Already an accomplished artist before entering into a career in cinema, Walerian Borowczyk took to film with an expertise, maturity that it takes other filmmakers years to—if ever—achieve. As we’ve already discussed in our look at his animations and short films—many of which represent Borowczyk’s early years as a filmmaker—he was a filmmaker fixated, perhaps obsessed, with using film as a form of disseminating his brand of absurdist, politically driven humor and commentary. In this piece, we will be looking at two films that demonstrate the second phase—perhaps his most critically praised, but not his most notorious work—of Borowczyk’s career. It is thanks to Arrow Video and Daniel Bird’s combined efforts that this cross-section of Borowczyk’s evolution of film style is easily noted. Beginning with their release of the boxset Camera Obscura: The Walerian Borowczyk Collection, which features six full length films and nearly all of Borowczyk’s short films, Arrow expanded their efforts after the collection sold out in record time, offering each film as a separate Blu-Ray release. For this review, I choose to focus attention towards both the individual releases of Goto, Isle of Love and Blanche; two singularly unique films that when analyzed in juxtaposition shed an important fact about Borowczyk’s thematic and visual style.
Borowczyk has garnered a reputation as controversially explicit, even pornographic, in his willingness to present probing and graphic depictions of lust, sexuality, and nudity. What marks Goto and Blanche, however, is not explicit sexuality, nor excessive nudity, but a remarkable restraint. This is not to say that sexuality does not play an important role in both of these films, but that Borowczyk does not rely on the explicit means that two of his later films in this collection—Immoral Tales and The Beast—will encompass. It would be safe to say that if Immoral Tales and The Beast analyze unbridled sexuality, that Goto and Blanche are interested in repressed sexuality and the restriction of female desires.
His first live-action feature film, and only feature in black and white (albeit with a few color inserts), Goto emerges as one of Borowczyk’s most fascinating works. The film depicts an isolated island ran by a series of dictators all named Goto and inhabited by a populace with names that begin with G, who are forced work menial jobs. Crimes are published in a public manner, with criminals being forced to fight to the death—regardless of the severity of their crimes; the survivor is then granted immunity. For other films or works of art this type of society would probably be handled in a serious, if not horrific, manner, yet Borowczyk’s voice places him somewhere between Jonathon Swift and Terry Gilliam. Totalitarianism, death, isolation, and entrapment are handled with a farcical, satirical tone. Yet, in spite of the absurd humor, the film still manages to be a powerful indictment of authoritarian regimes. Implicit in Borowczyk’s humor is a scathing rejection of the inefficiency of totalitarianism—keep in mind Borowczyk lived under Soviet-control in his native home of Poland before emigrating to France.What connects Goto to both Borowczyk’s later—and earlier—works is his focus on sexuality. Here, as we will see with Blanche, power has inseparable connection to sexuality. The dictator Goto has a voyeuristic obsession with his wife Glossia (played by Ligia Branice). Voyeurism is a reoccurring theme for Borowczyk, as we discussed in our assessment of his animations and short films. Goto spends his days observing his wife through binoculars from his high tower. It is important to note that Goto’s voyeuristic hobby is a crime otherwise punishable by the state. Yet, in spite of his obsessive concerns, Goto is blind to her illicit affair. (For those following, it is not hard to see Borowczyk’s astute critique of hypocritical and ineffective state power). In fact, the film sets this motif up from the open. After the title credits, the first action that plays out on the screen features Glossia and her lover kissing. Borowczyk then zooms out to reveal the couple from a wider perspective. It is a shot that cannot be separated from the voyeuristic feeling it conveys, and it stands out as one of the more stylized shots in an otherwise static film. Meanwhile, Grozo—a petty thief whose life is sparred from public execution—lusts after Glossia. His rise in ranks is conjoined with his sexual desire. He forces his way up the worker hierarchy in hopes of achieving intimacy with Glossia. When he stumbles upon Glossia’s affair, he uses the information to trick Goto, who supplies Grozo with a gun and commands him to execute Glossia’s lover. Grozo, however, turns the gun on Goto, framing the death as a suicide. It is here that the film spirals from comedy to tragedy.
Imprisonment is a key theme for Goto, and perhaps the most remarkable evidence of this is implicit in Branice’s performance. Thematically speaking, Goto’s main character is Glossia, however, Borowczyk chose to feature Grozo more prominently. In this sense, the undermining of Glossia’s narrative importance is symbolic of entrapment itself. It can—with ease—be argued that the only character that embodies any sympathy is Glossia. Yet, Borowczyk blocks the viewer from too strong of an alignment with her. There are moments when we are granted glimpses into Glossia’s emotional register—notable, the long and standout close-up of Glossia’s crying after Goto, unbeknownst to him, destroys the boat she planned to escape with—but these moments are fleeting. Glossia is a prisoner of Goto (both the island and the man) as much as she is a prisoner of the film.Entrapment is further explored in the topography of the island itself. Viewers are never granted a full view of Goto’s complex; we are always located within the complex itself. At the same time that Goto (the island) is massive and immersive, it is by nature constricting. Finally, there is an uncanny focus paid towards the flytrap in the film. We will see Borowczyk’s returning to this prop-endowed-with-symbolism concept with Blanche, but for Goto the flytrap is, in a sense, a microcosm of the island and film: it is an alluring space that can be entered into but not departed from. For Borowczyk’s next film, Blanche, his tone differs greatly. While Goto oscillates between comedy and tragedy, Blanche firmly entrenches itself in tragedy—with the exception that such a stern focus on tragedy may offer some comedy. Blanche’s plot can almost be seen as a retelling of Goto, where the primary focus is paid to Glossia and the tyrannical island is substituted for an autonomous castle. Instead of Glossia restricted to throes of Goto, we have Blanche (played again by Branice) trapped in a loveless marriage to an aging and decrepit baron (Michel Simon, in one of his last roles). With attention paid primarily to Blanche, much of the absurdity of Goto’s plot is substituted for a simple trajectory of events. When a King and his page pay a visit to the castle, Blanche is caught between in a tryst of competing desires. The King, his page, the baron, and the baron’s son, Nicolas, all long for Blanche—with whom only Nicolas she returns her affections. The film plays out as a typical melodramatic tragedy: Blanche is misidentified as unfaithful—to which she is emotionally, but it is never explicit whether she has acted on her desires, although it is strongly inferred that she has not—, the Baron threatens those who pose a threat on his property (Blanche), and the film ends with the death of nearly all the involved parties. Similarly to Goto, Branice as Blanche, remains enshrouded in her wardrobe for most of the film, but the enticing aspect of the film comes with her introduction. The first glimpse of Blanche we are granted features her fully nude. The shot, however, is far from sexually voyeuristic. In fact, the removed nature in which Borowczyk frames her contradicts the sexual nature—we are transformed into self-aware peeping toms. The scene is directly followed by the dressing of Blanche, where nearly every inch of her body is covered in fabric and material. For the remainder of the film Blanche will defend her honor—remaining faithful in her loveless marriage—fighting off forward advance after forward advance. What Borowczyk is trying to convey with Blanche’s introduction is not clear, but it would seem as if he is trying to relegate the viewers to the psyche of the lustful members of the cast. We are presented with what Blanche works so hard for the remainder of the film to conceal. Blanche may not be set on an island, but it may as well be. The first shot of the film opens on an establishing shot of Blanche’s homestead, her prison. Instead of a sea surrounding her, she has an expansive forest. The castle that keeps her is enshrouded in fog, and takes on the appearance of almost fairy tale-esque proportions. Borowczyk’s fascination with entrapment, in particular female entrapment is as—if not more—prominent in Blanche than any of his other films. The prop endowed with symbolism in Blanche is the not-so-subtle caged Dove. The Dove is Blanche’s double; it is admired for its beauty but kept locked away so that it cannot escape. It represents not only the Baron’s treatment of Blanche—he spends more time accusing her of infidelity and fighting off possible suitors than he does trying to pursue a romantic relationship—, but also the King and his page’s superficial lust. The baron sees Blanche as one of his pieces of art; she is put on display for her beauty. In a telling scene, the baron admires the Dove’s beauty merely seconds before planting an awkward, uncomfortable series of kisses on Blanche. The king and the page are just as despicable, they see Blanche as meat; she is a means to their sexual ends. It is only Nicolas who seeks Blanche’s heart, and the tragedy comes from their inability to reconcile their emotions.
Both of these films feature a prominent, removed compositional style. He rarely uses inserts, or close-ups, favoring a more tableaux style long-shot format. Borowczyk’s camera keeps a distance from his characters; shooting them almost exclusively from the front, and often framing their entire bodies. He takes to the camera like a classical painter. This style effectively creates a disconnect between the viewer and the film, we are ever-aware of our voyeuristic relation to the film. Further, the repressed intimacy of both Blanche and Glossia are evident in the film’s disinterest in intimate composition.As for Arrow’s work, these films are presented with the utmost care. It is safe to say that Arrow represents the epitome of what a distributor should be. Yes, there have been a few wavering projects in the past, but few companies have as expansive a collection with as much attention paid to restoration, packaging, and the inclusion of special features. These restorations are beautiful, film grain is intact, colors are faithful, and contrast is deep. Only the most stringent of technicians out there could find anything of note to criticize. The importance of these restorations cannot be overstated; neither Goto nor Blanche have been subject to much recent critical attention. With hopes, these releases will act as catalyst to push Borowczyk into the spotlight, because his works are important and challenging representations of Cinema as political art.