Walerian Borowczyk’s Erotic bow-out Isn’t Afraid to ask of its Viewers

DIRECTED BY Walerian Borowczyk/FRENCH/1987


According to Terry Gilliam, “Walerian Borowczyk was a twisted man whose films were infused with a unique cruelty and weirdness.”  This was apparently true right up to the end, as evidenced with his final film, 1987’s Love Rites (Cérémonie d’amour). 

Though Borowczyk (The Story of Sin) has been called a “genius who also happens to be a pornographer” (or vice versa, as one sees it), the passion in Love Rites plays more as the stuff of a steamy romance novel as opposed to any kind of grindy XXX skin flick.  That is, until a third act twist suddenly takes things in a tense and most unpleasant (yes, cruel) direction.

The film is a Parisian contemporary two-hander, so to speak.  Mathieu Carrière stars as Hugo Arnold, a lusty-eyed higher-up in the elegant high-end dress business.  On his ride on the underground, he sits next to the quiet Miriam Gwen, played by Borowczyk veteran Marina Pierro.  Though she’s utterly wordless in her obsessive makeup tweaks and oh-so-subtle leg brushings and whatnot, Hugo gets the flirty message loud and clear.  When she gets off at the next stop, he scrambles to catch her.  He eventually does.

Miriam and Hugo, however, initially remain in the underground train station, separated across the electric rail trench and its zipping trains.  The old-world architectural arch allows their voices to project across the din, enabling a strangely libidinous conversation.  The carnal symbolism of this subsequent verbal exchange is of the most intrusive and mundane variety, what with phallic trains indiscriminately zipping through the tunnel, their doors slamming open and close as people get on and get off.

Through the film’s stark dialogue and dry, bookish male narration we learn that Miriam is apparently a prostitute, though of the fastidious and precise variety.  Her little black dress with its strategically flowing sheer fabric accents tells that story all by itself.  Even as she leads him into the ornate Saint-Germain-des-Près (the oldest church in Paris) and regales him with unasked-for historical observations, his hand can’t help but go a-wandering beyond her high hemline.  (Who says church can’t be provocative?)  That her concentration on the cathedral (giving way to her own tragic backstory) remains unbroken is perhaps fuel for her eventual aggressive emasculation of Hugo.  (“Let the orgy begin.”)

From the outset, the director’s intermingling fixations with sex and death is strongly implied.  At the very beginning, it is explained to Hugo that the new dresses he must go check out are intended to be worn with nothing on underneath (Sexy).  And therefore, he ought to have them disinfected before he has them shown to any clients (Deathly).  Hugo’s apartment is peppered with art that underscores notions of the reality of femininity synonymous with everyday physicality.  (See: an illustration of a woman squatting under a tree, fully exposed, taking a piss).  While these bunkish notions are entirely rooted in Borowczyk’s old-man objectifications, therein also lies his own concession to female humanity.  He gives in to his own repulsion all too often (a grown male’s version “girls are icky”), even as Miriam maintains the upper hand all the while.  A femme fatale in all black.

Love Rites luxuriates in its own ceremonial takedown of sex even as the characters get increasingly intimate.  While the film absolutely never crosses over into hardcore depictions, Borowczyk does fixate abnormally (for a film) on Miriam within her boudoir elevating her chiffon over her bottomlessness.  The proceedings are spiked with a large dose of the salaciously literary; the narrator using terms like “urgent thrusts” and “…the wet caress of practiced tongue”.  It’s all rather fractional, explicitly implied though not explicit.

Most tellingly, Borowczyk is never not shooting through something.  Nearly every shot has some sort of sort-focus obstruction in the extreme foreground.  Yes, sometimes these blockers are practical in terms of Eyes Wide Shutself-censorship.  But from the overtness of his life’s work, one gathers that Borowczyk is not so interested in sparing his viewers any graphic details as he in erecting symbolic barriers.  There is always something in the way of these people.  Always.  

Film historian and Borowczyk contextualizer Daniel Bird immediately achives and maintains a lofty approach to Love Rites on his audio commentary track.  Though much of Borowczyk’s high cultured approach is right there in the verbiage of the film itself, his informed breakdowns of, for instance, the individual artworks within the frame and the director’s intent, is appreciated.  One key aspect of the commentary is Bird’s frequent contrast between the literary source material, André Pieyre de Mandiargues’ novel Tout disparaitra, and Borowczyk’s visual adaptation of it.  The director adapted several of the author’s works, including 1973’s lurid anthology, Immoral Tales.

This Blu-ray edition from Kino Classics also features a shorter “director’s cut” of the film, which appears to be a truncated version of the same new and immaculate 4K restoration used for the film proper.  The shorter cut loses thirteen minutes wherein a pesky Japanese photographer stalks Miriam and Hugo on their way to her boudoir.  Of all the sequences that could be exorcized, this draggy and weird one is the right pick.  

Kino got lead Mathieu Carriere to sit down for a short interview about Love Rites, though it’s apparent he doesn’t have all that much to say about it.  The actor maintains his Malcolm McDowell-esque steely gaze after all these years, though his hair has gone white.  He doesn’t recall Love Rites as an explicit movie- which it’s basically not- though he’s wrong that the camera doesn’t linger on certain body parts.  (Just never his).  To him, Love Rites seems to have been just another racy movie at a moment in his career when he appeared in a lot of them.  Anyhow, the interview is very brief.

Finally, the disc includes a rare Borowczyk 1976 short film, Brief von Paris aka Letter from Paris.  At forty minutes, this plotless montage of people caught on film going about their business on the streets of Paris is frankly interminable.  The only sound is the oppressive and constant barrage of traffic and other pink noise.  The most positive thing that can be said of this amateur-ish assembly is that it’s edited at a quick clip.  No shot runs longer than a few seconds.  Nevertheless, Borowczyk completists should be happy that this is now on Blu-ray.

Though not a poor film, Love Rites, with its lusty archetypes intentionally posing as human beings, is not the kind of movie with anything resembling broad appeal.  Unsurprisingly, it remains lowly seen on the fairly vast Borowczyk filmography.  Even Gilliam, quoted earlier as a fan, mistakenly cited the director’s final film as the slummy Emmanuelle 5.  No, that would be this one.  And when these rites are performed, love lies bleeding in his hands.