Walerian Borowczyk (1923-2006)

Dom (1957), dir. Walerian Borowczyk & Jan Lenica
Les Astronautes (1959) co-director Chris Marker
Une collection particulière (1973)
Escargot de Venus (1975)
L’amour monstre de tous les temps (1977)
Scherzo Infernal (1984)

Walerian Borowczyk (1923-2006)

“Matter is the most passive and defenseless essence in the cosmos. Anyone can mould or shape it; it obeys everybody. All attempts at organizing matter are transient and temporary, easy to reverse and to dissolve.” —Bruno Schulz

Bringing objects to "life" is the essence of Borowczyk's cinema. Buster Keaton aside, he is cinema's greatest prop specialist. Borowczyk has made clear his "positive feelings towards objects", not to mention a mania for those crafted in the 19th century. Why? Because in these objects we still find "traces of man's hand".

Nonetheless, hands are conspicuously absent from Borowczyk's early shorts. At first glance Renaissance (1963) and Le Phonograph (1969) appear eerily materialistic. After the catastrophic explosions that both initiate and complete Renaissance, the charred piles of wood and twisted scrap metal may well stand as "evidence" of the fate that has met the bodies of which these objects once belonged. But they are only wrecked objects. Nonetheless, we're amused (if not comforted) by the knowledge that the cycle will occur again (eternally!). Also, the faint sound beneath the rubble of smashed up wax drums and broken glass suggests that there may be a ghost in Le phonograph after all. Borowczyk isn't pessimistic, rather "catastrophic". Such catastrophism belies a worry that craftsmanship is dying. "Vivacity" is being displaced by what Borowczyk describes as the "mechanical society" - one based on excess.

If Borowczyk's overt preoccupation is with the 19th century fin-de-siecle era, then it's one undercut by motifs of 20th century excesses: the atom bomb "gags" in Le theatre de Monsieur et Madame Kabal (1967) and the concentration camps in Les jeux des anges (1964) and Goto, l'ile d'amour (1968). But images of overproduction and saturation suggest commercial excess too. If the latter result in a "dulling of our senses", Borowczyk's obsessive studies of handcrafted objects now appear as genuinely "erotic", the accent less on their symbolic properties, more on the visual qualities, their sounds and textures.

Of the shorts, Rosalie (1966), Gavotte (1967), Diptyque (1967) and Une Collection Particulire (1972) involve at least one visible human element, albeit one often obscured. To act in front of Borowczyk's camera, the actor has to surrender his (or usually her) will entirely, and become, not so much one of Bresson's "models", but one of Keaton's "props". But like Bresson, Borowczyk discarded character "psychology" as superficial - he's more interested in "how" rather than "why". A fascination for objects can degenerate into fetishism when it serves little or no narrative "function". Barthes gives us an idea of what that function could be in an essay on Bataille's Histoire de l'Oeil:

"How can an object have a story? Well, it can pass from hand to hand, giving rise to the sort of tame fancy authors call The History of my Pipe or Memoirs of an Armchair, or alternatively it can pass from image to image, in which case its story is that of migration, the cycle of the avatars it passes through, far removed from its original being, down the path of a particular imagination that distorts but never drops it."

If we grant a "poetics" of cinema, then it's obvious that Borowczyk's shorts are of the second kind. Of the features, the most successful "object stories" are neither entirely fanciful nor metaphorical, as Barthes later has object "novels" and "poems", but rather amalgams of the two. For example, Goto, l'ile d'amour and La Bete (1975) could be conceived as sequential transactions of binoculars and shoes, roses and corsets between human (and in the case of La Bete, not-so-human!) characters, but that would ignore the considerable metaphorical play taking place. As Ray Durgnat noted, in Goto, l'ile d'amour, Borowczyk relishes a linguistic, satirical fetishization of Grozo's tasks: brushing ch-auseurs, taking care of ch-iens and drowning mou-ch-es. In La Bete (and to a lesser extent, Dzieje Grzechu, 1975), rose petals are put to good use in female masturbatory fantasies Ð female genitalia is so often compared to rose petals (e.g. Kane's "Rosebud") Ð here Borowczyk offers a literal on-screen deflowering! —© Daniel Bird, 2003

Walerian Borowczyk on Surrealism

I saw in a basket thousands of live snails. Some, diverging from their number, crept along the edge. Terror staggered me: each was completely indistinguishable from another. William Rowney (1223-1264)

Surrealism is a program of absolute non-conformity, in life and in poetry, that speaks equally to the cinema. I'm all for it.

If I speak of surrealism, or if I intend to speak, I'm not thinking about Art. Art? This is the disciplines, constraints, the models, the artistic talents, psychology, theories, the schools. Art, that's "the artistes". Only creators are free.

In the domain of creation, all that exists without subscribing to a school always risks being dismissed as worthless.

It is not a genuinely surrealist film that's determined by its script, the cinematic blueprint. That would require that a filmmaker could give birth to the camera, to the film and to the projector, so that the film would be the direct communication from his mind to that of another. For this diffusion of dreams not to bore, the sender would have to be unalike to the receiver.

One is unable to accurately reproduce one's dreams from memory. Dissembling and rationalisation of their constituent parts is therefore inevitable. The definitive form of a work depends on the extent and control of this operation.

Inevitably, we arrive at the point at which we're unable to avoid the application of aesthetic criteria.

In relation to sleep. I have invented and realised some of my films during the slumber of my producers and collaborators.

My criteria for evaluating a work of art, whether surrealist or marginal to that project, is the proportion of interest and tedium found within it.

A masterpiece is never tedious. What's more, its interest is more durable than fashion.

I prefer those works which are the proof of an instinctive imagination, but not affectation or plagiarism. I admire humour, but never when its gratuitous or facile. I applaud rebellion, but not when its opposed to life.

In Dom, I gave a glass of milk to an orange, because it needed to quench its thirst.

I never work with recourse to the state of psychic automatism. But that's not to say I'm incapable of employing a "modest apparatus of self-interrogation".

The traditions of surrealism in past eras, heralded only now - the whole of that same involuntary surrealism - demonstrate that it is the beholder who is the source of surrealism. It is the virtue of these contemporary prospectors to be the creators of surrealism. The same subjectivity has allowed for the inventory of a number of passing impressions of involuntarily surrealist films. Rarely have these films been distinguished by their merits.

If we consider the cinematic apparatus, its luminous singularity, as a manifestation of surrealism, its not important what film is being projected to a surrealist.

The fact that cinema possesses the appropriate potential doesn't constitute sufficient reason to really think that it is automatically predisposed to a place in the landscape of surrealist expression.

Extracts of a film, successive frames of a particular sequence - this tendency among surrealists - are like a film the complete print of which doesn't exist. All film is a strip of celluloid, with images placed in the emulsion upon the surface of its length. Its not impossible to perceive, within a film, images that are good for their precision. Take your choice. That culminates in one composing anthologies.

""Nothing of nine!" exclaimed a woman after watching Renaissance. "Progress in reverse! Its taken 40 years for film to turn-about and go backwards!" And in 50 years, how many films have gone forwards? Nowadays, moreover, we exaggerate more and more (to the point of ridicule) form and technique. Neither one, nor the other possesses in other respects the primacy in film. It isn't possible for any film to unspool in reverse. Film and action are shown today in fast forward (excluding projectionist error). The method of shooting (the means with which the author obtains the desired distortion) is of no importance. That's a curiosity, merely a footnote.

I call for "Goyaesque scenes", because they'll provoke debate on scenes of war. Otherwise: "a film is surrealist because a gentleman walks upon the ceiling of a room". The majority of film critics are the captives of a literary vision. They do not trouble with how, why; in what manner; for whom, is sufficient. It is not their duty to make a statement.

Walerian Borowczyk collaborated with Jan Lenica on "Dom", the film which won the gold medal in the experimental film competition at the 1958 Brussels Word Fair. The short animations "Renaissance" and "Game of Angels" won him further acclaim. Among his most celebrated features are "Goto, Island of Love", "Blanche", "Immoral Stories" and "The Beast". Borowczyk enjoys an international cult following but the best source of information in English has been the (now, sadly defunct) Australian magazine, Cinema Papers. See also: Colin Davis' essay in Shock Express #2.

Translated by Jim Knox from the French. Originally published in Etudes Cinematographiques # 41/42 (1965) "Surrealisme et Cinema"; Yves Kovacs, editor.