Poland/Estonia | 2018 | Directed by Kuba Mirkuda
Logline: Documentary tracing the career of the acclaimed Polish animator turned arthouse eroticist.
“My fantasies are identical to the viewer’s. I only show what everybody dreams about.”
If you’ve not seen a film from this most extraordinary and important artist, Love Express is the perfect entry point. The portrait covers his early avant-garde period in Poland as an animator of short surrealist films (one is reminded of the early short works of David Lynch) and then plunges into his ex-pat career in France where he cultivated his position as one of European cinema’s most interesting agent provocateurs.
From the short films it begins in earnest with chapter one, “1968”, and the filmmaker’s first live action feature Goto, Island of Love. Throughout the documentary numerous luminaries wax lyrical, including directors Terry Gilliam, Neil Jordan, and Andrzej Wajda, also a very twitchy intellectual Slavoj Zizek, Borowczyk cinematographer Noël Véry, critics Peter Bradshaw and David Thompson, and the much needed female perspective of psychotherapist Cherry Potter, and actress Lisbeth Hummel (who starred in The Beast).
Borowczyk’s films frequently deal with the journey of love into death, a kind of libertine art that deals with desire and cruelty. In a way the viewer has to submit to his films, and many echo this position. Chapter two, “1974”, is Immoral Tales, described by the director as “a sanctuary of liberty, an island of no restrictions”. An unusual and provocative display of stylised eroticism, featuring Picasso’s adult daughter Paloma as Countess Elizabeth Bathory, the anthology was a critics’ darling, and placed Borowczyk on an enviable pedestal.
“1975” unleashed The Beast, “a film about the mechanics of dreams”. An outrageously lascivious tale of bestial pursuit, it lead to the carnal artiste being labeled a pornographer, much to his chagrin. In truth the movie is more of a farcical male-skewed fantasy than the transgressive unbridled perversion it skirts with. But I digress.
Art or porn? Poor Walerian. Stuck in a kind of pit of “reigned freedom”. Determined to continue the artful endeavours he had grown used to controlling, yet hounded by the wolves of commerce, desperate for fabric they could chew on. By the end of the 70s he had become “a confectioner of erotomaniac delicacies” as one newspaper declared. Essentially it was a short-lived era, that period of the 70s when eroticism on the big screen held court. Erotic films managed a curious bilateral existence alongside hardcore adult films, both being exhibited in cinemas, both enjoying healthy audiences of men and women. This was before the advent of the VCR and the subsequent VHS market being chosen (over Betamax) by the porn industry as the perfect private format. And so the delicate art of Walerian Borowczyk slipped away… But I digress.
Chapter four, “1976”, in which Emmanuelle herself, Sylvia Kristel, sifts with stud Joe Dallesandro in The Margin (aka The Streetwalker), arguably the two steamiest tickets in town, but the critics weren’t so hot under the collar. Was the erotic film becoming a parody of itself? Oddly, the doco then jumps to “1987” for its final chapter, which is frustrating, as it misses out Borowczyk’s brilliant and tenebrous 1981 adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne, starring Udo Kier and the sumptuous Marina Pierro. Why the doco chooses not to discuss this integral entry in the director’s oeuvre is a mystery. Instead we focus on the ragged hot mess that is Emmanuelle 5, a movie he barely directed, as he stormed off set only a day or so into shooting (the only part he claims is his work is at the beginning, the film-within-a-film, “Love Express”).
Borowczyk passed away in 2006, after completing one last feature, Love Rites, also released in 1987. He struggled to find financing for any other projects during the 90s. But truth be told, film companies and producers had shown little interest in any of his film projects unless they were sex-themed or erotically charged.
Despite the glaring omission of his Jekyll and Hyde interpretation, Love Express is essential viewing for anyone who fancies him or herself a cineaste. It quietly champions this most original of smut peddlers, if I may play Devil’s advocate. It reminds us, that in this contemporary climate of neo-conservatism, and the ever-expanding minefield of socio-politics, that freedom of artistic expression is paramount, and the sensual, sexual cinema of Walerian Borowczyk’s kind is rare ambrosia indeed.