Walerian Borowczyk’s Most Underrated Film
Borowczyk remains one of the least appreciated filmmakers of his era, inarguably an auteur, but one so erratic and unusual that he remains cherished only by a handful of critics for his early surrealist work and by cult movie devotees for his later, sexually-explicit films. While from the mid-seventies onward his films would range from the good (Behind Convent Walls, The Story of Sin) to the not-so-good (The Art of Love, Immoral Tales, etc), his film-making legacy rests with the bizarre La Bete, which unfortunately belongs to the latter category. However it is his early films (both animated and live action) that are undoubtedly Borowczyk’s key works – Blanche, for instance, is one of the finest films ever made, while Goto the Island of Love is almost as good – and in many ways these films set up the themes that would be prevalent throughout much of his subsequent work, most importantly that sex is constantly linked with guilt, persecution and death.
This is perhaps why La Marge is so unjustly obscure. The casting of Kristel (not to mention the film’s alternate title Emmanuelle ’77) suggests the film was tailored to appeal to the softcore market, yet the emphatically gloomy atmosphere and subject matter, which includes death, adultery and suicide, is significantly at odds with this. Compared to the other Borowczyk films of this period, with perhaps the exception of The Story of Sin, La Marge is surprisingly restrained. The film works because of its minimalism and ambiguity – the dialogue is sparse, presumably because of the actors’ inability to speak French, and their character motivation is vague to say the least. It is never made clear why Sigimond is driven to cheat on his seemingly perfect wife, though it is perhaps no coincidence that Diana more than slightly resembles her. Borowczyk as usual fills the movie with visual motifs, using reflective surfaces to signify the duality of Sigimond’s life, and lingering, unerotic shots of female genitalia to convey what is at the core of his actions and desires, and what is, in essence, being a Borowczyk film, Sigimond’s prison.
The film is beautifully photographed, full of the director’s obtuse trademark framing, and, something rather unusual for Borowczyk, features a remarkable period soundtrack, from the first Kristel/Dallesandro sex scene played out to 10CC’s I’m Not in Love to the stunning blowjob sequence set to Pink Floyd, and an incredible climax that employs Elton John’s Funeral For a Friend. While La Marge is distinctively a Borowczyk film in many respects, it also possesses a sombreness and maturity that was rare for the director, for despite the occasional surreal moment (a dwarf watching television, a hotel maid examining her breasts in the mirror, a deranged old woman watching sex through a keyhole), it is primarily a straightforward examination of two doomed characters unable to escape the prisons of their existence. Fans of the director’s early work may find the film overly conventional, while devotees of his later period may be disappointed by how restrained it is, yet La Marge is an unfairly neglected film, one of the director’s most enduring and haunting works.