There is no denying 2014 has been a memorable year in home video releases for cult film fans. One company leading the way in providing high-quality, restorations of cult titles are Britain’s Arrow. The company has gone from strength to strength, even managing to conquer the Atlantic divide and coax in a new flock of Stateside fans. Part of the reason for this success is the company focus on newly restored packages of cult favourites designed with the fan in mind- packed with extras, exclusive writings, collector’s booklets, and artwork-, alongside steelbook and limited edition releases. But this year Arrow- on their Arrow Academy sister label to Arrow Films and Video- released one of their landmark titles to date; Camera Obscura, a limited edition, part crowd-funded project, which put together a large bulk of the work to come out of the lunatic/genius mind of the Polish artisan, animator, and filmmaker- Walerian Borowczyk. Many of the films had never seen an official release before, and the boxset- as well as including meticulously restored versions of the features themselves, came packed with a host of extras covering the life and career of the director; as well as a huge accompanying print book put together by experts on the late filmmaker. The prints of the features were all approved by Borowczyk’s wife Ligia Branice. The set, not surprisingly, sold out in weeks- one of these babies will set you back a mere £599 on Amazon Marketplace now. All hope is not lost, however, never fear, because Arrow Academy has released the entire catalogue included in the set on standalone releases. So join us this week as we delve into the weird and the wonderful world of this Polish innovator, exploring a title a day- starting with Walerian Borowczyk Short Films and Animation (available on a dual format blu-ray/DVD combo).
Part of the difficulty in reviewing these Borowczyk shorts and animations is knowing where to start- the set is literally immense in terms of content. This edition- which includes a large portion of the director’s short films and animations, as well as some commercials and the feature-length animation Theatre of Mr & Mrs Kabal (1967) – represents what can only be described as a Pandora’s Box. Once opened, there is no going back, as the viewer enters a delirious world- a snaking labyrinth of the bizarre- where just about anything is possible. It is easy to become intoxicated in the melee if you are someone with a penchant for the eccentric; this set alone has much to offer in that department. Perhaps the bulk of the work demonstrated here is not immediately accessible to all, and at first glance the content may appear as nothing more than a frenzied symphony of incoherent whimsy. It is true that whimsical does make up part of the overarching theme,- as well as a heavy dose of the grotesque and outlandish- yet within the chaos there is such a fastidious eye for detail and painstaking approach to crafting out the material, that it becomes difficult to deny Borowczyk was a genius in his field. OK much of it makes little sense, but that’s the joy to be found, because if you are looking for pure unadulterated entertainment value, well, Borowczyk may have been called many things, but one thing you certainly cannot accuse him of is being boring.
But then as a filmmaker Borowczyk was in a unique position, starting out his career as an artist, filmmaking was just another level of his craft. As a visionary, the director could create the fantastique from even the most mundane objects, imbibing every frame of his lunatic visions with life and soul. Although his later full-length features became more coherent, to a point, it is his shorts that demonstrate his skill as the Grandmaster Cine-illusionist the most- and perhaps it can also be argued they demonstrate the director at his most free-spirited, not being bound up in long, restraining, narrative structures. For me Borowczyk appeals in the same way I am fascinated with circus sideshow elements, the freaky, the kooky, and everything weird and wonderful in between- there is some level of childish glee to be found in this type of enjoyment too, with little apparent meaning, it’s fun just to enjoy the show.
The likelihood is you will already know if this is something that will appeal to you or not- this is definitely one for fans of filmmakers such as Terry Gilliam and Jan Svankmajer who have apparently been inspired by Borowczyk’s work. The surreal comedy aspects may also tempt fans of the likes of Luis Brunel, although not all the material is in this vein, and the two shorts Rosalie (1966) and Angels’ Games (1964) are particularly hard-hitting in comparison to some of the more light-hearted themes. For fans of Borowczyk’s erotically charged work, there will not be much to compare here- apart from the animated short Scherzo Infernal (1984)– which features a delightfully rendered nude fallen angel who wants to devote herself to prostitution and a horde of mischievous and necrophiliac rapist demons! The inspiration fellow surrealist Gilliam drew from Borowczyk’s work is most evident in the macabre and psychedelic feature length Theatre of Mr & Mrs Kabal (1967) , and also the fantastical frenetic photo montage approach in Les Astronauts (1960).
The prints are beautifully restored to their former glory- using original 35mm film elements-, colours- although used sparsely- are bright and well contrasted, detail is nicely defined, with the set holding up to a faithful cinematic representation.
As part of the extras package there is an informative documentary on the director’s work, featuring original interviews from producer Dominique Duvergé-Ségrétin, assistant André Heinrich and composer Bernard Parmegiani- with archive material from Borowczyk. The piece Film is Not a Sausage is delightfully named after a wonderful Borowczyk snippet given in his interview. There is also an introduction from filmmaker Terry Gilliam talking about the impact the director had on his own career.
For existing fans, and newcomers with an eye for strange, oddball and delirious cinema, this Arrow release is a great package. Check out the official site for details here.
Full contents of the disc:
- New high definition digital transfers of the feature and the shorts
- Uncompressed Mono 2.0 PCM Audio
- Optional English subtitles where necessary
- Feature length animation Theatre of Mr & Mrs Kabal (1967)
- The short films Astronauts (1959), The Concert (1962), Grandmother s Encyclopaedia (1963), Renaissance (1963), Angels Games (1964), Joachim s Dictionary (1965), Rosalie (1966), Gavotte (1967), Diptych (1967), The Phonograph (1969), The Greatest Love of All Time (1978), Scherzo Infernal (1984)
- Introduction by filmmaker and animator Terry Gilliam
- Film is Not a Sausage, a documentary about Borowczyk s animated work featuring Borowczyk, producer Dominique Duvergé-Ségrétin, assistant André Heinrich and composer Bernard Parmegiani
- Blow Ups, a visual essay by Daniel Bird about Borowczyk s works on paper
- Commercials by Walerian Borowczyk: Holy Smoke (1963), The Museum (1964), Tom Thumb (1966)
- Reversible sleeve featuring original poster designs
- Collector s booklet