Cine Outsider header
front page     disc reviews    film reviews    articles    interviews  

Borowczyk and me
As he begins work on a series of reviews of Arrow Academy's superb Walerian Borowczyk Blu-ray releases, Slarek reflects on how little he once knew about this celebrated filmmaker and looks forward to a week immersed in his work | 31 August 2014

Until just a few years ago, I have to confess that I knew precious little about Polish filmmaker Walerian Borowczyk. I knew the name, though had no idea how to pronounce it (it's ‘Borovchik', in case you were wondering), but my exposure to his work had been extremely limited. It's hardly surprising. His early work was nigh-on impossible to track down in pre-internet days, and in his later years he found himself labelled a director of taboo busting erotic films, the sort that prudish local cinemas like ours wouldn't touch with barge pole. Or any sort of pole, as it happens.

Yet it was through these very films that I first became aware of Walerian Borowczyk. I wish I could tell you it was through reading a learned essay on his varied filmography, but it wasn't. My awakening came when I opened an issue of Films and Filming and was confronted by a large black-and-white photo of a naked and bearded man having what looked like vigorous sexual intercourse with a nun. From behind, no less. Back then, this was not the sort of thing you were used to seeing in a highbrow film mag. Or the average porn mag, if the truth be told. The image was a still from a film titled Behind Convent Walls, Borowczyk's 1978 contribution to what came to be collectively (and sometimes inaccurately) labelled the nunsploitation genre. But the manager of the local cinema was an old-school Christian who would later fly in the face of audience demand and refuse to screen Life of Brian. No way was he going to allow a film like Behind Convent Walls on a screen he had control over. It probably didn't help that the poster consisted of a nun with red painted lips sucking on her index finger. It was a similar story with Borowczyk's 1975 The Beast, another film publicised by tantalising stills but almost impossible to see, largely because it was banned by pretty much every council in the land.

The first Borowczyk film I actually saw was the 1972 Blanche. The viewing conditions were far from ideal – it screened late one night on TV and all I had to watch it was on was a 14 inch black-and-white portable television with dodgy reception. Years later I couldn't remember that much about it, save for the fact that it had made a positive impression and that much of the action was photographed head on against walls, as if the images were intended to be seen as murals that had been brought to life.

It was many years later, in 2008 to be precise, when I finally became aware of Borowczyk's early work and the standing in which it is held. I have freelance writer and regular Sight & Sound contributor Michael Brooke (who also happens to be one of the producers of Arrow Academy's delicious Borowczyk Blu-ray box set and the associated stand-alone discs) to thank for that. It was my passion for the short films of Jan Švankmajer that prompted him to suggest that I should see Borowczyk's early animated shorts. It was perhaps symptomatic of how completely Borowczyk had fallen off my radar by then that I wasn't even aware that he was once an animator. This lack of access to his films came back to haunt me when I had the chance to interview DVD and Blu-ray producer Daniel Bird about the process of restoring the films for UK cinema and Blu-ray release. One of the first things he asked me was what Borowczyk films I had seen, which prompted a rather sheepish smile and an honest response. The thing was, he wasn't in the least bit surprised, as most of these films have been effectively unavailable for many years now due to the poor condition of the available prints.

With all of the discussion that I have been privy to about Borowczyk and his films over the course of the past six months, I've been eagerly awaiting the results of the meticulous restoration work, aware that I, like many others, was going to be privileged to see most of these films for the very first time in near pristine condition. And having reported on the process at an early stage, I felt it was important that we review the discs themselves. And herein lies a task. There are five stand-alone Blu-ray releases, each containing a feature film and a solid collection of extra features. As you're probably aware by now, our reviews tend to be (perhaps overly) detailed and cannot be thrown together in an afternoon, and all five of these discs will be released precisely one week from now. And I do have a day job, one that tends to swallow a lot of my time. But I've made the decision that this week Borowcyzk is all I'll be watching and writing about, and if I can't nail all five discs by next Monday, then the remainder will follow in the next few days. At least that's the plan.

I'm also aware that, like a fair few other online reviewers, I'm coming to the set as a virtual Borowczyk virgin, with only the faded memory of a long ago late night screening of one of his films to draw on. My intention is to work through the discs in the chronological order of the main features, but this meant kicking off with Walerian Borowczyk Short Films and Animation, and there is just so much on this amazing disc. On top of that, the main feature, Theatre of Mr and Mrs Kabal, really made my head spin. But I hope to post the review tomorrow, and as a taster I will assure you that the contents of the disc were an absolute revelation, an astonishing collection of cinematic gems, several of which are touched by genius and all boasting gorgeously restored picture and sound. And they're not alone. A quick glance though all five discs in the collection has me left slack-jawed with amazement at the quality of the restorations across the board.

And so my week of wall-to-wall Borowczyk begins. It promises to be a rather thrilling voyage of discovery, and I can only hope that the hard work of those behind this glorious collection – including Daniel Bird, Michael Brooke, and film restoration gurus James White and David Mackenzie – is rewarded by a triggering a wider appreciation of this too often forgotten master of world cinema.