Obscure Pleasures: Walerian Borowczyk by Way of Daniel Bird

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Obscure Pleasures: Walerian Borowczyk by Way of Daniel Bird

Polish artist and filmmaker Walerian Borowczyk, who died in France in 2006, was a talented designer and illustrator who authored political cartoons and posters during the artistically fertile communist period, plus an ingenious animator who would go on to make live-action films. The eroticism of these features, many of them filmed in France, alienated some of his viewers. Borowczyk's artistic reclusiveness, and the unclassifiable nature of his work, contributed to his being forgotten in his native country. But now he's back in the spotlight, with retrospectives devoted to him recently mounted at T-Mobile Horizons in Wrocław, the Kinoteka Polish Film Festival in London, and at the Gdynia Film Festival, thanks to the efforts of filmmaker Daniel Bird, a longtime champion.

The retrospectives, which have included recent restorations, are helping to bring focus to Borowczyk's formal inventiveness in all of his films, animation and live action alike—to his refined pictorial style and his boldness in attacking cultural taboos. Violence, sex, morbidity are the hallmarks of his work, which brings him close to the master of sexual terror, Pier Paolo Pasolini. Borowczyk is also the subject of a new documentary currently in production, by Polish critic and curator, Kuba Mikurda. A new publication, Boro, L'Île d'Amour: The Films of Walerian Borowczyk, co-edited by Mikurda, Michał Oleszczyk, and Kamila Kuc, scheduled to be released in August 2015, will bring a more extensive look at Borowczyk, both individual works as well as a philosophical framework for his entire oeuvre. A new DVD/Blu-Ray set, The Camera Obscura: The Walerian Borowczyk Collection has also been released by Arrow Films, with a book of essays co-edited by Michael Brooke and Daniel Bird.

Bird has also directed a number of films devoted to Borowczyk, which help contextualize the latter as a more complete, versatile artist. Among these, the 13-minute Profligate Door: Borowczyk's Sound Sculptures, from 2014, highlights the artist's surrealist sculptures. Bird first introduces a quick sequence of various noisy apparatuses, and then focuses on an interview with curator Maurice Corbet, who activates the sound sculptures before the camera. The sculptures often contain an element of terror: An arrow dislocates when one sculpture is touched, or a sliding mechanism rattles in another and may startle an unaware spectator. The objects are a perfect introduction to Borowczyk's enduring desire to shock and to awaken one's senses. Made of wood and metal, often using crude tools, these movable contraptions are a kind of Joseph Campbell-esque cabinet of horrors: on one hand sensuous, on the other deliberately primitive and even monstrous.

There's something gothic about Borowczyk's sensibility, and his talent is at its most radiant when it combines unspeakable dread with a gallows humor, or with formal inventiveness. This comes across most beautifully in Bird's 28-minute short, also from 2014, Film Is Not a Sausage: Borowczyk and the Short Film. Borowczyk made over 30 shorts and commercials, and giving justice to all would have been an impossible, dizzying task. Instead, Bird wisely chooses a small sample, thus giving viewers just a taste of Borowczyk's profligate talents as a designer and animator. Among these, a clip from one of Borowczyk's boldest shorts, 1964's Angels Games, features what appears to be an entirely black screen, with a band of gray flickering at the bottom, or at other times dissolves into grainy strips of muted color.

But the short isn't intended as a pure abstraction. Instead, it captures the motion of a passing train, set to the music by French composer Bernard Parmegiani. “An illustration without metaphors,” Parmegiani explains in the voiceover, referring to his music's somber, illustrative effect. The film's uncompromising austerity, so rare for Borowczyk, is often read as an evocation of concentration camps. To contextualize Borowczyk's working habits and life, Film Is Not a Sausage's archival clips feature interviews with Borowczyk and his collaborators, such as producer Dominique Duvergé-Ségrétin of Pantelion Films. The interviews paint convincingly a portrait of a lone genius, for whom animation was both a respite and a gnawing psychological need. Here, we also once again encounter Borowczyk as a maker of things: of furniture, of playful cabinets that expose sexual organs, or of mysterious boxes. The objects' scarce utility is always compensated by their inventiveness, and by the maker's aim to delight.

At 63 minutes, last year's Obscure Pleasures: A Portrait of Walerian Borowczyk is the most comprehensive look at the artist's career and, at times, also the most challenging. There's much to appreciate in the documentary: Borowczyk, clearly at ease with his role as a cultural provocateur, defends himself against charges of pornography (of which he was oft accused while making erotic fiction features), by calling Disney “more pornographic.” What Borowczyk is alluding to, of course, is his vehement stance against commercial cartoons, to which he opposes his own avant-gardist ambition. The word “pornographic” thus takes on multiple meanings: as a marketing of deliberately romanticized visions of love and courtship, and as a general cheapening of viewers' sensibilities. But then again, Borowczyk seems to understand keenly that his art is for the brave, the peculiar, and the eclectic.

What galls him perhaps more than the presence of the Disney industrial machine poised to churn out semi-formulaic animations is the idea of subjugating one's wild imagination and hunger for (often naughty) play to middle-brow tastes. Borowczyk's own likings are anything but tame, and his graphic, relentless obsession with sex permeates even his earliest animated works. His outspokenness in Obscure Pleasures certainly lends the film a welcome bite, but at other times the extended interview can turn tiring, particularly when Borowczyk, at times appearing somewhat pedantic and hostile toward the interviewer, dodges the more inconvenient questions. He appears coy on his influences, deflecting questions about surrealists as well as his Polish contemporaries.

And even though his claims about Disney ring provocative enough, his unwillingness to engage more seriously the question of just why sex is so important in his fiction films proves less satisfying. It's possible that Borowczyk spent too much of his life being on the defensive, and that what we see in the interview clips is his necessity to sabotage certain pesky questions, particularly those that diverge from his art and exploit his personal life. However, to an artist who cast his wife, the gorgeous Ligia Borowczyk, in many of his films, from 1966's shuttering black-and-white short Rosalie to the erotic tales Goto, Island of Love and Blanche (from 1968 and 1971, respectively), such questions should come as no surprise.

Ultimately, while Borowczyk's fiction films could use a further, more elaborate exploration, Bird's documentaries are a welcome, much-needed introduction to this eclectic, still vastly undervalued and relatively unknown artist.

Bird's documentaries, along with his Blow Ups: Borowczyk's Works on Paper, are being shown as part of A Dazzling Imagination, part of “The Obscure Pleasures: The Films of Walerian Borowczyk” retrospective (April 2—9) at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.