The Strange Case of Walerian Borowczyk

Walerian Borowczyk in Théâtre de Monsieur & Madame Kabal (1967)
Walerian Borowczyk in Théâtre de Monsieur & Madame Kabal (1967)

If one is to believe the received wisdom about the career of director Walerian Borowczyk, then it might seem fitting that he would have sought to adapt Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. After all, the typical critical narrative – that of a once-great animator and filmmaker who transformed himself into a purveyor of high-class sleaze, his early talent quickly disintegrating in favour of prurience and depravity – might suggest something of the Jekyll and Hyde about the man himself.

If one plots linearly from his early, award-winning animated films of the 1950s and ’60s through to softcore Euro-sleaze like Emmanuelle 5 (1986), the juxtaposition of these two sides of the Borowczykian coin might indeed seem difficult to reconcile as emerging from the same artistic vision. How did, say, the mischievous, imaginative whimsy of Les astronautes (1959) bear any relation to the wildly-ejaculating monster of La Bête (1975), or the sight in Contes immoraux (1974) of a naked young woman experiencing her first pangs of sexual pleasure from both religious paraphernalia and a cucumber?

On closer inspection Borowczyk’s transition from découpage to décolletage was, as one might expect, not as clear-cut as this, and there certainly bears in his early work distinct traces of what was to come. Take, for example, his début feature, the animated Théâtre de Monsieur & Madame Kabal (1967) and Madame Kabal’s disproportionately enlarged bosom, or her husband’s repeated peering through binoculars to cuts to live-action shots of a lecherous old man waylaying a succession of nubile women in varying degrees of undress. Even the relatively stately, chaste world of Blanche (1972) is one whose atmosphere is permeated with lecherousness and lust-driven violence.

Blanche (1972)
Ligia Branice in Blanche (1972)

It is worth noting that publicity materials for Boro’s debut live-action film Goto, Island of Love (1968) elected to place emphasis on the film’s brief nude bathing scene as a means of selling it to audiences, since his shift towards exploitation was in no small part down to the influence of others, as well as contextually part of wider shifts in the film industry in his adoptive homeland of France. A relaxation in censorship laws in the early 1970s, accelerated by the election in 1974 of President Giscard, had led to an explosion in the distribution, exhibition and dissemination of pornographic material in the country, the adult market eventually accounting for more than 10% of all box office takings nationwide.

Neither Borowczyk’s short films nor his features had been financially profitable, and it had been at the behest of producer Anatole Dauman, who in the 1960s had bankrolled the august likes of Alain Resnais, Robert Bresson and Jean-Luc Godard, that it was suggested to Borowczyk that he move into this newly lucrative market. From this emerged Contes immoraux, a portmanteau of erotically charged short films on the theme of sexual transgression which, though largely maligned by contemporary critics, found Boro his hitherto elusive favour at the box office. Jekyll had sipped the transformative serum, from which there would be no turning back.

While Borowczyk might more commonly be pegged alongside outré contemporaries such as Jesus Franco or Jean Rollin (the latter bears more of a comparison), it is instructive to consider him in the light of several other filmmakers of the period. By the time of Contes immoraux, Alain Robbe-Grillet had already carved his niche for Sadean provocations, Pier Paolo Pasolini was two films into his lascivious Trilogy of Life, Dušan Makavejev was adding sex and scatology to his trademark formal experimentalism with W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism (1971) and Sweet Movie (1974), and both Miklós Jancsó and Ōshima Nagisa were close to moving into graphic eroticism in Private Vices, Public Pleasures (1976) and In the Realm of the Senses (1976) respectively.

Marina Pierro in Interno di un convento (1978)
Marina Pierro in Interno di un convento (1978)

In this context, Borowczyk’s work in the 1970s might then seem less the product of an over-active libidinous imagination than reflective of a wider current in what one might loosely term ‘art cinema’. One might also note that much of the reputation of his work in this period owes its reputation to tactical rebranding as much as the content itself: La Marge (1976), for instance, found itself rechristened Emmanuelle ’77 on account of its star Sylvia Kristal, while Les héroïnes du mal (1979) was renamed Three Immoral Women to capitalise on the notoriety of Boro’s earlier film. Interno di un convento (1978), meanwhile, might be chided as ‘Nunsploitation‘, but it is as much part of the tradition of Black Narcissus (1947) or The Devils (1971) as much as outright exploitation as Jesús Franco’s Les Demons (1972) or Suzuki Norifumi’s School of the Holy Beast (1974).

Borowczyk’s post-La Bête work in the ’70s stemmed almost exclusively from literary sources (de Maupassant, Stendahl, Zeromski) rather than original scenarios, and following Lulu (1980) – his voluptuous take on Frank Wedekind’s Die Büchse der Pandora – he turned his attention to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The novella remains one of the most frequently-adapted works in cinema, its longevity attested to by the diversity of its transpositions, proving a platform for everything from straight horror, to comedy (Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1953)) and outright pornography (The Adult Version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1972)).

Questions of fidelity to the original source are something of a moot point given that the Jekyll and Hyde of the popular imagination is more influenced by renditions of the novella than the work itself. Nevertheless, Borowczyk’s version is faithful to Stevenson in certain respects: the pronunciation ‘jee-kill’ is a corrective to decades of its more common intonation, while elsewhere, the use of two separate actors to perform the lead dual role (the elegant Udo Kier and rather more squalid Gérard Zalcberg respectively) is in keeping with the author’s oft-ignored delineation of them as being physically distinct from each other.

Udo Kier in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Miss Osbourne (1980)
Udo Kier in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Miss Osbourne (1981)

The film’s title, however, tells us that this is something different to what we’ve already seen. Though released in France as Docteur Jekyll et les Femmes (1981), Boro’s preferred The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne (the character of Fanny Osbourne sharing the name of Stevenson’s wife) better elucidates its equal weighting to its protagonists. Indeed, when we finally witness Henry’s process of transformation in full, it is through the eyes of his onlooking fiancée, illustrating the film’s dual (or, at times, triple) spectatorial alignment.

The presence of women in any shape or form in screen adaptations of the novella is, in itself, a fabrication, since the world of the book is an exclusively male one. The lineage traces back to Thomas Russell Sullivan’s 1887 stage adaptation which introduced the saintly figure of Agnes Carew, Jekyll’s girlfriend, while the Jack the Ripper murders in London in the following year also contributed to the introduction of a tart-with-a-heart character, most vividly portrayed by Miriam Hopkins in Rouben Mamoulian’s 1931 screen adaptation. Both archetypes traditionally serve a merely symbolic function, but the presence Borowczyk’s Fanny Osbourne provides the story with a feminine emancipatory narrative trajectory, perhaps rendering it closer in spirit to Harry Kümel’s Daughters of Darkness (1971).

Marina Pierro in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Miss Osbourne (1980)
Marina Pierro in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Miss Osbourne (1981)

Structurally, the film’s first act shares certain similarities with La Bête: an engagement prompts society’s supposed great and good to gather together in a stately mansion, whereupon intrigues are set in motion, and character tensions are revealed. Once the horror kicks in, there is an increasing resemblance to the contemporary home invasion slasher movie, with guests being picked off one-by-one by an unseen assailant (whose method of suspending his victims’ bodies slyly recalls The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)), yet the sexual charge of the assaults, coupled with the evidently socially satirical subtext, also prompt comparisons with Pasolini’s Teorema (1968).

As with Pasolini, Borowczyk’s aim is squarely at the complacency, hypocrisies and barely-repressed desires of bourgeois society, each of the assembled guests representing sacred cows to be shot down: per Stevenson, there is the arch rationalist Dr. Lanyon, but also the trigger-happy General (whose use of the phrase ‘dark continent’ evidently aligns him with manichean Victorian colonialist attitudes). The figure of Reverend Donald Regan reflects the long-running strain of anti-clericism in Boro’s work, placing him not only in the tradition of Buñuel but, as the opening epigram of La Bête made clear, Voltaire too.

Patrick Magee in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Miss Osbourne (1980)
Patrick Magee in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Miss Osbourne (1981)

The period setting of the story provides another opportunity for Borowczyk to revel in his famously decorous approach to mise-en-scène; his films are notable for their equal weighting of naked bodies and inanimate objects, the latter of which in his earlier stop-motion animation work were invested with both a symbolic significance and a kind of inner life of their own. In Jekyll, it is ornate Victoriana which catches the camera’s eye, such as the antique sewing machine upon which the General’s daughter rests while offering herself to Hyde, and Jekyll’s phonograph machine, a visual reference to Boro’s own Le phonographe (1969) as well as providing a link to Thomas Edison and, hence, the birth of cinema itself.

The presence of visual art in his films come loaded with meaning too, yet while the use of symbolist painter Władysław Podkowiński’s Frenzy of Exultations in La Bête comes as a portent of the zoophiliac activities which will follow, in Jekyll the use of Vermeer’s Woman Reading a Letter of comes as a thematic counterpoint: described as “the apotheosis of all humanity” by Reverend Regan, its illustration of a socially constructed feminine ideal of spousal loyalty loads its symbolic destruction come the film’s climax with iconoclastic weight.

Jekyll Osboune

Vermeer is one reference point in the film’s look (pointedly the scene in which Hyde mischievously signs the house’s guestbook), but overall its visual strategy is distinctly its own: cinematographer Noël Véry’s deployment of diffused lighting creates a ethereal atmosphere, finding an equivalent to the fog of Stevenson’s novella in what is a mostly interior-bound setting. If Borowczyk’s earlier films were characterised by their visual flatness and relatively static framing, then the expressionistic low and high angles deployed in Jekyll, combined with use of discontinuous montage and more labyrinthine compositions all combine to abet a sense of dizzying disorientation.

Borowczyk had been a filmmaker championed by several prominent surrealists, most notably André Breton’s celebration of his “imagination fulgurante”, and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne serves as an ample illustration that, far from having become a mere smut-peddler, his later work retains the visual splendour and anarchic mischief which had seen him placed in this tradition earlier in his career. Just as Jekyll chides Lanyon for his narrow-minded materialism, the film comes as an artistic rebuff of the quotidian in favour of the fantastique, and if Boro had become, at this late stage in his career, more Hyde than Jekyll, then the former’s rebuff to Lanyon in a moment of lucidity perhaps serves both as a mea culpa and the voice of the filmmaker turning the mirror towards his audience: “I have committed crimes, true, but you commit worse atrocities in your dreams.

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne screens as part of Scalarama 2015 at Bristol’s Cube Cinema on 17 September. Details:,8080/

Gérard Zalcberg in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne (1980)
Gérard Zalcberg in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne (1981)

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