Born Sept. 2, 1923, in Kwilcz, Poland, Walerian Borowczyk was famous, then infamous, then forgotten. He made short films in the 1950s and ’60s, many of them animated and many of them showing the promise of a creative mind at work. That mind then moved to live-action features, and Borowczyk brought all his fetishistic absurdism with him.
It worked wonders. Goto, Island of Love (1969) was a hit, as was the one-two punch: Immortal Tales (1973) and The Beast (1975), both of which embraced eroticism, sensuality, and nudity. The movies brought Borowczyk fame, but they also pigeonholed him. Pornography was on the rise, and nudity—prevalent in world cinema—was making its way to the states. When producers called on the services of Borowczyk, they wanted a dirty old man, not a subversive artist.
But, as is often the case, what the moneymen want, the moneymen get, and Borowczyk was chewed up and spit out. A fate the 2018 documentary from director Kuba Mikurda, Love Express: The Disappearance of Walerian Borowczyk, aims to undo.
Featuring loads of talking heads—from Terry Gilliam to Neil Jordan—Love Express is a wonderful primer for the forgotten Borowczyk: From his work in animation (clearly an inspiration for Gilliam and Monty Python) to his unceremonious end in cinema. Even better, there is plenty of behind the scenes footage of Borowczyk at work that shows just how meticulous he was creating these images. Though some of his lewder scenes might seem sophomoric and casual, this documentary shows that each one was wholly Borowczyk.
Like a lot of recent documentaries about filmmakers, Love Express leans heavily on experts telling. Not enough of the work is shown, which might have more to do with copyright rules than aesthetics. The most interesting subject is Noël Véry, Borowczyk’s longtime cinematographer. Given short-shrift are the women who Borowczyk cast, particularly Lisbeth Hummel, who either chooses to play her opinions close to the vest or was edited that way. It would have been nice to hear more from her, and more from the other actors, but you can only work with what you got.
So it is with the history of cinema. The cannon is constantly in flux, and names are always in jeopardy of falling out of favor and disappearing into the void of history. And once they are gone, they are almost impossible to get back.
Love Express: The Disappearance of Walerian Borowczyk (2018)
Directed by Kuba Mikurda
Written by Marcin Kubawski, Kuba Mirkurda
Produced by Danuta Krasnohorska, Katarzyna Siniarska
Altered Innocence, Not rated, Running time 72 minutes, Opens Aug. 21 in select theaters and virtual theaters.