Walerian Borrowczyk’s THE STRANGE CASE OF DR. JEKYLL AND MISS OSBOURNE: An Appreciation

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SHOCK takes a closer look at Eurohorror masterpiece THE STRANGE CASE OF DR. JEKYLL AND MISS OSBOURNE.

The Polish filmmaker Walerian Borowczyk has long been spoken of in mythic terms mostly because his films have been so unavailable though the provocative images that have surfaced through the years have kept people intrigued enough to bandy his name about. After Arrow released the boxed set of his films, which sold out instantly, it’s apparent the intrigue is closer to obsession. That set was propelled to some stardom through the support of filmmaker Terry Gilliam, and now other films are finding their way to the surface.

Not included in the boxed set though one of Borowczyk’s more famed titles, THE STRANGE CASE OF DR. JEKYLL AND MISS OSBOURNE (aka DOCTEUR JEKYLL ET LES FEMMES or DR. JEKYLL AND HIS WOMEN or THE BLOODBATH OF DOCTOR JEKYLL) has now been released, finally, after many years of attempted extrication, by Arrow Films and guided to one of the top releases of the year through the work of film scholar Michael Brooke. A fantasmic film of undulating sensual apparatus, from Bernard Parmegiani’s rapturous score through the fine work of performers Patrick Macnee, Marina Pierro, and Udo Kier, we can now fully immerse ourselves in the world that Borowczyk meant to deliver when he crafted his initial vision.

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Bernard Parmegiani’s score rumbles underneath the frames and inside the grain of Noël Véry’s delicate haze-driven photography. Parmegiani, an artist whose pedigree includes previous work on Borowczyk’s film JEUX DES ANGES (1964) and the graphic artist Jan Lenica for his 1964 film A, reworked sections from his 1972 piece “Pour en finir avec le pouvoir d’Orphée” for this psychosexual story. Entering the film with a thunderous crash against the keys, presaging BLADE RUNNER’s opening credits, the electronic composition guides the story, illuminating the dark streets as a young girl runs from an unseen villain, who makes finally make his appearance as an odd-browed man with a mean stick, an instrument of cruelty so mannered that the girl is beaten to death on the street, a crime so vicious it breaks during the assault. Guiding us into the home of Dr. Jekyll on soft waves of his score, we drift from this near dreamlike murderous scene to a presentation of the more civilized, a contrast that is the basis for the original story as well as Borowczyk’s notes on man’s nature.

Assisting the director with his more concupiscent telling of the famed tale are a remarkably restrained Udo Kier, who leaves the freakishness to his chemistry-saturated counterpart in the performance of Gérard Zalcberg in his feature debut. The actor’s makeups and facial structure give an otherworldly reality to the monster that haunts the upper echelon bourgeoisie permating Henry Jekyll’s home. A singular artist, Jekyll’s betrothed is brought to feral loving life through Marina Pierro’s enlightened performance, a requirement necessary to tie together Jekyll’s fanaticism for his beloved chemical investigations and the crossings where libido supercedes and destroys love. Further diminuating the oft excessive Udo Kier are the exaggerations of the grand Patrick Magee, delivering a rather spastic portrayal of a father mad with desires both sexual and punishing.

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The American horror film chooses maniac destruction over sensual reward, mirroring the attitudes of the culture in which these films thrive. In Borowczyk’s European investigation in libidinal impulse, even the act of rape by a giant phallus is grafted into lacy underthings, the erotic charge of a father forced to watch his daughter penetrated, and enjoying it, and even in the aftermath of an earlier crime, cameraman Noël Véry’s gaze lovingly consumes the corpse, blood splashed around her crotch in a manner as careful as haphazard. Véry’s work on this film is one that sets us in a dream world of sheer eroticism as much as it forces the film’s boxed-in reality, nearly fully occurring inside the film’s namesake’s home, with a gauzy hazy semi-focus setting most objects glowing almost as if the characters are plunged into the very bath that transforms Jekyll into the monstrous Hyde.

By the time the film’s various threads of anarchic revolution against a staid yet blasphemous class form a river of congression with Fanny destroying her own humanity to forever exist in the pungent fumes of burning love. Although Jekyll as Hyde espouses the joys of such transmutation, he reaches out toward his beloved, yet hunted, Fanny as she allows herself to be consumed. The enmeshment of self with science, of being with nonbeing, of destruction as rebirth, is handled through a dynamic nearly nonvocal sequence with Parmegiani’s haunting undulating score infusing Borowczyk and Véry’s images with Kier and Pierro’s performances into an explosive fading of love and life, power and majesty, death and love.

Completed near the end of his filmmaking career, Borowczyk’s power governs this strange tale, and immersion into gorgeous decadence, and the subversion of order as the only escape from the trappings of society. Horror as a consequence of human existence. The finality of being.

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