Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Walerian Borowczyk's short animated films always interested me; his work popped up frequently at festivals, where his strange animations and inventive soundtracks frequently drew applause. In 1975 or 1976 I was a volunteer at the Los Angeles Film Exposition, FILMEX. I slipped into a screening of Borowczyk's Story of Sin and was blown away. The maverick director filmed almost all of his movies in France but returned to Poland for just this one feature, a remake of a classic Polish novel by Stefan Zeromski. Written in 1908, it had been filmed twice previously, in 1911 and 1933.
Story of Sin is nothing like the director's soft-core sex fantasies. Steeped in period detail, it is the oft-told story of The Fallen Woman, told without moralizing lectures. There are no lessons to be learned, except that society's injustice to women knows no bounds. Our heroine is no saint, like Joan Fontaine's Lisa Berndle in Letter from an Unknown Woman, who makes tragic life choices in the name of a self-defined, abnegating love. She's also not Louise Brooks' hallucinatory vision of innocent eroticism, as Lulu Schön in Pandora's Box, or her Thymian in Diary of a Lost Girl. This movie's heroine becomes a criminal, a murderess unlikely to be shown mercy in a courtroom. Director Borowczyk expresses a completely non- P.C. view of feminine vulnerability -- in which a sheltered heroine becomes the victim of her own sexuality. It's amour fou all the way -- the movie begins in a confession box, where a young girl is sternly entreated to suppress her natural feelings and desires. The priest then savors the opportunity to eye her carefully as she leaves.
Repression is absolute in the Pobratynska household, where bad times have forced the family to take in boarders. Daughter Ewa (Grazyna Dlugolecka) has a job but her father is unemployed. One libidinous roomer brings in a prostitute in the afternoons. Then a new boarder arrives and Ewa almost literally catches fire. Lukasz Niepolomski (Jerzy Zelnick) is handsome, soft spoken and apparently well connected; he helps Ewa's father find a job. He's also married, but he and Ewa begin a delirious affair. Their first separation comes when Lukasz is wounded in a duel over Ewa's honor with the local Count Zygmunt Szcerbic (Olgierd Lukasziewicz), a young man who has just come into his inheritance. Lucasz leaves to seek a divorce and Ewa's real troubles begin. She tracks her lover down and makes mad love with him in a horse carriage. In due time her mother throws her out. She rents a room from a Jewish man and takes a job in a workhouse. There, on her own and with no knowledge of the process, she gives birth to a child...
Ewa is also singled out for grief by con man and scoundrel Antoni Pochron (Roman Wilhelmi), who finds it easy to mislead her with promises that he can reunite her with her beloved Lucasz. The missing lover is jailed in Italy, but is released before Ewa can reach him. Antoni tracks Ewa down, rapes her, and with his equally ruthless associate Plaza-Splawski (Marek Walczewski) terrorizes Ewa so she will aid them in their crimes. One of their targets is Count Szcerbic, who they've discovered is in love with her as well. Ewa's 'sins' are compounded as she loses her will to resist these men, who manipulate her charms to suit their ugly schemes.
Story of Sin may sound like another potentially pornographic Borowczyk film, but it's definitely not -- it's as legit as any of the classics I touched on above. There is plenty of nudity, which doesn't follow the contemporary rule of the 'zipless f___' laid down by Pauline Kael when talking about Last Tango in Paris. But the sex is abbreviated and discreet, just long enough to show the passionate intensity of Ewa's commitment. The most famous still shows Ewa rhapsodizing over her absent lover by lying naked on a bed and covering herself in rose petals. There isn't a sinful thought in this young woman's head. One odd episode shows Ewa being brought onto the enlightened commune of Count Bodzanta (Mieczyslaw Voit), a rich man trying to establish a Utopia. But Ewa's mad love is her undoing -- all that Plaza-Splawski need do is suggest that he'll take her to Lucasz, and she goes with him.
This movie takes the plight of abandoned and abused women all the way. Its central scene of taboo horror happens all the time, everywhere: infanticide. Its trauma explains the modest, devout Ewa's complete breakdown of self-worth, why she no longer cares what happens to her or what crimes she helps commit. Men will use her to steal and kill, and for a while she'll turn to prostitution, a more honest activity for a woman banished from decent society. The FILMEX audience for Story of Sin gasped out loud, with one voice -- by 1975 mainstream movies had depicted most every torture in bloody detail, yet nothing like this. Borowczyk's coverage is actually quite discreet. A suddenly hand-held shot of Ewa running is the closest thing a movie has come to the emotional chaos of Kirsanov's Ménilmontant -- another violent story of a woman in panic mode.
This is the truth of sexual repression as inflicted on women given no education and no options. Ewa is the antithesis of the modern 'empowered,' assertive woman in control of her destiny. Conservative thought insists that simple biology dictates that women remain under tight societal restrictions. Story of Sin tells the truth without moralizing hogwash. Ewa does become a literal femme fatale, but only because she's ceded control to a series of monstrous villains. The movie is about sin, all right, but the lesson is one of understanding, not condemnation. So much of today's 'moral culture' seems to be about blaming the victims, and using moral tradition as a club against the defenseless.
Story of Sin is a finely crafted picture. We understand that the Polish film company asked for Borowczyk by name, and gave him access to better resources. The story jumps from Poland to Paris, to Italy and Vienna, and we keep our bearings without establishing shots -- we know we are in Italy when we see a slow-witted Italian jailer try to pronounce a Polish name. The impressive set dressing and costumes express a rich period feel. All the clothing looks strange, yet lived-in.
Walerian Borowczyk retains the somewhat stark visual style from his animations; he often chooses to look at things head-on. When he moves the camera it's for a definite purpose, and when he goes in for a decorative composition, it's usually when he wants to express Ewa's (few) moments of joy and rapture. When they are in a room together, the camera suddenly observes through a trio of round mirrors. Borowczyk does seem fixated on objects, but they are always chosen to express character. Lukasz Niepolomski is a gentleman, but no prince charming; he reads 1905's equivalent of photo-illustrated pornography, and enlists one photo to suggest a sex position to Ewa.
The happy scenes of romance and lovemaking are overwhelmed by the raw realism of Ewa's world. Sweatshop laundresses are quick to sneer at a woman 'in trouble,' and the gambling parlors swarm with all manner of schemers and sexual predators. Borowczyk's camera takes it all in without expressing shock; his camera also refuses to blink during scenes of murder. Antonin and Plaza-Splawski comport themselves like noblemen while ambushing their unsuspecting victims. Antonin desires Ewa yet gives her not a shred of sympathy; she's a package of meat to be used and abused for profit. At the conclusion he gathers a trio of rat-like hoods, who dress in tatty tailcoats and hats and hide their cheap pistols in cracks in the walls and floor. They surely imagine themselves to be master criminals, not the vermin they are.
We understand why Ewa is an easy mark for the villains, especially in her demoralized state. But the 'forces of good' let her down as well. Her father is a sweetheart, but has nothing to give her but tears. Ewa's reputation is gone long before anything has really happened to her, and her mother calls her a whore and wants her out of the house. It's not even a matter of a double standard at work - any woman who leaves the straight and narrow unsupervised, is a slut. Ewa in some ways is a femme fatale in that she turns men into proverbial moths around a flame. The slick Count Szczerbic proves a fool, easily trapped, while the pioneering socialist Count Bodzanta finds himself enraptured by Ewa as well. Is his attempt to establish a haven for lost women, really a subconscious attempt to set up some kind of utopian harem?
Finally there's Lukasz Niepolomski himself, Ewa's object of obsession and a real disappointment. We wonder why he isn't coming to her rescue, and then remember that he has returned to Warsaw when Ewa wasn't there, and that the villains have been feeding Ewa lies about him all along -- that he has remarried, etc. His final caring gestures can't begin to match Ewa's selfless efforts on his behalf. The conclusion of Story of Sin is a real jolt, that reduces Ewa to the state of a wounded animal.
I have a feeling that what I saw at FILMEX is a slightly different cut; either that or I was so transfixed by a shot of Ewa in feral mode that I blanked on the final few shots. But I remembered the exact way that Grazyna Dlugolecka wails her lover's name, like a cat in heat: Loo-kash Neepoh-wohmski! Loo-kash Neepoh-wohmski!