Polish animator-cum-soft porn director Walerian Borowczyk resuscitates a question posed by a key New York film critic in the early '70s: "If an acclaimed director such as Jean Vigo or Andrzej Munk dies young, is the loss as great when a four-star filmmaker goes on to helm some of the world's poorest motion pictures?" Suffice it to say that rarely has the cinematic community seen a bona fide artist launch his career with such brilliant promise and tumble as dramatically off the slopes as Walerian Borowczyk did during his last few decades, leading one to wonder if, perhaps, he shouldn't have bowed out of the cinematic realm years prior in life.
The Kwilcz-born surrealist catalyzed his career in the '50s and '60s, with subtly erotic, witty, and subversive animated shorts, their style utterly unlike anything seen up through that time. Highlights include Les Astronautes, a satire of space exploration co-authored with Chris Marker, which exudes a zesty slapstick sensibility, and the famous Théâtre de M. et Mme. Kabal (1967). The latter concerns an ever-bickering animated married couple. Borowczyk toys with his characters, constantly altering the head of Madame Kabal by replacing it with insane objects such as a bomb and the head of La Gioconda; later, the director enters the film and is nearly seduced by the bitchy cartoon housewife in her husband's absence. In many ways and on many levels, the nutty, free-for-all surrealism of Kabal anticipated the work of Bill Plympton by several decades.
Many additional shorts by Borowczyk, though equally inspired and intelligent, wax pessimistic and cynical, and unveil a dark, almost demonic, glimpse of the world gone awry. Les Jeux des Anges (1964), the best known, ekes out a vision of hell on earth; it features a monstrous and macabre trip to a prison camp where angels of death gun down and slice up corpses, accompanied by a soundtrack of ecclesiastical music. The dynamic 1966 short Rosalie (which Borowczyk adapted from a story by Guy de Maupassant) combines live action and stop-motion animation, and reveals the delight that Borowczyk took in toying with an audience. It dramatizes the title character's in-court confession of a back-alley abortion, while the camera lingers, voyeuristically and fetishistically, over the tools implicated in this crime. Borowczyk (and the lead actress, Ligia Branice -- who would become the director's wife) succeed, astonishingly, in enabling the audience to empathize with the girl. So persuasive is she that viewers invariably find themselves defending her crime in their minds and hearts, before Borowczyk suggests that the entire confession is a delusional invention. The filmmaker has thus revealed (with malevolent giddiness) his own ability to manipulatively shift the viewer's sense of right and wrong.
The director segued smoothly into live-action features with the 1968 Goto, l'Ile d'Amour, a gritty sexual allegory set in an island penal colony, and the 1971 Blanche, the story of a nobleman who shuts his wife up in a castle tower. With Blanche, Borowczyk impressively captures the look, cinematographically, of a 13th century medieval tapestry. Both earned broad critical adulation; reviewers perceived, in these titles, the same childlike machinations, demonic invention, and stunning intelligence of the early animated shorts.
Borowczyk's critical response (and quality) flagged just a bit with the issue of the 1974 Immoral Tales (Contes Immoraux), a French film a sketch, with four episodes (all directed by Borowczyk) on historical perversion through the ages. The effort has its defenders (Tom Milne praised it as "an iconography of perverted desires") and its detractors; most tagged it as uneven, but viewers poured in, in droves, and turned it into the second biggest French box-office smash of 1974. The 1975 effort La Bête (The Beast, which Borowczyk originally wanted to use as a fifth segment in Contes Immoraux) appalled more conservative viewers and critics (and even a few more progressive critics), with its lewd and crass depiction of a hairy, gorilla-like creature's attempt to rape a young woman. As the beast lumbers through the woods toward his prey, with outstretched arms and a massive, constantly visible erection, Borowczyk exaggerates the visual indications of "an animal in heat" (and the creature's desire to impregnate the woman) to the point of comic grotesquerie. Dzieje Grzechu (Story of a Sin) proved less controversial, and mirrored the same year's Truffaut effort, L'Histoire d'Adèle H., with its similar period tale of a young woman in pursuit of a not-completely-reciprocal romance with an older man; critics adored it.
Dzieje Grzechu marked one of the final occasions that Borowczyk tackled material less than completely sexual; his subsequent efforts, from 1978's Interno di un Convento to 1981's Docteur Jekyll et les Femmes, descended, by all accounts, into lurid, violent, and misogynistic softcore porn. The writing was on the wall as early as Contes Immoraux -- in which Borowczyk's camera lingers uncomfortably on the breasts and rears of his actresses -- but whereas this and other early features of his are often erotic and witty, and bear a thoroughly intelligent subtext, critics branded the later films, quite rightly, as empty-headed and exploitative.
Borowczyk turned out his next-to-last movie, Emmanuelle 5, in 1987. It represented a nadir to end all nadirs for a filmmaker who opened his career with such a passionate display of intelligence. His final cinematic effort, the 1989 feature Love Rites, tells the story of a young man who picks up a seemingly normal woman, follows her home, and makes love to her. Following intercourse, she suddenly displays monstrous, razor-tipped claws and emasculates her bedmate. Needless to say, critics ignored this effort as well. Walerian Borowczyk wrapped his career in the late '90s, with some minor work in European television, and spent his final years in a period of inactivity. He died of heart failure on February 2, 2006.