Walerian Borowczyk is undoubtedly one of the most singular talents in the history of European cinema. After training as a painter and lithographer in his native Poland, Borowczyk (or ‘Boro’) made his way to Paris where he joined what can only be called a cinematic collective. Boro began his career with a series of short films that would later influence Terry Gilliam’s work on Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Included in the same box set as this film, Boro’s short films show an incredible degree of artistic flexibility, something all the more impressive for the fact that Boro took responsibility for conceiving, writing, drawing, making and shooting everything he put on screen. However, while this monomaniacal pursuit of artistic purity may have been quite normal in the experimental world of short films and gallery installations, the step up to producing feature-length films required Boro to delegate. Somewhat unsurprisingly, Boro’s first (and only) full length animated film feels more like a proof of concept than a polished work of cinematic art.
Based on Boro’s earlier animated short “The Concert”, The Theatre of Mr and Mrs Kabal features a woman (voiced by Louisette Rousseau) made up of aggressive geometric shapes and her altogether much softer but no less abstract husband (voiced by Pierre Collet).
The film opens with a clever sequence in which the still unformed Mrs Kabal systematically refuses to accept delivery of the heads provided by her creator. Chastened, the respectful Boro appears in the film and requests permission to share the Kabal’s adventures with a wider audience, thereby suggesting that the Kabals are not so much characters in a pre-written story as figments of an ungoverned and spontaneously unfurling imagination.
The film places the Kabals in an abstract landscape populated only by weird creatures and sinister factories. In fact, one of the film’s better running gags is that Mr Kabal keeps wanting to escape his fictional world by leering through some binoculars at real women but every time he spies a distant beauty, a huge angry bearded man interrupts him and forces him back into the abstract world from which he came.
The Theatre of Mr and Mrs Kabal will most likely remind British audiences of the oft-parodied Eastern-European cartoons that filled in the gaps between programmes during the early years of Channel 4. Which is to say that while the film is incredibly clever and imaginative, it does not exactly offer a traditional cinematic experience.
Cinema is an amazingly flexible medium but the history of film has conspired to create the expectation that film functions in much the same way as novels or plays in that one expects to sit and experience a story. Works of experimental animation like The Theatre of Mr and Mrs Kabal are more like works of modern art in that one does not respond to the characters or the plot but to the strength and novelty of the vision. While there is nothing wrong with expecting an audience to respond to experimental film in a non-traditional manner, it is not clear that this 80-minute film gives its audience anything more than the short film that inspired its creation. Given how many ideas are packed into Boro’s other films, The Theatre of Mr and Mrs Kabal feels thin and unsubstantial, nothing more than a stepping stone to bigger and better things.
Packaged as part of Arrow Films’ Camera Obscura: The Walerian Borowczyk Collection, this Blu-ray also includes an assortment of Boro’s (far more interesting) short films, an introduction by Terry Gilliam and an assortment of fascinating commentaries and behind-the-scenes documentaries.