Initially daily but now sporadic blog about anime and world animation with a specific focus on the artists behind the work. Written by Ben Ettinger.
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Thursday, March 16, 2006

04:50:52 pm , 1160 words, 3554 views     Categories: Misc

Walerian Borowczyk dead at 82

I often hear about the passing of filmmakers or artists in their old age, many of whom I liked or at least had a vague familiarity with, but rarely am I particularly moved or touched by their death beyond a generic feeling of sadness that a great artist has passed.

Today on visiting hydrocephalicbunny I was devastated to learn of the death of the person whom I would possibly qualify as my favorite filmmaker of all time, Walerian Borowczyk. I gasped audibly when I read the news, and I still haven't recovered. The man has apparently been living as a hermit for the last ten years, but I've always held out the hope that one day we could see another film, even just a short, from Boro, because there's no way a mind like his could possibly stop creating, even in old age. It seems he did continue to be active as a sculptor and painter, but it was not to be for the filmmaker in Boro. It's a terrible loss for cinema. That it should have taken me more than a month to find a site even mentioning his death is depressing proof that he remains all too little known around the world despite his obvious artistic genius and his citation as an influence by many of the greats active today like Jan Svankmajer, the Brothers Quay and Terry Gilliam. I can only hope that time will change that, but the nature of his work suggests that it won't. He followed his instincts to places most people wouldn't dare to go, which almost certainly helped to kill his career as a filmmaker, getting him labelled as a glorified pornographer by people who couldn't see behind the surface to the absurd humor underneath, but he was always true to his artistic vision. He's a director who is too full of contradictions, too unmanageable, to ever become common property. It's sad, but perhaps it's best that way.

My first introduction to Borowczyk's films was Blanche (1971). I watched the film in the AV room of Leeds University when I was studying there in 2000, not knowing anything about what to expect. To this day I can still distinctly remember every detail of the experience of watching the film, down to the odor of the room I was sitting in and my emotions watching the various parts of the film, the impact of the film on me was so great. I've already lamented the fact that this masterpiece is not out on DVD, and I'll take this moment to do so again. I don't usually like to make generalizations this broad, but to me personally it's one of the handful of great films of the 20th century, and at the very least it's certainly one of the great films of postwar European cinema. An adaptation of the story of Mazeppa, the film shows Borowczyk's genius for editing and framing shots with an almost fetishistic eye for the beautiful details of everyday objects, as if the objects themselves were the proxy subjects of his films, silently observing the tragedies of love being played out by their owners. The film was among the first to make authentic use of medieval music, and benefited immensely from brilliant performances by great actors including the aged Michel Simon.

Not long afterwards I had the chance to see the other masterpiece of his early period, his first full-length feature, Goto, l'ile d'amour (1968), which confirmed the suspicion I had after watching Blanche that I'd stumbled across something great, and something that few people seemed to have heard of for some reason. Goto was completely different, yet just as great as Blance. It was an inspired dystopian fantasy that worked on every level - formal beauty, brilliant acting, multilayered theme. It was the first film in which we could see his preoccupations with the overriding power of love on the human creature emerging. In Blance this theme was brought to what I think is its best form in his oeuvre, as afterwards it begins to be diluted by more direct depicitions, and frankly many of his later films are hard to recommend, though they're universally beautiful to behold. His genius as creator of images of formal beauty never flagged, even while the difficulty of getting his films made started seeping into the films themselves. Thankfully he made a comeback about fifteen years ago with his last film, Love Rites, which seemed to finally do what he'd be striving to do all those years in a way that was true to his vision.

The Borowczyk who had such an influence on the great animators active today is actually the Borowczyk I discovered only recently. Watching his films it is obvious that they were made by someone trained in the craft of animation, and someone with a very personal approach to the craft at that. But if finding his films is hard enough, most of them available only in horrifically edited and dubbed foreign editions, finding his animated films is well nigh impossible. Recently a number of them have appeared as extras on a number of DVD releases, so I've been able to get a basic sense of what his animation was like, though I have yet to see his Kabal films, which are still among his most highly regarded from everything I've heard. They're the only films that he actually drew among everything I've seen. Most of it is surrealistic collage of a decidedly Freudian vein. Some people have compared Boro to Luis Bunuel, and Boro's animated films definitely strike me as the sort of films Bunuel might have made had he been an animator. There are always little anti-clerical touches here and there in most of Boro's early films, albeit more light-hearted than the shotgun-to-the-head treatment Bunuel gave the church. I guess it was a natural reaction for a Pole and a Spaniard of their time. Borowczyk's animation seems ripe to be rediscovered for its intrinsic originality and fascination, as the missing link to his film period, and also as the precursor of some of the great animators active today.

In the comments section noted below, Daniel Bird mentions that he's hoping "to put together a modest exhibition of artworks for a 'tribute' to Borowczyk at Norwich Animation Festival in October." I wish I could be there. Boro's wife and actress in his early films, Ligia Branice, was reportedly with her husband right until the end. My condolences. R.I.P.


Some links by way of introduction to the man and his work.

- An overview of Borowczyk's life and works (Daniel Bird)

- Gallery of Boro's sculptures and paintings, from an exhibit of his work at Annecy (Animation World Network)

- Rich and Strange: An Introduction to the live action features of Walerian Borowczyk (Joe Ruffell)

- Objects of Desire: Borowczyk on Video (Chris Blackford)

- GreenCine obit, with some interesting discussion in the comments section

- New York Times obit

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2 comments

Chris Sobieniak
Chris Sobieniak [Visitor]

That reminds me, I have one of his films in my collection, “Jeux des Anges” (Games of Angels).

04/22/06 @ 11:28
Ben
Ben [Visitor]

Ah, typical of you to have an obscurity like that. I haven’t seen that one either. :( It’s apparently available on the French DVD version of La Bete according to a comment in GreenCine. One day someone has to release a collection of his shorts. They just have to.

04/22/06 @ 16:07