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:

http://www.cubecinema.com/programme/event/the-strange-case-of-dr-jekyll-and-ms-osbourne,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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Le père de mes enfants [Father of My Children] (Mia Hansen-Løve, 2009, Germany/France)

Like Nanni Moretti’s Palme d’Or winning La stanza del figlio (2001), it is nigh-on impossible to come to Father of My Children without some prior knowledge of the key event which is to shape the film’s trajectory, nor is it possible to address its themes without revealing this piece of information; readers wishing to attempt to come to the film with completely fresh eyes are therefore encouraged to stop reading here. What is surprising about Mia Hansen-Løve’s film, though, is just how being in possession of the knowledge that the main character is to kill themselves matters so little to the enjoyment of, and startlement at, what is an extraordinarily confident work from this precociously gifted young writer/director.


At the film’s centre is a true-life tragedy: the suicide in 2005 of French movie producer Humbert Balsan, a man who had worked with the esteemed likes of Béla Tarr and Youssef Chahine, as well as Hansen-Løve herself in getting her first film Tout est pardonné (2007) off the ground. The inevitable question arising after such a tragedy is, simply, why? Perhaps with emotional distance it could be explained more logically as a product of Balsan’s financial and personal failures, but while Hansen-Løve’s film is inspired by these events and records such details it does not seek to arrive at any conclusions; instead her film is clearly a very personal reaction to the tragedy, seeking not to adhere to cold hard facts and the quantifiable but instead exploring the its themes and the emotional responses of those closest to him.

 

In the film Balsen is replaced with the analogous figure of Grégoire Canvel, who from the outset is portrayed as hardly a saintly figure. We are shown a man welded to his mobile phone, utterly engrossed in the wheelings and dealings for his various film projects, but to the apparent cost of those around him. Continuing to natter away even whilst dangerously negotiating narrow Paris streets in his car – at one stage even wielding two phones, Malcolm Tucker style – he is eventually, and not for the first time, hauled over and reprimanded by the police. Spending the weekend with his family at a countryside retreat, his wife despairs at the amount of time he spends away from them; all the while, we are presented with a measured, believably flawed character rather a simplistic Hollywood Bad-Dad: he is a good humoured, loving father to his three girls, even though when with them he still appears uncontrollably to be keeping one eye on his work telephone.

 

If his personal life is not in an ideal state, then neither is that of his production company, Moon Productions, owing millions in unpaid lab fees and interest on bank loans, manned with a loyal but disgruntled and overworked staff, and with its main creative project – an arthouse film by a renowned ‘difficult’ Swedish director – decidedly hitting the skids and not looking like recouping its spiralling production costs. Grégoire’s insistence on focusing on artistic merit rather than marketability is evidently praiseworthy, yet his continued damn-the-torpedoes attitude seems informed by a combination of Panglossian optimism and extreme denial, his head firmly buried in the sand in the face of the tides of debt washing over him.

 

Grégoire’s life is far from perfect, but then neither is it massively troubled, at least in melodramatic terms. So far too, the tone has been light and breezy, filled with moments of humour and observations of the small everyday joys of bringing up young children. The soundtrack, largely filled with upbeat, jaunty Jonathan Richman numbers, has thusfar been light and frivolous, hardly foretelling any darkness to come. So when, at almost exactly the film’s halfway point, the anticipated moment comes – suddenly, with little warning, even less fanfare and taking place in a single brief shot utterly devoid of glamour – the audience is in shock as much as his screen family at the relative disparity between his dramatic action and the relative inconsequentiality of his problems.

 

This point bisects the story into two clear halves, the latter refocusing the story to examine primarily the effect of his death on his wife Sylvia and eldest daughter Clémence. Inevitably the initial emotion after Grégoire’s death is one of intense grief, but the in its aftermath the narrative proceeds to take a series of unusual ellipses – we see no funeral and very little of the immediate aftermath – and instead the focus is placed on the longer-term: Sylvia resolves to finish the outstanding work at Moon Productions, seeing it as a fitting tribute to his memory, while Clémence begins to shadow her father’s former footsteps: visiting the same coffee houses and cinemas, taking an interest in the side of him she was never to know.

 

Given the film’s tragic subject matter, the emphasis on the family’s longer-term coming to terms with Grégoire’s death rather than their immediate sorrow prevents it from feeling emotionally didactic, certainly in comparison to the expectation that this will be a much more straightforwardly grief-sodden film. The focus is on dealing with mortality rather than transcending it, and by downplaying the dramatics of the situation, the film is allowed to explore much more complex and subtle emotional responses to death, owing a little to the latter half of Kurosawa Akira’s Ikiru (1952). In particular Clémence, something of a disaffected and peripheral figure in the film’s first half, suddenly comes into her own, learning about how her father lived his life, the passions he had and the flaws which he kept hidden; in doing so we see her change from a bored adolescent to the beginnings of a confident young woman.

 

In a film which is so clearly divided into two, it is inevitable to compare the differences in the halves. The score noticeably takes a turn towards the melancholy, though the use of Doris Day’s Que Sera Sera over the end credits suggests a the film is intended to be taken positively: Hansen-Løve is not suggesting a carefree, Mersault-like indifference to death but neither a triumph over it either – it is simply a fact existence and life must of course go on afterwards. Ultimately, then, this is a film about life rather than death, and by removing many of the expected melodramatic elements, the film touches on a realism, albeit a bourgeois one, more in keeping with the everyday than the hard-edged Bressonian poetic-tragedies of the Dardennes.

 

There are two brief moments of non-narrative exception, almost as if the film is taking a pause for breath. In the first half, the family embarks on a holiday to Italy, and while there one of the daughters swims in a secluded rock pool, immersing her head in the milky water before coming up for air again. In the second half, a power-cut plunges the family home into darkness, and they light candles and head out into the darkened street to see if the neighbours are similarly afflicted. In both instances time seems to stop; for their non-sequitur positioning within what is otherwise a fast-paced narrative, their presence suggests a kind-of poetry, a capturing of those unexpected moments of beauty which touch the sublime, and for which life must surely be worth living.

The film marks a watershed for director Hansen-Løve, a work of great maturity from this young writer/director of only one previous feature. The confident, subtle use of ellipsis to powerful effect only begins to slip into tell-tale youthful indiscretion in the film’s latter half where a sequence of narrative-advancing coincidences feels a little too fortuitous, but this is forgiveable when there is so much elsewhere to admire: a rich, controlled mise-en-scene, and a delicate script where small details accumulate slowly to take on greater significance. Above all, it is in the naturalism of the performances that she manages to elicit, in particular those of the young daughters, whose vibrant personalities importantly breathe sheer joie de vivre into the story, making the puzzle of their father’s death ever more poignant.

The title of the film, Father of My Children, seems initially to be viewed from the perspective of Sylvia, and yet she is by and large a passive figure for much of the story, at least one who hardly deserves to be the focus of the title. Perhaps it is to be taken less literally? In reality, Humbert Balsan was a kind-of ‘father’ to Hansen-Løve‘s first film, and in this capacity enabled her to become the filmmaker she is today. His passion for cinema encouraged and nurtured many another young filmmaker’s career, making him the father of many cinematic offspring, of which this beautiful picture is just one.

L’instinct de mort [Mesrine: Killer Instinct] (Jean-François Richet, 2008, France/Canada/Italy)

Here’s a film where the viewer is clearly drawn into complicity with a character’s on-screen misdemeanours; the first in a two-part biopic about notorious French criminal Jacques Mesrine, the relentless lightning-fast pace of Killer Instinct is only lightly abated by moments of quiet and stability, and when they do come so too quickly comes the desire to see the film return to action and violence, regardless of who is on the receiving end of it. This is a film based on real events, those shown being killed likely to be analogous to real people, and its central character, while certainly charismatic, is ultimately shown to be shallow and dislikeable – but within the confines of this thrill-ride of a film his criminal exploits make for compelling viewing.

Celebrated by some as a loveable anti-establishment rogue, the life of Jacques Mesrine points to a rather different story: a career criminal with a history of murder and armed robbery, a series of high-profile kidnappings and audacious prison breakouts saw him come to be labelled French ‘public enemy number one’. Like John Dillinger before him, with this label came an aura of outlaw-chic, and this along with a certain amount of self-aggrandizing publicity saw him achieve fame in his country’s popular presses as a kind of Robin Hood-like figure. The legend, though, bore little real resemblance to the cold-blooded reality; his mythmaking was rooted in the same kind of rose-tinted romanticism which deified common thugs like the Krays as underworld gods.

Mesrine’s martyrdom was assured when he was eventually ambushed and machine-gunned down by the police in what was widely viewed as a state-sponsored assassination, and it is this bloody demise which is the starting point of this first instalment. From the kitsch Bullitt (1968)-style split-screen presentation of these opening scenes one might be forgiven for thinking that what is about to follow is going to veer into hagiography, slavishly feeding into all of the mythology surrounding his name. What could be a more classically cinematic scene than the gun-toting icon stepping into a sports car with a glamourous girl by his side, only to be stopped in his tracks in a hail of gunfire, every bit the tragic hero?

Following this opening scene, Richet’s film then goes on breathlessly to recount episodes culled from Mesrine’s self-penned book Killer Instinct. We first have a glimpse of his formative years in the French Army in Algeria where he is drawn into torturing and killing prisoners, a hellish world far removed from his well-to-do suburban upbringing. Back in Paris sometime later, he is introduced to Guido, a gangster figure much more paternal to him than his biological father, and he begins to be drawn in to the underworld, committing ever-increasingly violent but lucrative endeavours. From here we are then catapulted into a cycle of crimes and incarcerations on both sides of the Atlantic.

The most immediate net reaction to the film is one of exhilaration; Mesrine’s life story makes for thrillingly cinematic viewing, and Richet’s direction guides us through it with the freewheeling storytelling ease of a Goodfellas (1990) and the gritty visual dizziness of a The French Connection (1971), quite the potent combination. Vincent Cassel, in the lead role and the one constant presence in the story, is given the task of anchoring the film and does so with effortless aplomb; his Mesrine alternately wriggles, snarls and charms his way through whatever he encounters, and though he bears little resemblance to his real-life counterpart this is quickly forgotten. His ability to turn on a sixpence from suave ladies man to bulging-eyed monster prevents the speed of the narrative leading to incoherence.

The main question outside of the film’s aesthetic pleasures, though, is just what does the film want to tell us about such an emblematic but problematic enigma? Lives of crime have, of course, long been brought to the screen from the pre-Hays Code gangster classics like The Public Enemy (1931) and Scarface (1932) onwards, and along with them have always come accusations of varying rabidity suggesting that said films glamourize such lifestyles to the point of making them morally justifiable and eminently desirable to the audience. It is an old argument which has a habit of resurfacing periodically, and one which has coloured a certain amount of the critical reception to Richet’s pair of films.

Yet with such a narratively straightforward film this becomes something of a complex question; there is an emotional obliqueness to the Mesrine of Killer Instinct; the narrative seldom slows up for long enough to dwell on either his material status or the consequences of his violent lifestyle before hurtling into another action-packed incident. Strangely, I was reminded of Steven Soderbergh’s Che (2008) biopics, tonally very different pieces of work, but both notably unwilling to offer anything in the way of inner psychological insight into their subjects. I am not suggesting that Richet has anywhere like the reverence for Mesrine as Soderbergh has for Guevara, but both seem to be more interested in outside perceptions of their biographees rather than trying to hit on any internal truths. The other consequence, though, is that if the story doesn’t pause long enough to illustrate any great emotional depth, then neither does it have time to dwell on the very real moral and physical consequences of his lifestyle.

Along the way of his remarkable story, there are shown the familiar items of glamourous criminal iconography in Mesrine’s lifestyle: a globe-trotting itinerary, guns, fast cars and of course women. At the same time these are shown to be always transitory elements in what time he spends outside of the series of ever-increasingly oppressive prisons he comes to occupy. Women come and go: a prostitute he has been conducting an affair with meets with inevitably violent consequences, a Spanish wife finds herself unable to live with his criminal lifestyle and falls victim to his violent behaviour. Eventually comes along Jeanne, a woman with an equal taste for the seditious life, Bonnie to his Clyde, but even their relationship is tinged with fatalism. Nor do the financial rewards seem great: Mesrine is hardly shown to be enjoying anywhere near the likes of Tony Montana’s material wealth.

The film, then, is neither a straight hagiography nor an outright condemnation. Though only lightly touched upon, the filmmakers have chosen to show how Mesrine was to a certain extent shaped by the wider politics of mid-twentieth century France: his early exposure to nihilistic violence in Algeria, the influence of Charles De Gaulle’s troubled premierships and Mesrine’s subsequent dalliances with the extreme right wing OAS group, and then his apparent politicization as a result of the barbaric prison regimes he suffered under. As the story progresses we do at times see him attempting to forge a life for himself outside of crime, only for economic or political circumstances to tempt him back in: while this is shown to be more than partially a personal choice of his, nevertheless he is also shown to be significantly straightjacketed.

Killer Instinct pays homage to Scorsese both visually and narratively, but so too in terms of its central subject matter: a dislikeable sociopathic misfit who achieves popular fame through violent means. There is a touch of Travis Bickle, Jake LaMotta or Henry Hill to Jacques Mesrine, but most tellingly there is also something of Rupert Pupkin from The King of Comedy (1983), Scorsese’s ever-prescient satire of the nature of modern celebrity. In presenting only what seem like cold facts about Mesrine’s life, Richet’s film allows the audience to confer him an heroic status. This, I think, is why I think the film is so effortlessly entertaining: watching Mesrine’s amoral exploits goes to the heart of the perversity at the core of our voyeuristic, vicarious love for crime and criminals: a love divorced from bloody reality and instead steeped in detached spectacle.