Walerian Borowczyk is a director who has long been absent from the critical limelight. A graduate of Poland’s most prestigious arts school, Boro used his training as a lithographer to get a job designing cinema posters before experimenting with animation and eventually becoming a filmmaker in his own right. A move to Paris in the late 1950s allowed him to produce his first feature-length animation in The Theatre of Mr. and Mrs. Kabal before live-action films like Goto, Island of Love and Blanche made him into a critical darling. Unfortunately for Boro, this critical praise neither paid the bills nor made it any easier for him to get his next film financed and so the director took the controversial step of accepting money from a purveyor of erotic films who had noticed the eroticism and voyeuristic elements of Boro’s earlier works. Though the quality of Boro’s work barely dipped, this change of direction and the success it brought him was enough for critics to dismiss Boro as a genius who had turned himself into a pornographer. Never mind that films like Immoral Tales and The Beast were far more suggestive and pointedly transgressive than anything in erotic cinema at the time, the minds of most film critics had slammed shut and Boro was left to finish his career in a corner of the film industry that did not survive the invention of the VCR.
September 2014 saw the release of Arrow Films’ Camera Obscura, a lavishly-supported box set of Borowczyk films designed to restore Boro’s reputation and introduce a whole new generation of cinephiles to the scandalous joys of European film’s most misunderstood and transgressive genius. A brilliantly directed and unabashedly feminist adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne is yet further proof that film fans owe a debt of gratitude to Arrow films for their continued and wondrous rehabilitation of Walerian Borowczyk.
It is easy to understand why Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde emerged as one of the most enduring works of Victorian literature: Set in an Edinburgh that is often mistaken for London, Stevenson’s novella tells of a moral and upstanding scientist who develops a yearning for socially unacceptable behaviour. Terrified that these appetites might deprive him of his position in society, Jekyll creates a potion that transforms him into Edward Hyde, a sociopathic figure who is not only free from Jekyll’s inhibitions but also without status in society meaning that Jekyll can assume the Hyde persona and act upon his yearnings without fear of being caught up in a scandal.
In the 129 years since its first appearance, Stevenson’s novella has been read in any number of different ways: Initially, the story was taken as a meditation on a wages of sin and how surrendering to one’s base desires is generally a bad idea. Since then, the text has assumed a more ambivalent meaning in which Dr. Jekyll is a sort of Freudian everyman who, constrained by society and alienated from his own desires, assumes a sort of secret identity in order to become the part of himself that society will not tolerate.
The exact nature of Hyde’s transgressions varies from film-to-film and era-to-era. For example, Rouben Mamoulian’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was clearly informed by the racial politics of 1930s America and so Mamoulian’s Jekyll is a repressed upper-class white man who is transformed into drug-addled pimp and racist caricature who prowls around women’s boarding houses keeping his chosen in line with promises, flattery and the perpetual threat of violence. Drugs also feature prominently in Alastair Reid’s uneven 1980 TV version in which David Hemmings knocks back peyote and wanders around Leicester Square propositioning under-age flower girls and beating small boys who dare to request payment for the unspeakable acts he visits upon them. From Victorian homosexual to contemporary serial killer, Mr. Hyde has long been a repository for our darkest desires as well as the shamed ambivalence in which we hold them.
As might be expected of a director who moved from erotic film to horror, Boro’s take on Jekyll and Hyde is just as long on sex and violence as it is on ambivalence. The film opens with a little girl running across cobbled streets, pursued by a faceless man in top hat and cane. Crying out for her mother, she runs from one darkened slum to another before being caught and beaten so brutally that her assailant literally breaks his cane across her back. What the little girl might have done to merit such a beating is never made clear but matter is thematically unimportant as Boro’s Hyde (Gerard Zalcberg) is a man of man appetites.
From there, we are transported to the wood-clad home of Dr. Henry Jekyll (Udo Kier) who is preparing to marry his fiancée Fanny Osbourne (Marina Pierro). As soon as Fanny and her parents arrive, she slips off to meet Jekyll and the pair paw at each other’s clothes until a portrait of Jekyll’s father puts them off. Jekyll promises that they will spend the entire night together but Osbourne’s squirming frustration suggests that this might not be the first time such a promise has been made (and broken).
While this is going on, Jekyll’s guests amuse themselves with artistic recitals. Jekyll’s aging mother plays the piano while a young girl dances and as she dances, her dress twirls up to reveal her underwear. Intriguingly, nobody comments on this spectacle but Borowczyk perfectly captures the sexual tension in the room as old men leer at the young dancer and comment on how talented she is “for her age”. This sense of public virtue and private vice continues in a frankly jaw-dropping scene in which Jekyll discusses his philosophical views with his friend and rival. The conversation is pleasant enough although tinged with enough anger that Osbourne takes to her feet to protest the aggressive questioning only to be chastised for seeing the confrontation as anything other than a friendly exchange of views. Borowczyk also enlivens the conversation with glimpses of terrible crimes and while our familiarity with the Jekyll and Hyde story might encourage us to view them as glimpses of Jekyll’s hidden desires, the truth is those violent fantasies could have belonged to literally anyone sitting at that table.
Not long after dinner finishes, a scream echoes through the corridors of Jekyll’s bizarrely labyrinthine house. Look back at Borowczyk’s early animated shorts as well as his more conventional art house films and you will see a director who never shoots people or places when he can shoot objects and body parts; Many of Borowczyk’s animated films revolve around household objects moving around on their own and Blanche opens with shots of feet and people who were shot from the neck up. Borowczyk continues to employ these stylistic tics in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne meaning that we are often treated to long shots of household objects while people pass in and out of shot, seen only through cracks in doors or reflected in mirrors. Aside from making Jekyll’s home feel more like a dreamscape than a real place, Borowczyk’s sense of composition lends the film a distinctly voyeuristic feel, as though the audience were creeping around Jekyll’s home as well as Mr. Hyde.
The tension between acceptable and unacceptable captured during the dinner also infect the crimes themselves. At one point, Hyde rapes and murders a man but while the man screams and cries out for help, his movements suggest active participation rather than resistance. This idea that Hyde might actually be giving the guests what they secretly want is made quite explicit in another scene in which an elderly general is tied up and made to watch while his daughter gleefully submits to Hyde’s ministrations. The most telling detail in this particular scene is that Hyde sneaks into the room and subdues the general only to be joined by the daughter who is already half-naked. Why did she get undressed? Who told her that Hyde would be in that room? Once liberated, the general promises not to punish his daughter but the old hypocrisy soon reasserts itself forcing the daughter to take control and lead the older man back to the submissive position he seems to crave.
The introduction to this review mentioned that The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne can be read as a feminist text and what gives the film its feminist credentials is the figure of Miss Osbourne. Right from the start, Osbourne reveals herself to be the equal of her future husband in every way: It is she who seeks out Jekyll at the beginning of the film, she who initiates the sex-play and she who is distracted by the pressures of conventional morality made manifest in the disapproving stare emanating from the portrait of Jekyll’s father. As is pointed out in the excellent visual essay by Adrian Martin and Cristina Alvarez Lopez included as part of this release, Borowczyk often shoots his women in a way that only allows them to move left or right while his men are free to move up and down-stage. This lack of movement reflects society’s double standard regarding female sexuality and the first thing the men in this film try to do when violence erupts is to lock the women in a room and dose them up with sleeping pills. Tellingly, Osbourne refuses to be locked away and goes in search of her fiancée allowing her to witness his transformation. Now realising that Hyde is Jekyll, Osbourne reaches out and joins him in the orgy of destruction that ends the film. Throwing herself into the bath containing Jekyll’s potion, she joins her fiancée in transformation. This not only forces the Jekyll and Hyde personalities to unite but also causes Jekyll’s desires to grow and change as they are augmented and influenced by those of his wife. Jekyll and Hyde has long been a story about the secret desires of men; it took Walerian Borowczyk to turn it into a story about woman who saves the man she loves from a life of self-destructive hypocrisy and liberate herself in the process. Gloriously amoral and more than slightly bonkers, this is a film in which parents, society, art, science, and God are all brought low before the terrifying power of the orgasm.
Lovingly restored with the assistance of Borowczyk’s cinematographer Noel Very, this release of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne looks amazing and comes with a wide array of documentaries, essays and discussions that place the film in its correct historical context and explain quite how brilliant a director Borowczyk could be. This is a fantastic film in an absolutely fantastic package; it’s unlikely we’ll see a better home release any time this year.