he enters the hotel room with Kristel his purpose is always the same? Here Borowczyk manages to turn the sexual act into a decidedly ambivalent emotional problem.

Borowczyk is here creating a kind of cinema that is nothing if not consistent with the claims of Gombrowicz – as if Borowczyk wants to create the same sort of crisis in plot logic that Gombrowicz demands of philosophy. When an ageing character in Pornogrofia says “it is youth that has far greater intuition for these things than the age of maturity; in a way they were professionals, they possessed the infallible instinct of their premature flesh, their premature blood, their premature tastes. I was the bungler of the piece, not they”, it is consistent with the sort of physio-logic Borowczyk seems to demand in his work. It is more important that we see Dallesandro’s pain through the flesh of his confused desire rather than through the demands of his reasoning faculties. Consequently Borowczyk is part of a move in cinema, and erotic cinema specifically, that would seem to ask: what can the body think?

Now in this sense when Gombrowicz invokes the limitations of Kant and Hegel, we might push this further into the limitations of the pornographic, which seems almost like the flipside of the Kantian problematic of categorical imperatives, because whether the body is absent or purely present it seems to make little difference to the existence of man. When Derrida provocatively proposes that he would have loved to know about the sex lives of certain philosophers, including Kant, is it partly because of the taboo nature of such a question? And is pornography not the flipside of the categorical, rational and functional human being – not at all its antithesis, but much more its deliberate underbelly? Just as man reasons and achieves, so he also fucks and sleeps and eats: he has primary needs and primary aims, but the aims are the concerns of philosophy, while the needs are the day to day reality philosophy has little occasion to concern itself with.

In a passage from The Principle of Morals, Hume quotes a Greek proverb that goes, “I hate a drinking companion who never forgets.” “The Follies”, Hume believes, “of the last debauch should be buried in eternal oblivion, in order to give full scope to the follies of the next.”  But what Borowczyk and Gombrowicz seem to propose is, if you like, a cinema and literature that demands we remember our bodies, because we are less the subject of moral reason, than the entirety of our psycho-sexual existence. In The Streetwalker it’s as if Borowczyk foregoes the sort of reasoning process beloved of Mamet that is in many ways consistent with the logic of philosophy, and pursues the psychosexual existence of his central character – a character so confused, so desirous and yet at the same time so lost, in the second half of the film, that he finds purpose only in the sexual act, not simply by escaping from his ‘real life’ through it.

How does this play out in the director’s other films, though? What about Blanche, a film with no more than a moment of nudity at the beginning, and which in many ways suggests chasteness and morality as the film’s driving forces? Here we have a king visiting, with his page, an ageing Baron with a beautiful second wife and a son about his wife’s age. The Baron suspects the lustful page of taking advantage of his wife, and as the various male characters get caught in games of posturing and self-aggrandizement, the young wife at the centre of the film proves helpless next to the projections that go on around her. As Borowczyk films the proceedings with a pre-renaissance look that denies conventional perspective, he also captures the characters in a pre-renaissance morality that leaves the woman no more than a plaything for the male ego. But is this just pre-renaissance, Borowczyk might ask? For just as in many of his films he held to the equivalence of subjects and objects in works that obviously fall outside the pre-renaissance historical period, so we might wonder whether there is a broader problem of sexuality where the woman’s needs are allowed merely as a reflection of male desire. In this sense Blanche and the contemporary though curiously anachronistic The Beast function as interesting companion pieces. Both are essentially beauty and the beast stories, with Blanche married to a man who looks three times her age, and Lucy the American heiress in The Beast lined up to marry a country bumpkin with all the social skills of a braying animal – which is after all what the character of Mathurin finally happens to be.

If in Blanche all the leading characters end up dead due to the assumptions of moral expectation, then in The Beast it lies in monetary need. The upper bourgeois French family Lucy will marry into wants her money; it is short of cash. But whether its moral demand or monetary necessity, there is still desire to keep sexuality under wraps: quite literally so in The Beast, where Mathurin’s hand is wrapped and bandaged to hide his burgeoning beastly status. This is, after all, a beastliness with a sexual edge, evidenced in two key scenes in the film where, in a movie punctuated with sex scenes in one form or another, the primitiveness of sexuality is pronounced. The first is the great opening scene where Borowzcyk captures the sounds and also the sights of a stallion impregnating a mare.  Playing up the sheer frenzied restlessness of a beast on heat, the director doesn’t just want the scene as an elaborate metaphor for man’s sexual humanity to woman, but much more for the way it captures the immediacy of desire in fundamental form. When Borowczyk suggests in the DVD interview that why do people make such an issue over sex in cinema, when there are so many others things going on, from cigarette smoking to drinking to eating “no-one makes a fuss over that”, we might reply that Borowczyk is being disingenuous but that he also has a point. Especially when sex isn’t just a primitive urge but also an imaginative possibility; evidenced in the second key sex scene in the film. Here Lucy slips into sexual reverie and imagines the former lady of the house being ravished by the beast of the title. Here imagination meets fundamentals, as there is this idea that the beast offers the sexual virility man can’t compete against: the beast produces an astonishingly copious amount of semen. What Borowcyzk does is offer sex as joyous interlude and social catastrophe, but we might wonder whether the social dangers lie in an inability to rein it in, or our refusal to give it free rein. Borowczyk explores the question, not assuming it is something to be ignored; the opposite of  Hume’s insistence that we must forget the follies of yesterday for the follies of today.

In The Story of a Sin, Borowczyk seems to offer this proposition within the context of a melodramatic morality tale. Here the central character falls in love with a married man lodging at the family home, only for numerous events to get in the way of their ever coming together. She eventually becomes a prostitute, and in the closing scene throws herself in front of her lover’s body when he’s about to be assassinated. It is often referred to as one of Borowczyk’s finest films, but it could be argued that the director is at his best with minimal plotting, as in The Streetwalker and The Beast, where the sexual aspect is at its most suggestive, and the mise-en-scene at its most perverse. In The Story of a Sin, the woman’s decline and fall resembles that of any number of other films, and it’s not so much the story that Borowczyk struggles with, so much as what he can do visually with that story. There is something so fragile about The Streetwalker, so fable-like about The Beast, and so minimalist and uneventfully absurd about Blanche, that Borowzcyk can assert himself as a sort of sexual minimalist: the pervert of his own domain.

It is partly this perversity of one’s own environment that makes Goto, Island of Love so interesting.  Like Blanche, Goto, the film that immediately preceded it, is the story of jealousy and possession on a small scale. Set on an isolated island where a prisoner falls in love with the ruler of that island, if Blanche works through pre-renaissance perspectives on love and status; Goto’s the modernist equivalent, a film where all the characters’ names begin with G and where critics have invoked Kafka’s In The Penal Colony as a reference point. In each instance, though, the films work off the importance of repressed sexuality, and this would be barely worth commenting on in itself, were it not for the images Borowczyk conjures up in relation to the situations. For example there is the memorable bricking up of the room in Blanche where the page hides. The Baron asks his young wife whether there is someone in there; she denies it and the Baron starts to brick him in. It is of course a symbol of the repressed times, but also much more. Isn’t it also as vivid an image of suppositional jealousy as film can give us, and a great scene of temper tantrum as dictatorial gesture? It is, if you like an inverted pervertedness: a scene creating not so much a mise-en-scene of perversion, the way one might ask one’s wife to dress up in a nurse’s uniform, or as a secretary, but creating a mise-en-scene of jealousy. Only a few scenes earlier the Baron’s been thanking God for his wife’s saintliness but when he believes he’s found the flipside he wants the perceived man of her dreams to suffocate in a walled up, windowless room. There is, then, a sense in much of Borowzcyk’s work of a repressed yet perverted mise-en-scene, with the characters in Blanche, The Beast and Goto, Island of Love, creating fable-like worlds that suggest oppression yet contain other characters within them who possess the need for liberation.

It is usually though not always the female characters who have this need. Richard Combs for example once talked of “Blanche’s constant flutterings, her affrighted, insubstantial presence” and sees her as “a being who is rather more than a forest creature but still only tentative in her attempts to become human…” Could we not say this of many of Borowzcyk’s female characters, as though they’re looking for an awakening that can give substance to their being? So often we see in Borowzcyk’s work ethereal characters connotatively captured in the director’s love for the diaphanous nightgown – evident for example in The Beast, the third section of Immoral Tales, The Bloodbath of Dr Jeckyll and Ceremonie d’amour. There is something as wispy about their being as there is about their clothing, and Borowcyk nevertheless at the same time doesn’t assume a basic innocence. In that third section of Immoral Tales Borowzcyk focuses upon Erzebel Bathory, a woman famous for preserving her looks by bathing in virgin blood. In The Bloodbath of Dr Jeckyll, Jeckyll’s wife turns into a woman of danger after bathing in a blood-coloured liquid; while in Ceremonie D’Amour, Marino Piero’s character at the end of the film starts to rip to shreds the aloof and haughty visitor played by Mathieu Carriere.  But femme fatale actions needn’t deny the fragility of psychological content, and if we would be hard pushed to describe Borowczyk’s women as femme fatales it lies in the difference between robustness and ethereality. The femme fatale is by no means usually a weak character, as her strengths reside in an assured, feminizing intelligence. Whether it be Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity, Rita Hayworth in The Lady from Shanghai, or even Mary Astor in The Maltese Falcon, strength of personality comes from an intelligence applied: they remain motivated. When Combs proposes that Blanche tentatively tries to become human, it is because women in Borowczyk’s women are rarely (though occasionally) motivated – they are immanent beings, trying to become flesh, blood and bone. The diaphanous nightdress isn’t just a fetish object; it also gives them a ghostly bearing. They might better be described as femme fantome, if we can say that the femme fatale is embodied and motivated; the femme fantome unmotivated and ethereal. Whether that is Blanche, Lucy in The Beast or Sylvia Kristel’s prostitute in The Streetwalker, motivation and physical embodiment would suggest too much the real world; where Borowczyk characters seem to exist in a liminal one.

It is this that may help us make sense of a work that takes off from the animated world from whence Borowczyk came, and explain how he entered a world of erotic sub-substantiality. If The Story of a Sin seems one of the directors less interesting films it’s because it tries to give substantiality in sociology and period detail, where Borowzyck’s strengths reside in their very absence. Even if we admire the vivid capturing of mid-seventies Paris in The Streetwalker, we do so not because the director locates his characters in a real, authentic world, but that the real Paris somehow brings out the semi-substantial characters. As Dallesandro wanders around Paris with the letter, he seems barely to exist in this world of cranes and bulldozers tearing the city apart around him. No, what counts in Borowzcyk is the sub-substantiality of the erotic, of the perverse as a state of intense subjectivity on the director’s part, that reveals this sub-substantiality on the character’s.

Borowzcyk captures better than almost anybody Andre Bazin’s dictum for the erotic in film. Bazin insists that of all the art forms it is in “cinema alone that we can say that eroticism is there on purpose and is a basic ingredient.” Before adding, in the article ‘Marginal Notes on Eroticism in the Cinema’, that we can also stretch the analogy between cinema and dreams, but that this connection must accept that “what we deeply desire to see on the screen…what could never be shown there. It is a mistake to equate the word dream with some anarchic freedom of the imagination.” But we might be able to accept a perverse freedom of the imagination, so that just as Bazin insists “actual sexual emotion by the performers is contradictory to the exigencies of art”, so the apparent anarchy but actual conservatism of pornography (as we shall illustrate) gives way to the perversity of eroticism. If porn is the real world that demands the evidentiality of sexual penetration and male orgasms, is the erotic the imagined world of diaphanous night dresses, petals and eroticised objects?

Thus the director gets to reveal his perversity phenomenologically.It is not especially that the material is explicit that thus makes Borowzcyk the pervert he’s so dismissively referred to as by the interviewer on the DVD of The Story of a Sin, but much more that he is essentially implicit in his revealing of the sexual imagination. It seems almost absurd now to call most pornographic filmmakers perverts; they work usually well within the norms of their chosen trade. They are professional pornographers, evidently revealed by Linda Williams in her excellent book Hard Core where she mentions the list of expectations that needs to be met by the pornographic film. She quotes Stephen Ziplow’s Film Maker’s Guide to Pornography, where Ziplow offers “a checklist of the various sexual acts that should be included in a porno, along with the best way to film them”. Williams adds “this extremely functional guide to the would-be pornographer is useful because it also goes to the heart of the genre’s conventionality.” There is nothing especially perverse, or perverted in what most porno filmmakers are doing, and there is little sense of differentiating one porno filmmaker from the other. We might propose that certain filmmakers have better production values than others, or that certain films are deliberately showing off their lack of production values to give the impression of authenticity, as we might find in gonzo porn or home-made porn.

But Borowzcyk’s purpose is to announce a sexual singularity within the erotic, so that though he occasionally shows close ups of genitalia in The Beast and in Behind Convent Walls, it’s as if what it reveals of the actress is less great than what it reveals of the filmmaker. In pornography the opposite is very much the case: it reveals everything of the performer but almost nothing of the person behind the camera. Borowczyk seems to be looking for a sexual perversity that isn’t positivist; isn’t based first and foremost on the revelation of the subject, an epistemology of explicitness consistent with Comte’s claims that true knowledge is that which can be readily verifiable, and to which porn conforms. No it is instead closer to an uncertainty principle that very much implicates the observer in what’s seen. When Borowczyk shows us the naked Sirpa Lane in The Beast, Sylvia Kristel in The Streetwalker and Marino Pierro in Behind Convent Walls, it is the moderate revealing of a naked body, and the equal revelation of the filmmaker filming it. So often Borowczyk wants to show us flesh tones caught in a certain light, as we find in the fleshy figure of Charlotte Alexandra in the second episode of Immoral Tales, or the burnished light playing off Pierro’s body in Behind Convent Walls. In recent years critics including Adrian Martin in an article called ‘The Death of Mise-en-scene’ and David Bordwell in Figures Traced in Light, have fretted over the relative death of mise-en-scene in mainstream cinema. We might suggest provocatively that this threnodic thinking could be stretched to include the way that mise-en-scene’s central presence in erotic cinema has been replaced by the close-up so central to pornographic film, as Martell proposes in his article ‘Cold Sex’. What makes the sex so cold in this cinema so devoid of mise-en-scene is that the filmmaker can film not what is possible – taking into account the dream-like aspect of eroticism proposed by Bazin – but what is actual. Borowzcyk more than any other filmmaker of the seventies, offered an erotic cinema that was warm sex, based not on clinical close-ups, but a mellifluous, dreamy and eroticised mise-en-scene that one felt incorporated one’s being into the sexual world. Gombrowicz would surely have approved.


©Tony McKibbin