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Director: Walerian Borowczyk
Writers: Walerian Borowczyk
Cast: Udo Kier, Marina Piero, and Patrick Magee
Length: 92 min
Label: Arrow Film and Video
Release Date: May 12, 2015
Video codec: MPEG-4 AVC
Aspect Ratio: 1.66:1
Audio: English: PCM 1.0, French: PCM 1.0
- Introduction by critic Michael Brooke
- Audio commentary featuring archival interviews with Walerian Borowczyk, Udo Kier, Marina Pierro and producer Robert Kuperberg, and new interviews with cinematographer Noël Véry, editor Khadicha Bariha, assistant Michael Levy and filmmaker Noël Simsolo, moderated by Daniel Bird
- Interviews with Udo Kier, Marina Pierro, Alessio Pierro, Sarah Mallison
- Himorogi (2012), a short film/homage to Borowczyk by Marina and Alessio Pierro
- Video essay by Adrian Martin and Cristina Alvarez Lopez
- Eyes That Listen, a featurette on Borowczyk’s collaborations with electro-acoustic composer Bernard Parmegiani
- Jouet Jouyeux (1979), a short film by Borowczyk based on Charles-Émile Reynaud’s praxinoscope, with Introduction by production assistant Sarah Mallinson
- Returning to Méliès: Borowczyk and Early Cinema, a featurette by Daniel Bird
- Theatrical Trailer with optional commentary by editor Khadicha Bariha
It’s been a very good year for Walerian Borowczyk, the late Polish animator, sculptor, and filmmaker whose work until recently went largely unnoticed in the English speaking world. His most widely known — and notorious — film was 1975’s The Beast, expanded from a short that was originally intended for but left out of his anthology project Immoral Tales from the year before. Daniel Bird’s liner notes for the 2004 Cult Epics 3-disc DVD of The Beast helped to contextualize the film within Borowczyk’s career, but as an artist and filmmaker, he remained marginalized by the majority, who regarded his few available films as little more than well-photographed Eurosleaze; the more generous among critics would simply bemoan the creative arc of the once-gifted animator who regressed into sensational erotica to pay the rent. Bird — who has similarly been working to restore the legacy another Polish émigré filmmaker, Andrzej Zulawski — is largely to thank for the critical reappraisal of Borowczyk’s work currently underway. He, along with Arrow films, has spearheaded the restoration of many of Borowczyk’s features and shorts, an ongoing enterprise which has resulted in the exemplary box set Camera Obscura: the Walerian Borowczyk Collection and a recent retrospective at Lincoln Center entitled Obscure Pleasures which also featured a selection of his early graphic work. Now, Bird and Arrow have reteamed to release The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne, one of Borowczyk’s best and most entertaining films, in a stunning new transfer which is sure to satisfy Boro devotees.
Having already tackled Dracula and Dr. Frankenstein for Paul Morrissey (and, briefly and obliquely, Jack the Ripper in Borowczyk’s Lulu), Udo Kier here inhabits yet another iconic role as the titular Dr. Jekyll. Borowczyk stages all of the action over the course of a single night, as a series of murders upset a dinner party held in honor of the recently engaged Henry Jekyll and Fanny Osbourne (Marina Pierro). The broad strokes of Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella remain — the chemist who creates and consumes a potion which physically transforms him into the repulsive and violent Edward Hyde (Gérard Zalcberg) — but Borowczyk introduces a psychosexual element absent in the original text. Stevenson’s story has always been acknowledged as addressing dissociative personality disorder, and using the Hyde/Jekyll dichotomy to explore the warring urges that Freud would later define as id and super-ego. In Borowczyk’s adaptation, however, all of Hyde’s transgressions are depicted as acts of sexual aggression, as murder-rapes perpetrated against all proximal bodies. Perhaps owing to the theories of Wilhelm Reich, as much as to those of Freud, Borowczyk’s Dr. Jekyll is thus not only an exploration of the self-censorship an individual conducts in order to coexist within civilization, but also an indictment of the sexual repression enforced by a conservative society and the violent urges such stifling may stir.Borowczyk has said that what interested him in the project was the novella’s curious lack of female characters and, stemming from that lack, of sexuality. His film can subsequently be understood through the addition of the Fanny Osbourne character (who shares her name with the wife of Robert Louis Stevenson). By setting the film on the evening of Jekyll and Fanny’s engagement party, Hyde’s actions can be read as a rebellion against the constrictions of polite society, marriage included. As in Stevenson’s story, Jekyll rewrites his will, leaving all of his estate to Mr. Hyde, but the implication in the film is that Jekyll, knowing that he has exhausted his supply of the solicor that reverts him back from the brink of madness, wishes to willingly be reborn as the sum total of his id, leaving behind all traces of his former self. The allusion to a birth is compounded by the manner in which Borowczyk stages the transformation sequences; rather than simply imbibe a potion, Jekyll submerges himself nude in a bathtub of the elixir, emerging from the sanguine liquid as the devious Mr. Hyde. When Fanny witnesses her betrothed’s transformation, her fear and confusion are quickly offset by a wish to follow him into unbridled desire. As Hyde, he tells Fanny that he wishes only to kill her, but when Fanny and Jekyll both submerge themselves in the bath, they become bound in their shared lust; after Fanny acts out her own Electra complex upon her unsuspecting mother, she and Jekyll/Hyde shuttle off not as Bonnie and Clyde, committing murders as a proxy for their frustrated ardor, but rather fully engulfed in one another, backs literally and figuratively to the outside world, consummating their most basic carnal desires. As the film’s majestic final sequence unfurls, we wonder: is unchecked pleasure-seeking a noxious and contagious force of evil? Or is true love a mutual admission, acceptance, and celebration of those unvarnished desires which society would forbid us? Borowczyk’s film resists easy moralization; it is rather a Freudian parable, sumptuous and harrowing, which raises more questions than it answers. Lurid, carnal, and hyper-sexualized, it feels more like a voyeuristic peek into a forbidden and unfamiliar palace of passage, a sensation heightened by handheld cinematography that always seems to be peering around a corner or through a keyhole. As an adaptation of Stevenson, it is utterly unlike any other; as a Borowczyk film, it is both singular and yet unmistakably his; and as baroque entertainment, it is simply outstanding.
Part of the reason for the scarcity of Borowczyk’s films had been the late filmmaker’s own dissatisfaction with the condition of available prints. As with the films included in the Camera Obscura box set, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne has undergone a 2K digital restoration from the original negative with cinematographer Noël Véry’s direct involvement. The image is rich and sharp, with fine grain structure and colors well rendered. It should be noted, however, that Borowczyk and Véry shot the film with telephoto lenses, high diffusion, and a limited color palette, the result of which is an image that is frequently flat and soft with significant haloing around brighter surfaces; this should be understood as intentional, and not a defect of the transfer, which likely represents the best this film has ever looked.
Arrow has included both the French language track and the English dub. Both are presented in mono, with good balance among the dialogue, sound effects, and Bernard Parmegiani’s superb synthesizer score. Much of the dialogue in both versions is ADR’d, owing to an international cast which was speaking several different languages simultaneously on set, so lips and voices are frequently out of sync with one another. Though the French track is overall the better of the two, with stronger performances and fewer post-sync inconsistencies, the English track is worth checking out at least once just to hear Patrick Magee’s original spoken dialogue.
Anyone concerned that Arrow may have exhausted their resources on the Camera Obscura box set will be pleased to learn that the features on The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne offer an embarrassment of Boro-centric riches. There are interviews with actors Udo Kier and Marina Pierro, as well as Pierro’s son Alessio, which total more than forty minutes and offer insight into Borowczyk’s methods both on and off set. A recently rediscovered short film by Borowczyk, Happy Toy (1979), is slight but entertaining, highlighting the filmmaker’s interest in early- and pre-cinematic forms. Himorogi is a sixteen minute film directed by Marina and Alessio Pierro which reconfigures props and stylistic tropes from Borowczyk’s filmography; its most striking feature is the score by Bernard Parmegiani, who also composed the soundtrack for Jekyll. An appreciation by film critic Michael Brooke runs thirty three minutes and provides a succinct overview of Borowczyk’s life and career, as well as demonstrating the influence of the Surrealists on his work and situating his films with those of Radley Metzger, Russ Meyer, and other such mavericks whose frank treatment of sexuality and cultural taboos was enabled by the artistic climate of the 1970s (and whose careers similarly shriveled in the 1980s). Adrian Martin and Cristina Álvarez López view Jekyll through a feminist lens in “Phantasmagoria of the Interior”, a fourteen minute video essay which uses the Vermeer painting featured prominently in the film as a jumping off point to explore how Borowczyk’s framing and set design encourage a gendered reading of the narrative and its attendant power dynamics. Two short documentaries by Daniel Bird highlight the music of Bernard Parmegiani (“Eyes that Listen”, ten minutes) and the influence of the early legerdemain films on Borowczyk’s aesthetic (“Return to Méliès: Boro and Early Cinema”, seven minutes).The theatrical trailer includes several audio options, including a commentary by editor Khadicha Bariha who explains how Borowczyk would take photographs of the rushes to use for promotional materials like posters and trailers, which he would usually design and edit himself. Rounding out the set is a commentary spliced together from new interviews with Bariha, cinematographer Noël Véry, assistant Michael Levy, and filmmaker Noël Simsolo; as well as an interview with Borowczyk from 1981 (in which he notably praises the films A Clockwork Orange and Alien) and some contextualizing remarks from Bird.
With an obvious appeal for fans of horror, eurotrash, art cinema, and exploitation, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne is an excellent entry point for a Borowczyk novice, while those who are already fans should need no convincing — Jekyll is Boro’s final masterpiece before a decade of diminishing returns and dwindling renown which so tainted his reputation that it is only now, three decades later, that Borowczyk’s filmography is finally getting the respect it deserves. The beautiful restoration and bounty of features make Arrow’s new blu-ray an essential release.