Walerian Borowczyk has become largely forgotten. This is partly due to a lack of availability (though at the time of writing there are currently four discs of his films on release in the UK) but primarily because his career hit a decline in the seventies that eventually led to a stint directing Emmanuelle 5. Yet both the man himself and his career are utterly fascinating. Starting out as an animator, producing a number of classic shorts including 1963’s Renaissance, Borowczyk moved into features with the distinctive Goto, Isle of Love and his masterpiece Blanche which earned him a place on the BFI 360 Film Classics list. His works from this point onwards, however, exist in a strange critical limbo as there is much debate as to whether they are art or simply soft porn with high production values and pretensions. As a result, the likes of La Bete and Docteur Jekyll et les femmes have never moved beyond a cult audience. This particular effort, The Story of Sin, the only film Borowczyk was able to make in Poland is one of his more popular works, especially in his home country, and in many ways it makes the perfect introduction to his work. By no means an exceptional film, and certainly not the director’s best, it does however allow for a succinct demonstration of his strengths and weaknesses. Moreover, the erotic content for which Borowczyk has become best known is relatively low-key, especially in comparison to, say, Behind Convent Walls or Immoral Tales, which will perhaps make it more accessible.
As with many of Borowczyk’s films, The Story of Sin takes a woman as its main protagonist, following the transition of Eve (Grazyna Dlugolecka) from innocence to experience in turn-of-the-century Poland, primarily through her on-off relationship with one man, married anthropologist Lukasz (Jerzy Zelnick). Based on a novel by Stefan Zeromski, this journey expectedly takes in a number of events and often errs on the side of melodrama, featuring as it does poverty, prostitution and murder, an aspect which perhaps explains the film’s popularity. Yet despite being Borowczyk’s most densely plotted film, especially in comparison to its immediate follow-ups La Marge and Behind Convent Walls, the director’s response to the material is the same as always. He is not so much a storyteller as an illustrator.
Indeed, the most common criticism of animators-turned-live action directors (and Tim Burton springs to mind) is that they fail to engage with the most obvious aspects of filmmaking, namely the narrative and the actors. In Borowczyk’s case, it is difficult to escape these claims especially as his two most dramatically successful features, Goto: Isle of Love and Blanche, work because they are so intrinsically linked with the hermetic universes he is so adept at creating rather than any great storytelling prowess. Likewise, the finest performances in his films are given by those, such as the wonderful Michel Simon in Blanche, who can seamlessly blend into these worlds. With regard to The Story of Sin, neither the plotting or the acting is able to truly register when competing with the style of the director, though it is hard to ascertain whether this should be regarded as a criticism or not. Certainly, the storyline is distinctive enough that it could easily translate to a popular BBC television mini-series and none of the performances stands out as being particularly poor; indeed, Dlugolecka embodies Eve’s transition very well. Tellingly, the only actor who really makes an impression is Borowczyk himself in a bizarre cameo alongside his dragged-up director of photography, for who better to fir into a sealed-off universe than its creator.
What makes Borowczyk’s approach to filmmaking so individual and so distinct is not so much the fact that other directors don’t utilise his techniques (or at least those who operate in the mainstream of story-driven, feature-length cinema) but that very few would actually dare to. There is a tenuous connection to the syntax of the ‘Classic Hollywood’ style of filmmaking – master shot, medium shot, close-up, reverse angle etc. – but only in a subversive manner. The key to Borowczyk’s style is one of detail and exploration; his camera is more often than not guided by a need to catalogue his environs rather than any conventional narrative purpose. This no doubt explains the critical misgivings he has received as the erotic content in many of his films can often, if not always, share that sense of objectification and lack of narrative function (which perhaps, also explains why many of his films have been blighted by distributor-imposed hardcore inserts). That said, in the case of Story of Sin – despite the various stills that adorn the packaging – Borowczyk reserves his fetishistic impulses for the arcania of late nineteenth century life and the objects that people choose to hang from their walls, presenting both with utter fidelity to the period and the eye of a true enthusiast. For in a Borowczyk film, the drama is in the details.
And this is the crux, the point at which audiences become divided. The concept isn’t that uncommon in avant-garde filmmaking practices, animation or a combination of the two, but when adapted within relatively mainstream works it can prove problematic. Indeed, audiences may wish for the film to have a greater connection with the original novel, or perhaps even less in order for them to fully immerse themselves in the world of Borowczyk’s creation. Either way, this suggests that The Story of Sin has problems maintaining a balance, yet this very failing is the reason why this particular film serves as the best introduction to a very idiosyncratic filmmaker. Those who acquire a taste can move on to the richer works such as Blanche and La Bete, whilst those who do not are , at the very least, not entirely alienated.