Story of Sin begins with a quintessentially Walerian Borowczyk image; the doors of a church confessional booth being opened. Already, we can see so many things that fascinate this director, from what’s on screen (the frame-within-a-frame, the old-fashioned handmade props and sets) to the implicit (the unlocking of secrets, the critical attitude towards religious authority). We might also see a metaphor for Arrow Academy, who are responsible for this reissue as well as six other Borowczyk films. They have consistently found new chambers of Boro’s work to unlock, and this set is no exception.
This DVD and Blu-Ray of Story of Sin addresses a strain of Borowczyk’s wayward career which wasn’t covered in the five-disc Camera Obscura set, nor their later reissue of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne. It’s about his Polish roots. Despite working most of his career in France, Borowczyk made several of his earliest shorts in his native Poland, as well as one feature – Story of Sin, adapted from a novel by the beloved and much-honoured Polish author Stefan Żeromski.
In fact, the Polish connection is one of the less fascinating facets of the set. Borowczyk in Poland turns out to be perfectly consistent with Borowczyk in any other country. Aside from the running themes and motifs already mentioned, Story of Sin is a story of carefree romance coming into conflict with corrupt authority. It has a moody colour palette of greens, browns and blues which sits perfectly well alongside The Beast or Blanche. Its camerawork swings from formal, static shots to jittery handheld push-ins without warning. None of these should be a surprise to anyone who’s seen a Borowczyk film before. (If you haven’t, this might not be a bad place to start, for several reasons we’re about to address)
So what’s new in this set? Despite its brace of familiar ideas and stylistic quirks, the title feature shows Borowczyk in a very different place to where the Camera Obscura collection left off. That ended with The Beast, his most staggering cinematic outrage. In Story of Sin, by contrast, the sex scenes are perfectly well-integrated into the film. They still have an erotic charge, and one of them is intercut with a slew of sexually explicit classical sculptures and illustrations, restating the nothing-new-under-the-sun moral of previous Borowczyk films like A Private Collection and Immoral Tales. But they feel like a logical step in the story, rather than a jolting interruption, as they were in The Beast.
One reason for this might be the strength of the source material. Żeromski was known as “the conscience of Polish literature”; by contrast, nobody has ever claimed Borowczyk was the conscience of Polish cinema, but he has found a kindred spirit with the older author. Story of Sin is one of those tales of mad love which fascinated the Surrealists, a story which begins with a simple encounter between an innocent woman, Ewa, and an unhappily married man, Lukasz, and becomes a border-crossing, era-spanning picaresque period epic.
The plot may be Żeromski’s but the treatment is all Borowczyk’s. By this stage in his career he had become more confident in handling plot – The Beast has a very intricate story, which most viewers miss because of the, er, other stuff – and he makes the constant pile-up of incident in Ewa’s life feel correctly exhausting. It’s a film no-one could accuse of short-changing them. It also calls back to his earlier films like Blanche or Rosalind in its sheer sympathy for its heroine. For all Ewa is mistreated (by the men in her life) and sexualised (by Borowczyk’s camera) it’s also fairly obvious that he admires her spirit and her passion, and Grażyna Długołȩcka’s performance might just be the best lead in all of Boro’s filmography.
Długołȩcka gets a gratifyingly long, in-depth interview in the disc’s extras, which once again are an absolute treasure trove of some of the most obscure corners of Borowczyk’s career. There are three of his early Polish animated shorts, one of which – Once Upon a Time – opens up yet another new angle on his work; this time, we see his fascination with the purely abstract animation of Len Lye and Norman McLaren. There is also a real rarity – a Polish newsreel about the country’s famously vivid poster art, written by Borowczyk. Again, this is both interesting in its own right and also casts a new light on his films, inviting you to see them as exercises in graphic design.
Daniel Bird, whose work on these discs has been nothing short of astonishing, also contributes a short video essay on Borowczyk’s work. It includes clips from most of the films Arrow have released, as well as a few that haven’t, implying there might be even more in the pipeline. Bird’s film is an endearing, funny, literate run through Borowczyk’s recurring visual motifs and themes, and makes an excellent primer for newcomers to this director. Story of Sin is typical Borowczyk in some ways, atypical Borowczyk in others, but Arrow’s treatment of the film is completely, wonderfully in line with what they’ve done before. These Borowczyk reissues are, quite simply, the standard by which all other Blu-Ray and DVD releases should now be judged.