'Love Express: The Disappearance of Walerian Borowczyk': Film Review

Oldenburg International Film Festival
Big names, limited insight.

A legendary Polish provocateur is profiled in the debut documentary by Kuba Mikurda.

A patchy primer to the magnificently weird career of the 20th century's foremost animator/auteur/pornographer, Love Express: The Disappearance of Walerian Borowczyk (Love Express. Przypadek Waleriana Borowczyka) illuminates and frustrates in roughly equal measure. The debut work for cinema by Polish critic and academic Kuba Mikurda, who co-edited a book on the same subject in 2015, it features an eye-catching array of talking-heads contributors including Terry Gilliam, Slavoj Zizek, Neil Jordan, Bertrand Bonello and the late Andrzej Wajda.

These illustrious names, plus the enduring cult following for transgressive Borowczyk classics — such as Goto, Island of Love (1968), Immoral Tales (1974) and The Beast (1975) — will guarantee some measure of a film festival career for this fast-paced Poland-Estonia co-production. But properly analyzing what made "Boro" tick, and explaining how one of most acclaimed directors of his generation ended up fizzling out so messily in the 1980s, ultimately proves beyond Mikurda and collaborators.

The three credited editors (too many cooks...?) give far too much screen time to the assembled experts and not enough to Borowczyk's own diverse and prolific oeuvre. We hear, for example, a considerable amount from Neil Jordan, but Borowczyk's 1971 Blanche (described in a title card as a "masterpiece") is dealt with almost as an aside. Important works such as Behind Convent Walls (1978) or The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Miss Osbourne (1981) get even shorter shrift.

Mikurda and his co-writer Marcin Kubawski deal with Borowczyk's career via a series of chapters, each devoted to one particular key film — Goto, Immoral Tales, The Beast, The Margin (1976) and finally Emmanuelle V (1986). Much time and comment is expended on the latter, although Borowczyk's actual involvement in this installment of the legendary soft-core series was very limited. He makes no appearance in the "making of" footage which Mikurda dwells upon, and although we're told that he only directed one segment of the picture — the film-within-the-film Love Express, which provides this film with its title — no part of this is included, perhaps because of rights issues.

The final 20 years of Borowczyk's life are then elided into a couple of title cards, wrapping up matters on a jarringly abrupt and bathetic note. By this stage, we've learned surprisingly little about Borowczyk the man: his private life, family, political views as a Pole in self-imposed exile. The enigma remains a puzzle.

Bertrand Mandico, one of the interviewees, pulled off a much more extravagant and offbeat stab at the maestro's life with 2011's Boro in the Box; this effort is tamely conventional by comparison. While Mikurda does punctuate proceedings with Borowczyk's own wry commentary about his career taken from a 1984 TV profile — and some charming contemporary footage of his frequent DP Noel Very doing some sleuthing around his archives — the bulk of Love Express is rather surprisingly devoted to the guest commentators, who are often shown watching and reacting to Borowczyk clips.

Mikurda and his team occasionally try to spice up the talking-head interludes with close-ups of hands and faces, with largely lackluster results. The speakers' commentary is wildly variable in terms of insight: Zizek serves up his usual pseudo-profundities ("Enjoyment is always transgressive!") which sound sagacious but withstand little scrutiny, and it's disappointing that Wajda is only used to discuss his time at university when Borowczyk was a star student contemporary.

Even more troubling is the gender imbalance across the 16 interviewees, only two of whom are women: The Beast's star Lisbeth Hummel, and academic Cherry Porter. It's all very well for The Guardian's Peter Bradshaw to assert that Borowczyk's films are "very male," but in the current climate Mikurda's lazy masculine bias impossible to ignore, hard to defend.

Production companies: CoLab Pictures in association with HBO Europe, Adam Mickiewicz Institute, Maagiline Masin, Otter Films, Polish Film Institute, Estonian Film Institute
Director: Kuba Mikurda
Screenwriters: Marcin Kubawski, Kuba Mikurda
Producers: Katarzyna Siniarska, Danuta Krasnohorsk
Cinematographers: Piotr Stasik, Radoslaw Ladczuk
Editors: Marek Kralovsky, Jan Mlynarski, MichaƂ Poddebniak
Composer: Stefan Wesolowski
Venue: Oldenburg International Film Festival
Sales: New Europe Film Sales, Warsaw (jan@neweuropefilmsales.com)

In English, French, Polish, Italian
79 minutes