Saturday, April 22, 2006

Notes on Borowczyk

I have just not been watching very much or writing very much these past few weeks, but as I was going through files on my computer I came across some notes I wrote months back on two films by the late Walerian Borowczyk: La Marge (1976) and Blanche (1971). Here they are, mostly unaltered and unedited from when I wrote them. Beware that there are spoilers for La Marge, though it's not exactly a suspenseful film ...

* * *

The generic erotic film can be transformed through distanciation techniques which foreground the artificiality of moralistic trappings. In La Marge the topos of the Sinful City finds itself abstracted and strained into something new.

In the opening scenes the viewer is given every indication that the protagonist, Sigimond Pons (Joe Dallesandro) is happy with his domestic life: a beautiful young wife and child in a country house. He gives to his wife various declarations of love in a handful of scenes, all appearing genuine enough. But business compels Sigimond to travel to Paris, and once there, he casually enters an affair with a prostitute, Diana (Sylvia Kristel). This unfaithful excursion is handled obliquely, with no character psychology or progression to cushion it, and as such the transition from marital fidelity to urban polyamory, from country to city, comes off as a rupture. This is our first clue that the film is doing something different, and valuable, with respect to the conventions and expectations of the erotic story structure. [ ... some general spoilers begin here and continue throughout the writing on La Marge! ... ] For later in the film, when news arrives of the deaths of both Sigimond's wife and his son, the moment is contemplative rather than mournful, lyrically matter-of-fact rather than tragic.

Thematically the city is a place of sin, lust, infidelity, mystery, commerce, even perversion: a familiar mix. But tonally--and I would argue textually--the city is simply an alternate location, and as such inspires alternate "needs" and "wants" than the country. The arbitrary production of desire that leads Dallesandro towards infidelity is an answer to the question produced by the social environment of the city; equally arbitrary, even nonsensical, the film suggests, is the moralistic punishment via loss of family that results in the story (i.e., the letters from the maid to Sigimond at film's end). In other words, the usual moralistic underpinnings which would 'punish' aren't given by Borowczyk the concomitant moralistic-psychologistic execution. This film tells a story about temptation and punishment, but its way of connecting the causal dots is one big skeptical shrug.

So this film takes the topos of the "sin city" and, through magnification, renders its underlying moralistic mechanism visible, palpable. There are two abrupt "nonsenses" which signify the critical (rather than generic) nature of the film: first Joe's excursion into infidelity, the other is the death of his family (punishment). Psychology, these treatments make no sense. Their generic requirement is pushed out into the open.

These are "nonsenses" because, in the first instance, the film elides clear character psychology (there is no gradual temptation, no rhetoric of the downfall of the country bumpkin); in the second instance, because the off-screen deaths come as a deus ex surprise rather than as a machinated progression. The deaths are treated (by the film's matter-of-factness, and in this way through Dallesandro, too) stoically rather than tragically: pondered rather than mourned.

By affecting this tone to the "sin city" trajectory, the film pulls back from the moralism and clings instead to the emotions instilled in the chain of events. La Marge captures something about the stupid, terrifying, ineffable, unfair, predictable structure of experiential life. This is also why it is so resolutely a physical film, so tied to the materiality of objects, bodies, furniture, rooms (and at least a cursory comparison to Bresson is anything but unwarranted). These are the things that stand out in the face of tragedy: the film is a lyrical reminder of that most obvious proposition of all, the immanence of the material world.

* * *

Blanche is a narrative with a passive female at its center, but the mechanisms which ensure her passivity are precisely what the film examines, and they are stylized so as to deny any semblance of illusion as to their naturalism or necessity.

Every performance in the film is great because of the total lack of self-consciousness on the part of each player, though the actors are asked (or allowed) by Borowczyk to do very different things: the great old Michel Simon to bluster about a bit, to wear his age and indignity heavily on his shoulders; the divine Ligia Branice to reflect the broken glass of the narrative around her in her luminous white face and eyes; the two youths to be relatively stolid like Bressonian models.

An image of Blanche emerging naked from her bath is one of the first in the film, and it's a brief, casual flash that marks Borowczyk's aesthetic: he's very interested in glimpses, periphery, esoterica, transience--all that which gets pushed to the margins and washed over in the continuum of time and space. More on this later.

Boro's sense of space and editing is peculiar and highly individual (I'm not sure where he'd fit in Deleuze's taxonomy). He begins with a number of close-ups and closed-in framings, but ends up cutting (arhythmically?) to 'establishment shots' in which the story gets going. The composition for much of the story is flat, laid out like medieval tapestry. (Perhaps I should go into more detail about differences in space in medieval and renaissance space, and visual cultures in general? Mention Boro's use of period instruments? His love of aura and craftsmanship?) Borowczyk seems to love to cut on camera movement.

Blanche herself is a bit of a cipher, but the film enables us to see how and why this is so. Every attempt she makes to assert herself in some minor way (usually to protect a male whose suspected affections have aroused Simon's jealousy) is generally ignored. The film's stylization shows the utter theatricality of the men's treatment of Blanche, and whether it's dashingly chivalric or hideously patriarchal, it is rooted in the same source, the same drive towards idealization-possession of Blanche/women.

Onto the glimpses, or 'that which gets pushed to the margins of space and time.' Borowczyk is in many ways an Artisan in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. Oh, not totally--he's not trying to turn his films into distinct and unique material works which have an aura. But he's trying to smuggle into this Age some of the values and objects which are from the time and place of auras. This is why Borowczyk is (can be) a supremely erotic filmmaker, not only a sensual one--because he understands the charge that can result from something rare, something denied, something swift, something precious; more than recreating a 'passing fancy,' he understands the appeal of one's fancy as it is in the passing. This is why there are so many quick but extravagant, lush, complex, shocking shots in Borowczyk's cinema. By articulating through film language this glimpse of something that cannot be ascertained easily, he is doing two things at once, one of which looks toward the past (because he is trying to capture and have resonate for the viewers something special, momentary, and unique, as objects and moments and people at one time were, and seemed, thus) and the other of which looks toward the future (because he is imagining things at least partly in a pre-capitalist mindset, which is to say a non-capitalist mindset: where something is not a commodity available to one who pays, but an experience that might touch and few and cannot be bought). Borowczyk is trying to remind us of the nature of the material and economic world, its very constructedness, by obliquely referring us to its alternatives, its precursors, and thus signifying its own limits.

I suppose it would be a great defiance of Borowczk's art if for example a "raincoat" viewer were to watch Blanche (or Love Rites, or La Marge ...) on video and pause or rewind during the erotic scenes. The moment is supposed to have passed; the glimpse is supposed to have been special.


That's all I've got.


Mubarak Ali said...

Zach, this is too weird. Just a few days ago I saw La Marge (which has been haunting me since) and I was thinking of making some brief comments on the film on my blog. Reading your wonderful post was like putting words to my experience with some of the more fleeting aspects of the film. Especially this bit:

"The arbitrary production of desire that leads Dallesandro towards infidelity is an answer to the question produced by the social environment of the city..."

I think one of the most complex and mysterious elements of the film is the apparent lack of any 'motivation' behind Dallesandro's infidelity (esp. after we see him living a supposedly happily-married life at the beginning), and your statement is pretty spot-on in 'explaining' the primary importance of location in the film. I think the city also works as the setting for a vaguely demarcated fantasy, an erotic dream, and the final 'punishment' is the rough waking up from the dream. I was reminded of Eyes Wide Shut in several scenes.

I haven't seen Blanche yet, but I'm desperate to!

Zach Campbell said...

Huh. What do you know? I wish this film were on DVD (though thankfully my video store has a VHS in its library). And Eyes Wide Shut is a fantastic comparison on many points. Can we expect a Borowczyk post on Supposed Aura anytime soon?

Mubarak Ali said...

I hope so, but I think I'll need to first check out his films which are available on DVD.

By the way, we need a La Marge soundtrack release at some point as well!

A said...

Nice post on Borowczyk and his way of making films. I think your thoughts on "Blanche" captured it very good. He is one of my favorite filmmakers, though his work is hard to track doen. Haven't seen La Marge yet.

Maya said...

Now see, this is exactly why I love blogging and having favorite blog sites such as yours. I didn't even know about Walerian Borowczyk until this entry of yours and now I am all jacked up about seeing his 1975 feature "The Beast" which will be part of this year's HeadFest! Have you seen "The Beast", Zach?

A said...

don't want to disrupt the flow of the discussion, but seeing Borowczyk getting more attention is always great, imo.
I just happen to own the three-disc DVD release of La bête from Cult Epics, and can heartily recommend it. By far the best release of the film so far.
The film itself is a social satire and an exploration of sensuality at the same time. Very playful, it is a more "entertainment-value" than earlier Borowczyk films, while remaining challenging enough in its exploration of sexuality to open up new perspectives.
So far I have yet to see a film by Borowczyk that doesn't at least border on greatness.

Winstrol said...

Unfortunately I can't find these films...