Margherita waves goodbye to the off-screen Tomaso in Les Héroïnes du Mal

After moving to Paris from his native Poland in 1958, where he had studied painting and graphic arts, Walerian Borowczyk became a noted director of animated and short films. These include Astronautes (with Chris Marker, 1959), Renaissance (1963), Les Jeux des Anges (1964), Rosalie (1966) and Gavotte (1967).

Borowczyk moved into features with the mostly animated Théâtre de Monsieur & Madame Kabal: un film dessiné pour les adultes (The Theatre of Mr and Mrs Kabal) (1967), followed by his first fully-acted feature, the darkly-comic political allegory, Goto, l’île d’amour (Goto, Island of Love) (1968). Borowczyk was hailed as a genius, an opinion only reinforced by his next feature, the tragic mediæval romance, Blanche (1971). His reputation as one the world’s greatest feature directors appeared set in stone.

However, artists don’t always take the paths their supporters wish them to. When Borowczyk made Contes Immoraux (Immoral Tales) (1974), a commercially-successful compilation of four stories about sexual taboos, most fans expressed grave alarm.

In 1975, Borowczyk returned to Poland and directed the classical melodrama, Dzieje Grzechu (The Story of a Sin), based on a famous Polish novel. The previously-sceptical critics did an abrupt volte farce and decided Contes Immoraux was just an aberration – the result perhaps of a director from a Communist country having enjoyed a little too enthusiastically the freedoms of the West – and heralded The Story of a Sin as the triumphant return by Borowczyk to his true artistic self.

Borowczyk had other intentions than pandering to reviewers, however, and made the film that nearly finished him critically: La Bête (The Beast) (1975). It, too, was a box-office success, audiences delighting in this witty and subversive classic, but, except in France (Robert Benayoun, Ado Kyrou, et al), it was dammed in print, usually on the basis of a heavily censored print. Rarely has such a fêted director been so unceremoniously dumped.

If La Bête demonised Borowczyk with most critics, the 1970s films which followed ensured that they would never forgive him: La Marge (The Margin) (1976), Interno di un Convento (Behind the Convent Walls) (1977), Les Héroïnes du Mal: Margherita, Marceline, Marie (Heroines of Evil) (1979) and the “L’Armoire” episode in the composite feature, Collections Privées (1979). That most of them made money didn’t help, either.

Though Borowczyk made five features in the 1980s, one could be forgiven for not having noticed. Lulù (1980), Dr. Jekyll et Les Femmes (1981), Ars Amandi: l’arte di amare (The Art of Love) (1983), Emmanuelle 5 (part only, 1987) and Cérémonie d’Amour (Love Rites) (1988) were little seen, often butchered by producers and distributors, hideously dubbed and derisively reviewed. His television work (four episodes of Série Rose: Les Chefs d’Œuvre de la Litterature Erotique, 1989-91) also passed unnoticed. (1)

The critical savaging Borowczyk endured had to do with one thing: Borowczyk had exercised his right as an artist to discuss what interested him, in this case sex, and to show its many representations. Borowczyk’s motto had become that of La Rochefoucauld, who in Maximes writes:

Love, totally agreeable as it is, pleases more by the manner in which it shows itself than by itself. (2)

The critics saw it another way, accusing Borowczyk of sexploitation and “art-porn”. Some even attacked him for making erotic films that weren’t erotic!

Objective evaluation went out the window, as yet another supposed villain of this period, director Roger Vadim, perceptively noted:

In the frenzy to top every other critic with declarations of outrage, many journalists published what can only be described as drivel.

I’m still surprised by the obsession of journalists and some members of the public with eroticism and nudity in my films. […] Where does this fixation come from? The Biblical symbol of Eve and the serpent is more profoundly embedded in our unconscious than we believe: A naked woman must remain innocent. When she discovers sexual pleasure she unleashes on the world all the evils that plague mankind. (3)

Roger Vadim’s reference to Eve and the Serpent is highly relevant. Borowczyk’s films abound with references to the Genesis myth, to a story written with the sole purpose of justifying the subjugation of women to male will. Eve, the first victim of a male conspiracy, has cleverly been blamed for initiating a Fall in which she played no meaningful part, the true culprit being a jealous male god who was terrified of sharing his power with others. (4)

Borowczyk holds no truck with the it’s-all-Eve’s-fault lie, and his greatest films show the ways in which Eve and her descendants liberate themselves from male rules and constraints.

They do not seek men’s permission to be free, but act fearlessly outside the rules and controls of men. Whether they enjoy sex alone (Thérèse), with a youth (Claudia) or a rabbit (Marceline), kill for money (Margherita) or to maintain beauty (Erzsébert), triumph over kidnap and rape (Marie) or frame men for murder (Mériem), sire a child with one’s father or brother (Lucrezia), let alone prefer to join her true love of the other side of darkness (Fanny), these are cinema’s great Heroines of Desire. (5)

Borowczyk is no puritan and has no interest in judging women, no matter how transgressive their behaviour. As he has said:

Sigmund Freud wrote: the dream is the realization (disguised) of a desire (repressed, held back). For sure, film is a security valve for instincts that are condemned. It filters. The individual reveals himself outwardly, releases himself and hurts no one. He identifies with what he sees, kills via an intermediary and lives an experience through the cinema.

Ordinary people react well. They have no need to carry a mask. (6)

Les Héroïnes du Mal, the subject of this essay, tells the story of three of these heroines. These Eves have escaped the male proscribed Eden and their journeys forward are an inspiration to us all. (7)

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Les Héroïnes du Mal: Margherita, Marceline, Marie

Alternative titles: Tre Donne Immorale?: “Margherita”, “Marceline”, “Marie” (8) (Italy), Three Immoral Women (UK), Immoral Women (USA), Heroines of Evil, Heroines of Pain

Une sélection Argos Films. Pierre Braunberger présente LES HÉROÏNES DU MAL [/] MARGHERITA MARCELINE MARIE. © Films du Jeudi 1978. France. 35mm. Original running time: 115 mins. Video: 1:50:04 (French) (9); 1:48:30 (Italian) (10). DVD: 1:49:48 (Japanese). (11)

Production delegate: Pierre Braunberger. Executive producer: Michel de Vidas. Director of production: Gisèle Braunberger. Scriptwriter: Walerian Borowczyk. Dialogue: Walerian Borowczyk. “Marceline” based on: the short story, “Le Sang de l’Agneau”, by André Pieyre de Mandiargues, published in Le Musée Noir. (12) DOP: Bernard Daillencourt. Camera operator: Noël Véry. Collaboration: Dominique Duvergé. Extraordinary collaboration: Michel Levy. First assistant director: Michel Champetier. Production designer: Jacques d’Ovidio. Costumes: Piet Bolscher, with the collaboration of Sonia Rykiel and Aldo. Editor: Kadicha Bariha. Assistant editor: Hamida Mekki. Composers: Olivier Dassault, Philippe d’Aram. Sound: Guy Rophe. Mixer: Chris Woog. (13)

* * *

Les Héroïnes du Mal: Margherita, Marceline, Marie is the second compilation film from Borowczyk. Unlike Contes Immoraux, where each episode is set further back into the past, here they move forward through time.

* * *

1. “Margherita”.

Cast: Marina Pierro (Margherita [Luti]), François Guétary [Raffaello Sanzio], Jean-Claude Dreyfus (14) [Bernardo Bini], Jean Martinelli [Il Pape]; Pierre Benedetti, Philippe Desboeuf; Noël Simsolo [Giulio Romano], Roger Lefrere [Michelangelo], Gérard Falconetti [Tomaso]; Mathieu Rivolier, Robert Capia, Daniel Marty, Jacky Baudet, Sylvian Ramsamy, Jean Boullu.

Synopsis: In the early 16th century, the painter Raffaello Sanzio (François Guétary) spies on Margherita Luti (Marina Pierro) after she has made love with her fiancé, Tomaso (Gérard Falconetti), amongst Roman ruins. While at Raffaello’s studio for a sitting, she is spied on through a keyhole by a wealthy banker, Bernardo Bini (Jean Claude Dreyfus). After Raffaello pierces his eye with a paint-brush, Bini sets out to seduce Margherita and, tempting her with jewels, have her poison Raffaello with drugged cherries. But Margherita outwits everyone, poisoning Bini and then Raffaello, before returning with the banker’s jewels to her lover, Tomaso.

Raffaello died in 1520 after catching a cold in the Roman ruins.

– Théodore Mocon, 1506-1571

Raffaello died in 1529 exhausted from sexual pleasure.

– Giorgio Vasari, 1512-1574

Margherita Luti (Marina Pierro) and Tomaso (Gérard Falconetti) make love in the Roman Forum.

For centuries there has been speculation not only about whether Raffaello died of consumption or too much sex, but also over who was the model for La Fornarina, one of his last and greatest paintings. “Margherita” is Borowczyk’s imaginative speculation.

The opening is pure Borowczyk in the way it subtly and evocatively establishes one of the film’s key themes: the interrelation of sex and death.

After a credits image of Raffaello’s Le Tre Grazie (Three Graces), Borowczyk cuts to Margherita Luti (Marina Pierro) and Tomaso (Gérard Falconetti) having sex in the decaying ruins of the Roman Forum in the preferred Borowczyk way: the woman bending over a large object (here a fallen pillar) and the man thrusting from behind, their legs entwined. This is certainly one of the most joyous and intense, though brief, lovemaking scenes in all Borowczyk, and is not simulated. (15)

Afterwards, Margherita and Tomaso make vows of eternal fidelity, just like Sigismond Pons (Joe Dallesandro) and Sergine (Mireille Audibert) in La Marge. But do they mean it or is it just post-coital reassurance?

Among ancient erotic frescoes a little way off, Raffaello Sanzio (François Guétary) is asleep at his easel. He awakens to watch through a telescope Margherita’s ablutions beside a well. (16) She then joins him, her confident body language suggesting she has been aware of his presence all along.

The setting is more than mere visual decoration: Raffaello’s Three Graces is alleged to have been based on an ancient Roman fresco. The painting is so dear to Borowczyk’s heart that he staged a variant of it in Contes Immoraux (17), and does so again here, when Michelangelo (Roger Lefrere) later paints an all-male version.

In front of another fresco (Leda and the Swan), Margherita reveals to Raffaello that she is the daughter of a furnace-maker (“una fornarina”). She peers at one of his sketches, and he exclaims:

What are you doing? You are discovering my secrets.

That’s me! Do I have a mouth like that?

Yes, that’s your mouth. You have the most beautiful mouth I have ever seen.

She then watches him write on the sketch: “I kiss the mouth of Margherita.”

Margherita hides under the cloth used to cover La Fornarina.

Borowczyk’s characters are often discussing female mouths (most notably in “La Marée” in Contes Immoraux), but there is an eerie premonition here of a conversation between Lulù (Anne Bennent) and Jack l’Éventreur (Udo Kier) in Lulù, made one year later, where the link between sex and death is acted out in horrifying detail.

Certainly the presence of death hovers over nearly every frame of “Margherita”. During Margherita’s first sitting for Raffaello (which takes place after some quick intercourse (18)), Borowczyk cuts to a white cat scampering off a table as three musical instruments begin to topple. White cats have long been seen as a premonition of death, and for most of the film the audience is sure it will be Margherita who dies (despite Raffaello’s saying to her: “You are as beautiful as the sun, and the sun and death never meet”).

Raffaello explains to Margherita, as she sits naked beneath a transparent veil, wearing La Fornarina‘s famous head-scarf and gently touching her left breast, that Il Pape (Jean Martinelli) is one of his great benefactors and wants him to do a fresco for the Vatican. The conversation that follows is full of nuance and wit, but the images are so ravishing, so seductive, that it is easy for the words to glide past unnoticed.

At mention of the Vatican, Margherita remarks:

Where women are not admitted.

But that’s not [true] for all women.

Being a furnace-maker’s daughter, I won’t be allowed in there.

All doors will be open to you. There is no need for Il Pape’s gold. Freedom is worth more than gold.

But life is expensive. We need to live,

You think of money. You’re a true woman of the populace. I have protectors and patrons who are richer than Il Pape.

We will always stay together.

Nothing can separate us.

Il Pape (Jean Martinelli).

There are clear limits on a woman’s place, particularly for someone like Margherita, from the working class (“populace”), whose only entry to the Vatican can be as a prostitute (“not all women”). Both artist and subject are influenced by money, but differently (she for class reasons, he for patronage); in that very difference, they see a useful bond.

Now, while Raffaello has a great patron in the pope, he also has a staunch critic in Michelangelo, who believes in rendering life realistically and without shame. Raffaello takes a more stylised approach.

When Il Pape visits Michelangelo with a miniature of Raffaello’s Three Graces, which he carries at all times, Michelangelo is dismissive. The resultant discussion is one of many in the film which can be read as an analysis of the director’s attitude to cinema:

They resemble three globs of rancid butter.

But what about the framing, the rhythm?

If a painter does not recognize the internal muscular structure of the human body, then all he will do is cloak it as if in blobs of fat.

An angry Il Pape shoots back:

It is important that a painter also gets grace on canvas.

Michelangelo, with his interest in the muscular, is a masculine painter, whose women are rendered platonically; Raffaello, like Borowczyk, is more interested in the female form, with a palpable love for every curve and fold. Of all those who have filmed the unclothed, Borowczyk is one of the most loving, most graceful. (19)

As if to make the point more insistently, Borowczyk cuts from Michelangelo looking up at the dangling penis of a horizontally-stretched male model to Margherita lifting the veil over her pubis, which she fans while complaining of the heat. (20)

Raffaello, looking up from his easel, asks: “Are you thirsty? Eat an apple”, in yet another of Borowczyk’s many filmic references to the Eve in the Garden of Eden myth. Margherita looks at the exquisite composition of green apples on a plate, arranged by the painter. “I’m sorry to do so”, she says, “because the composition is so beautiful.” She does so anyway, preferring the natural to the artificial.

Another mediation on the cinema and art occurs when Raffaello is painting the fresco for the Vatican’s Stanze della Segnatura. Margherita is upset by how Raffaello is rendering her dark hair and remarks sarcastically:

You’ve taught me a lot about the harmony of colours and I can see that I’m blonde.

I haven’t taught you all I know. When Il Pape stares up at the ceiling, it will appear black.

Margherita wants to be painted as she really is, but Raffaello explains that one needs light colours to achieve a dark effect:

I change things to capture you the way you are.

All right, but there won’t be anything left of me

Yes, enough to tell the truth.

But my hair must remain black!

The discussion is an witty variation on Orson Welles’ dictum about great cinema being “unreal, but true” (21). For centuries, it has been men who have decided what constitutes “truth”. Now, the Margheritas are rebelling.

The wealthy banker Bernardo Bini (Jean-Claude Dreyfus) then calls at Raffaello’s studio, the painter taking the cloth that he uses to cover La Fornarina and hiding Margherita beneath it. After Bini pays Raffaello for a commission, he is ushered out. Raffaello spreads Bini’s gold coins on a table, over which Margherita bends. But Bini, aroused by distant glimpses of Margherita, sneaks back to spy painter and model having sex through a keyhole (22), only to be blinded in one eye through that very keyhole by Raffaello’s paintbrush – a suitably poetic result.

Margherita and the now one-eyed Bernardo Bini (Jean-Claude Dreyfus).

If women are used (in all senses) as models, they are also used as economic commodities, bought and sold for pleasure and to do man’s deeds. That is certainly the view of the reprehensible (and now appropriately one-eyed) Bini. Even Raffaello so dreads his voyeuristic intrusions that he builds an intricate enclosed wooden staircase/passage to his Vatican fresco, with revolving cubicle and treacherous slide. When Bini dares venture up it, Margherita taunts him outrageously (she is now the watcher), until he is spat out into a bin of chalk, “white the colour of death”, he mutters.

That night, Margherita and Raffaello celebrate through lovemaking, bent over the table, her foot trampling a red-plumed Roman helmet back and forth on the floor.

After pretending to Raffaello that she’s dreamt of her father’s death (he was surrounded by white), Margherita (dressed in black!) goes not to her family, as she said, but to Bernardo Bini. She is not the Madonna men wish to portray her as.

Bini then takes her into his chamber and towards its ornate bed, “an invention in the service of love”, designed by Raffaello’s disciple, Giulio Romano (23).

Bini then produces the jewels by which he hopes to buy Margherita in bed, and gain her assistance in revenging himself against Raffaello with poisoned cherries.

In an amusing sequence (in the midst of all this sex and death, there is always humour), Bini asks Margherita to select how she wishes to have intercourse by looking at projected images of lovemaking based on Romano’s original woodcuts. (24) (Borowczyk cheekily plays with historical time here as Romano did not do the first drawing of I Modi until 1523, three years after Raffaello’s death. Borowczyk also has Bini project Count Maximilien de Waldeck’s reconstructions of Romano’s original sketches, not completed until 1886.)

Margherita and Bernardo Bini (Jean-Claude Dreyfus) try out one of Romano positions.

After rejecting nine positions with delightful variations of “no” (25), Margherita settles on position four because, she claims, “I like it with my feet in the air.” The true reason is so that her leg can extend outside the confines of the white-shrouded bed and, with her toes, open the drawer with the poisoned cherries.

Margherita leaves Bini after having switched the cherry on the chocolate cake he greedily devours, and, church bells ringing, returns to Raffaello. After a moment of passion, including surely the most erotic kiss in Borowczyk, she shows him a (white) box of sweets, disingenuously adding they were made by her father and that “The cherries were picked by my mother, the speciality of Luti family.”

Both Bini and Raffaello die asking “Where is ‘la fornarina’?” But she is back at the ruins with Tomaso, rubbing sensuously Bini’s jewels over her own jewel box (to use a centuries-old euphemism). (26) The victory of a powerless woman from the working class is absolute.

Margherita has succeeded because men thought she was their pawn. She was lured away from her lover and her social class, and then preyed upon by men who believed wealth can and does control everything. Given the patriarchy that existed at the time, Bini and Raffaello had no reason to feel other than confident. But they underestimated Margherita, a scheming, resourceful women in the grand tradition of the two Lucrezias (Contes Immoraux and Interno di un Convento). She manipulates men while allowing them to think of her as a victim, her murderous revenge and theft merely the acts of a woman reasserting control over her own destiny (and image).

In a world of marginalized women, she has used a natural asset (her sex) to attain what is otherwise denied her (wealth).

* * *

This gem has a sun-radiant surface and ranks among Borowczyk’s most delightful work. It is a visual and textural joy, the compositions and montage utterly dazzling. The classic Borowczyk images are in full flight – of all the many scenes of legs intertwined during lovemaking, the shot of Raffaello and Margherita bent over the money-strewn table, helmet at their feet, is his most joyous – and his sets particularly inventive. The collaboration with DOP Bernard Daillencourt is, as always, particularly rewarding.

Marina Pierro, having now replaced Ligia Branice (Goto, l’île d’amour, Blanche, etc.) as the director’s muse, glows in her finest performance.

* * *

2. “Marceline”

Cast: Gaëlle Legrand (Marceline [Caïn]); Assane Fall (27) [Pétrus], France Rumilly [Madame Caïn], Yves Gourvil [Monsieur Caïn], Lisbeth Arno [Floka]; Françoise Queré, Ahmed Mazoouz. (28)

Synopsis: Early last century, Marceline Caïn (Gaëlle Legrand) spends all her available time with her pet rabbit, enjoying intimate moments together on the lawn. Marceline’s bourgeois parents, annoyed by their inability to control her wild behaviour (she even eats salad with her hands!), trick her into eating the casseroled rabbit for dinner. (29) Later that night, Marceline goes to visit the local delivery boy, Pétrus (Assane Fall), at the abattoir where he works. Marceline loses her virginity in the sheep pens, passing out at the sight of her own blood. Pétrus wrongly believes he has killed her and hangs himself, only to realize his error just before he expires. Marceline returns to the house and cuts her parents’ throats. In a convent home for girls, she delights the other inmates with her macabre story.

* * *

This is the second time Borowczyk adapted a short story by André Pieyre de Mandiargues (30), here “Le Sang de l’Agneau” (“The Blood of the Lamb”).

The references to lambs begin with the opening scene, the teenage (31) Marceline Caïn (Gaëlle Legrand) buying two kilos of gigot from a delivery boy, Pétrus (Assane Fall). As he strokes her breasts, he remarks, “I don’t kill the lambs … Goodbye my curly little lamb. See you soon.”

This link between sex and death, poetically dealt with via white cats and shrouds in “Margherita”, here in “Marceline” finds truly shocking expression.

In brilliant sunshine, Marceline takes Souci (32), her white rabbit, out onto the vast green lawn of her parents’ home, Les Risseaux (“The Streams”). But she frets when Souci runs too near the slope down to the cascading creek. “Come here”, she calls, and the white rabbit darts in between her squatting legs, nestling in her undergarments. “Stay under there. You are safe, dear one.”

In Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll writes:

[T]he hot day made her feel very sleepy […] a white rabbit with pink eyes ran close by her. […] She ran across the field after it, and was just in time to see it pop down a large rabbit-hole under the hedge. (33)

It is difficult not to equate Carroll’s hole in the ground (which is imagined by Alice and, therefore, hers) with Marceline’s vagina. Irregardless, both girls are led on a weird and wonderful adventure, with dramatic climax, by a white rabbit on a hot summer’s day. (34)

As Marceline starts to undress, she shoos Souci away: “Go, go. I have to undress now and if you look at me I’ll be embarrassed.” A discreet Souci hides behind a white lace umbrella, lying open on the lawn.

Marceline then lies naked on the sun-drenched grass, gently stoking her breasts and calling out Souci’s name.

Seated at the piano inside the house, Madame Caïn (France Rumilly) sings a song (atrociously), while calling the maid, Floka (Lisbeth Arno), an “imbecile” and imperiously issuing instructions on how to cook the meal.

Marceline (Gaëlle Legrand) and her pet rabbit, Souci.

Oblivious to domestic dramas within the house, Marceline guides Souci between her thighs to the “hole under the hedge”. She grips her breasts in ecstasy.

While Gaëlle Legrand’s performance is indisputably one of the finest in Borowczyk, one is tempted to say it is also one the bravest. But such praise actually contains within it the pejorative seed of the patronizing male. Why shouldn’t an actress interpret with joy and fearlessness what others pigeonhole as controversial or difficult?

Marceline speaks to her rabbit:

You shouldn’t run around so much. Rabbits tire so easily. Their hearts are as small as a drop of water. Don’t tire yourself. It is Floka who doesn’t like you. She showed me the heart of a rabbit.

Again there is that connection between sex and death.

How sweet you are, my little rabbit. Do you know why I called you Souci? Because you resemble a white flower that runs across the grass.

The rabbit, which has been nibbling away sensuously, starts to move away.

Where are you off to?

Marceline holds Souci to her face and kisses him.

Ah, I understand. You want to kiss me for the name I’ve given you.

She puts the rabbit back between her legs.

Let’s not talk any more. Don’t ask questions.

Marceline clearly imagines that the rabbit has a consciousness, just as does Lewis Carroll.

Soon after, Marceline reaches orgasm, despite Floka’s repeated calling her to lunch. Whereas Ifany (Hassan Fale) and Clarissa (Pascale Rivault) stop making love at every interruption in La Bête, Marceline places herself beyond bourgeois rules.

Don’t be frightened. We have our little secret. You mustn’t tell anybody.

While “Marceline” may shock and disturb people on a variety of levels, it is to this point one of utmost enchantment, one of the sunniest sequences in all of Borowczyk.

Marceline finally arrives at the lunch table – via a window rather than a door, for which she is harshly castigated – and sits down to lunch. But she is immediately sent away to wash her hands.

In her bedroom, she smells and licks her hands, remembering sexual pleasure, just as many a teenager has refused to wash his or her fingers for days after first touching a partner’s sex. Even if Borowczyk’s phantasms sometimes seem far away from everyday lives, even dreams, there is always at the core a connection with most spectators’ lives.

At lunch, Monsieur Caïn (Yves Gourvil) and his wife, who epitomize the nouveau bourgeoisie, continue to berate their daughter for what they see as appalling manners and lack of respect.

Disturbingly, Borowczyk cuts from Monsieur Caïn’s “You should show an unlimited respect for your mother. It’s your mother who feeds and clothes you” (yet another attempt at bought affection) to men cutting up lamb carcasses at an abattoir. This is Georges Franju territory, another of the great surrealists and a contemporary of Borowczyk.

Prior to dinner, Marceline suspects something is wrong when she finds Souci’s cage is empty. She searches the creek-bank, but he is not there.

Before moving to the dining table, Marceline’s father tries to calm her:

On such a beautiful day, we decided to take him down to the pine trees so he could play around. You can catch him up after the meal. (35)

This is perverse game of offering false hope reminds one of Grozo (Guy Saint-Jean) in Goto, l’île d’amour, where he pretends to Glossia (Ligia Branice) that he will take a letter to her lover, knowing he is already dead.

A casserole is then brought to the dinner table. “Lamb cacciatore”, Monsieur announces. Floka and the Caïns try hard not to laugh. “To Marceline we’ll give a big juicy piece”, Monsieur adds.

As tears begin to flow down Marceline’s face (in one of the most harrowing of many such close-ups in Borowczyk), Madam Caïn whispers, “I think it is time to tell her.” Monsieur takes over:

My dear little girl, your mother and I have given this much reflection and we have come to the conclusion that you are no longer of an age to play with a rabbit … a little rabbit. [He laughs.] Therefore, we have acted in a way that will stop you from ever seeing that stupid beast again. That’s normal, don’t you think? We believe we have acted in your best interest, it’s the best solution. The thing you have eaten with such gusto [laughs], that meat … tender and well-cooked … that will remain a memorable memory …

Monsieur Caïn starts cackling, his wife and Floka joining in, till his spectacles fall onto his plate. When Marceline gets up and leaves without saying a word, a piece of rabbit cupped in her hands, her father adds denunciatorily, “She’s a girl without a heart!”

This is a very black scene, one of the harshest condemnations of the French bourgeoisie on film. To imitate a hack journalist, “It makes Claude Chabrol look like an apologist for the middle class!”

Some may find it descends too far into caricature, and Borowczyk appears to make no attempt to give the Caïns and Floka any humanity, any “reasons” (in the Jean Renoir sense). But one cannot deny the extraordinary power of the scene, in the self-satisfied and monstrously cruel way these parents go about interfering in their child’s sexuality.

The moment when the mother breaks into a vulgar laugh after Marceline has taken her first mouthful of rabbit is absolutely chilling. It is hard to imagine a greater psychological cruelty visited on a child by a parent (unknowing cannibalism of one’s beloved), yet parents interfere in the sexual pursuits of children all the time as if it is their right to control another person’s expressions of desire. It all leads nowhere good, and the brutal consequences of that repression in this film are, on a metaphoric level, in no way exceptional.

Marceline and Souci.

Marceline is perfectly entitled to show more affection for a rabbit than her parents, and her acts of rebellion are those of someone asking that she be allowed to love where and how she finds it.

In her room, Marceline tenderly puts the piece of the rabbit she has taken from the dinner table in a box. She then waits for her parents to go to sleep; excited by curtailing their child’s sex life, they are now happily indulging in their church-approved one.

Later that night, Marceline, half-naked under a shawl, climbs out through a window (again) and makes her way to the abattoir.

Arriving fully dressed, she pauses to put on lipstick and rouge up her cheeks. She does not hear Pétrus sneak up behind her:

What are you looking for? Answer me. Are you alive or dead?

I’ve come to see you. Listen, I really want to see the lambs you are going to kill.

Come along. The lambs are less white and beautiful than you … but their blood will be excited when they look in your cruel eyes.

Pétrus yanks off her shawl, and Marceline stands by a gated pen full of sheep, only hours from slaughter. As Pétrus moves under a ladder, his voice reverberates with an eerie echo, as if not quite real.

The young lady is now in a trap, in the hands of a Negro and the Negro will hang on to her. You will have to be kind to the Negro or the Negro will cut your throat and blood will spray so high it will hit the ceiling. […] I am a butcher. The greatest killer of sheep there is. The others are proud of me.

But at night aren’t you just the watchman?

Angered by her emasculating remark (watchman not butcher), Pétrus rushes towards Marceline.

“I’m here to kill lambs”, he yells.

He grabs her and, opening the gate, pushes her into the crowded pen.

Leave me … leave me. [He rips off part of her clothes. Sheep scatter.] Do you want to play at being a butcher at this time of night? And you want to do it with me?

It’s always the hour to be a butcher. When you’ve been waiting a long time to do it, it excites you even more.

Pétrus pushes her onto the straw-covered ground and strips her naked. He then stands and tosses aside his belt, with a knife attached; several sheep sniff it suspiciously.

Borowczyk then cuts to Marceline on her knees, bent forward over a sheep pinned in the corner of the pen. (36) Pétrus approaches and enters her from behind. Her scream of pain is heard over a shot of a ‘mother’ sheep looking serenely over her flock. The image has the most striking and powerful religious connotations (as, of course, does the term “blood of the lamb”).

Borowczyk then cuts back to Pétrus vigorously fucking Marceline, while all the time ranting:

You are a white sheep, in the hands of a black butcher. As you know, the job of a butcher is to make the blood flow, but you also know it’s not such a terrible thing as it seems because you came of your own free will, alone, without fear, at night looking for the black butcher who was not thinking of you, who was asleep, and you awoke him, and now you must have faith in him, the black butcher, who won’t hurt you, I promise.

That is pure écriture feminine, in style and content, yet spoken by an uneducated working-class male. Marceline and Pétrus then jointly reach orgasm, an event so unlikely in this context as to make one gasp in disbelief.

The entire scene is profoundly disturbing, not only in its explicit linking the slaughtering of a sheep and a girl losing her virginity.

It is curious, though, that many critics, including Tom Milne (37), claim Marceline is raped, when she is clearly not. This is one of countless cases where people fantasize about what is on the Borowczyk screen.

Marceline goes to the abattoir with the clear intention of having sex with Pétrus. And though he is extremely rough with her at the start, she in part provokes that by making the emasculating accusation of “watchman”.

Far more revealing, however, is the way Marceline calmly gets ready for being penetrated, patiently adjusting her knees in the straw until she has attained the perfect position. Unbeknownst to Pétrus, he is being used as a sex object to deflower her. (He has other rôles to play as well, but as yet there are undisclosed.)

As Pétrus then rests (38), Marceline staggers up a ladder to the hayloft, where she passes out after looking at the hand which has touched the blood between her thighs, the blood of the lamb. When Pétrus later climbs up and sees her, he thinks she is dead and hangs himself. (39)

Marceline is awoken by his dying screams, climbs down and sees him dangling. Pétrus calls out plaintively, “Save me. You’re alive”, but she ignores him. Instead, she collects her clothes, his butcher’s cap and knife-belt, and leaves.

At home, at 3 am, she cuts the throats of her parents with Pétrus’ knife, blood spurting everywhere and hitting several objects, including a photograph. It is extraordinarily gruesome and a poetic inversion of Pétrus boast to Marceline that “the Negro will cut your throat and blood will spray so high it will hit the ceiling”.

The blood-splashed Marceline then neatly covers her parents with a white sheet, places Pétrus’ cap on the bed and tosses the knife to the floor. The police will inevitably conclude he committed suicide out of guilt over committing the murders.

The film ends at an orphanage (the Orphelinat Providence), where, after lights out, Marceline puts the box (with the rabbit remains?) on her night stand, just before the other homeless girls rush over to her:

Listen, tell us that story.

That one that ends at three in the morning.

No, tell us another one.

“Look,” Marceline intercedes, “I’ll tell you the story of the ‘Le Sang de l’Agneau’, but you know it already”

Yes, but we like it. Tell us again.

The story of love and death.

“Listen,” Marceline begins, “once upon a time there was a rabbit called Souci. He was white, soft like a pillow, and had red ears that reflected the sun. One summer day … torridly …”

As the girls lean forward, their heads touching Marceline’s in a tender moment of sisterhood, the mass of collective hair forms a feminine triangle.

* * *

An obvious first reading is that the now orphaned Marceline is recounting her bizarre life to fellow inmates.

A post-modern alternative is that Marceline is retelling a short story she has already read, placing herself in the narrative. After all, the story she starts to tell, “Le Sang de l’Agneau”, has the same title as de Mandiargues’ short story, and she the same name as its heroine. Unlike the rest of “Marceline”, the orphanage sequence is not period-specific; it could be happening after 1946, when de Mandiargues published his story.

However, by far the most beautiful and poignant reading is the probability that Marceline has invented the whole gruesome tale as a way of explaining why she, like other girls, is now parentless.

This explains the ludicrously caricatured portrayal of the parents, Marceline being deflowered by a “Negro”, the puzzling écriture feminine of Pétrus’ long rant, the unrealistic joint climaxing, and so on. All are consistent with being imagined by a lonely teenage girl.

Thus, out of a seemingly-shocking story of sex and death that would have made Georges Bataille sit up with delight comes an uplifting, poetic story of one girl’s ability to overcome personal loss through the enchantment of storytelling.

“Marceline”, then, is the work of the same genius that created the short film Renaissance, and yet another of his masterpieces about the transformative power of the human spirit.

Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland ends:

Lastly, she pictured […] how she would gather about her other children, and make their eyes bright and eager with many a strange tale, perhaps even the dream of Wonderland of long ago; and how she would feel with all their simple sorrows, and find a pleasure in all the simple joys, remembering her own child-life, and the happy summer days. (40)

* * *

3. “Marie”

Cast: Pascale Christophe (Marie); Gérard Ismaël [Antoine], Henri Piegay [Mari]; Bernard Hiard.

Synopsis: In modern-day Paris, Marie (Pascale Christophe) is kidnapped by a gunman, Antoine (Gérard Ismaël), outside a bookshop. She is bundled into a van, handcuffed and then forced to demand over the telephone a large ransom from her wealthy husband (Henri Piegay). She later meets with her husband on a busy street (the kidnapper keeping her in his gun sights), only to find he has not yet paid the money, which is less than he was about to spend on a painting. Marie is then driven to a disused warehouse, where she is raped on the floor of the van. Fortunately, Marie’s black Doberman, César, has managed to track her scent through the streets of Paris and comes to her rescue, emasculating Antoine and, when he unexpectedly turns up, her husband. A naked Marie embraces her saviour. (41)

* * *

This is a surreal tale of dark forces at work just beneath the surface of bustling, everyday Paris. Lurking round any corner could be a Fantômas, an Arsène Lupin or a Professeur Genessier (Pierre Brasseur) seeking out a new face to graft onto his daughter (42).

The kidnapping of Marie (Pascale Christophe) is truly bizarre, Antoine (Gérard Ismaël) grabbing her on a crowded street outside L’Intermédiaire du Livre, and dragging her inside a pile of cardboard boxes, taped together and hollowed-out inside. Comically, the pile begins to move (it could be Inspector Clouseau in disguise), twice Borowczyk cutting to a shot of Antoine’s and Marie’s feet shuffling along the footpath through a hole at the bottom. (43)

The boxes stop moving next to Antoine’s van, but the quirky humour continues, Marie’s husband (Henri Piegay) resting his hand on one of them while searching for her. A teenage girl then comes along and bounces a soccer ball against it.

The visual style is matter-of-fact and almost cinéma vérité, as if the camera is as furtive a spectator as the kidnapper with his telescopic sight. Borowczyk had begun experimenting with this style in La Marge and Brief von Paris (short, 1976), and later uses it in Cérominé d’Amour.

Inside the van, Marie is handcuffed, a dart board rattling near her feet. “I’m a great dart-player”, Antoine boasts, Borowczyk linking the penis with a dangerous pointed object. (In his Dr. Jekyll et les Femmes, it is the penis itself which stabs people to death.)

Marie’s subsequent rendezvous with her husband to discuss the ransom money is quite absurdist, occurring on a very crowded street near a poissonerie and a merry-go-round. Despite a rifle pointed at her to prevent escape, it is difficult to think of a less suitable location from the kidnapper’s point-of-view.

There is black comedy, too, in the dialogue, as when the kidnapper hands her a chair in the van – “It’s Louis IV from Versailles. You like it?” – or a street vendor calls out to Marie after her husband has complained of the difficulty in raising the ransom, “Lady, don’t miss out on this bargain.”

But the episode moves to an even more absurdist level when Marie’s dog, César, overhears her voice during a telephone conversation with her husband. In true surrealist fashion, the animal is more aware of the subterranean undercurrents of the city that any human, and starts his frantic search along busy streets, towards the Arc de Triomphe, across parks and, most hilariously, past an elderly bourgeois couple with a dog on a leash!

Antoine (Gérard Ismaël) rapes the kidnapped Marie (Pascale Christophe).

In correct chronological order, César revisits where Marie has been, on the scent of a woman (as the film could easily have been called). The most bizarre moment occurs when César visits a news-kiosk where Marie bought newspapers for the kidnapper, Borowczyk cutting to handheld POVs … of the dog!

Placed blatantly in shot is a billsheet for Détective magazine: “He forced an unknown to violate his wife with his eyes.” The male gaze is under savage attack here, especially with Borowczyk having Antoine repeatedly look at Marie through the telescopic sight of a rifle which pokes out a small slit in the side of his van. In other words, the male look is directly equated with a threatening, poking gun.

After Antoine has taken Marie to a disused warehouse, he makes up a bed on the floor of the van, on which he intends raping her. But first he has to remove the rifle from under the mattress, the initial hint that Marie is moving into a world of female desire where the penis is not required. César arrives later and bites off the kidnapper’s genitals, followed by the husband’s.

Marie listens to the sounds of her dog castrating the villains.

The latter’s sudden arrival is one of the episode’s most bewildering aspects: perhaps a scene explaining how he discovered Marie’s whereabouts (he followed the dog?) went missing along the way; perhaps Borowczyk just didn’t care about this detail, wanting one emasculation to quickly follow the other. (44)

Both men then roll in an comically-theatrical manner down a ramp in front of the warehouse, toppling in the watery grave of the Seine.

Borowczyk, feed up with the hidden, controlling nature of male desire, has envisioned a de-membered world where Marie can pursue other forms of desire without the threat of male bondage and rape. (Cérémonie d’Amour explores the notion further with a more poetic and humane resolution.)

The shots of a naked Marie cuddling César at the end are some of the most outrageously subversive and beautiful images ever created on film. That Borowczyk wants the audience to think this is a happy resolution is in no doubt, the discordant music suddenly reverting to the upbeat melody of the opening titles.

* * *

Les Héroïnes du Mal: Margherita, Marceline, Marie was the final straw for many critics. In Variety, “Len” denounced it as “loathsome”, “pretentious”, “repulsive” and, most bizarre of all, having “little groin appeal” (45)! In Monthly Film Bulletin, Tom Milne, inexplicably reviewing a print missing 22 minutes, concludes:

Sad to see Borowczyk not only continuing to waste his talent in the sex market, but declining even more markedly into sheer sexploitation than he did in Behind the Convent Walls (46) […] One is left with the uncomfortable feeling that Borowczyk is not merely repeating but parodying himself. (47)

There is nothing remotely “sexploitation” about Les Héroïnes du Mal, no wasting of talent, no hint of parody.

The Italian version of Borowczyk’s film is titled Tre Donne Immorale?: “Margherita”, “Marceline”, “Marie”, the crucial question mark missed by most reviewers. But its presence is imperative, as Borowczyk is clearly arguing that society is wrong for labelling Margherita, Marceline and Marie as immoral:

Deep down, I am on the side of these women. I hope that those people who have seen [this film] recognize their heroism: that is, the heroic energy they devote to realizing their desires, whatever they may be. (48)

Christian Kessler in Video Watchdog agrees:

[…] women are the only strategically-thinking persons in a maze of static rules, through which only men stumble without reason, driven by their fantastical egos. Sometimes by nature, sometimes by accident, the women are set on a collision course with the morals of their times, rising above their proposed place in life, sometimes going straight for the balls of their oppressors! (49)

Indeed, Margherita, Marceline and Marie are Borowczyk’s greatest heroines and one awaits patiently the day when they will be fully understood and appreciated, and the film finally accorded its rightful place in the uppermost reaches of the cinematic pantheon. It is a surreal masterpiece and possibly Borowczyk’s finest work.


  1. Three crucial exceptions to the 1980s critical neglect are Walerian Borowczyk di Valerio Caprara (Florence: La Nuova Italia, 1981), Borowczyk: Cinéaste Onirique: Le cas étrange du Dr Jekyll et Miss Osbourne (Paris: Collection La Vue and B. Diffusion, 1981) and Sue Adler, “Enticements to Voyeurism”, Cinema Papers, No. 50, February-March 1985.
  2. Quoted in French at the beginning of Contes Immoraux. Translated by the author.
  3. Roger Vadim, Bardot, Deneuve, Fonda, translated from the French by Melinda Camber Porter (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1986), p. 254.
  4. Eve does not seduce Adam into eating the forbidden fruit; she merely hands it to him and he happily munches away. As for the LORD God’s motives in booting Adam out of Eden, Genesis 3:20 states: “And the LORD God said, ‘Behold the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever.’ Therefore the LORD God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken.”
  5. Thérèse (Contes Immoraux), Claudia (Ars Amandi: l’arte di amare), Marceline (Les Héroïnes du Mal: Margherita, Marceline, Marie), Margherita (Les Héroïnes du Mal), Erzsébert (Contes Immoraux), Marie (Les Héroïnes du Mal), Mériem (Cérémonie d’Amour), Lucrezia (Contes Immoraux) and Fanny (Dr. Jekyll et les Femmes).
  6. Borowczyk: Cinéaste Onirique, p. 26. Translated by Paul Kalina.
  7. Fortunately, the sorry tide of critical neglect and ridicule slowly began to turn in the mid-1990s. Cathal Tohill and Pete Tombs wrote a chapter on Borowczyk in their Immoral Tales: European Sex and Horror Movies 1956-1984 (London: The Primitive Press), first published in 1994. That same year, Video Watchdog, Special Edition #1, published articles on Borowczyk by Christian Kessler, Tim Lucas and Timothy Taylor, along with Kessler’s important interview covering all of the director’s career. In 1998, Cinema Papers began a series of lengthy articles by the author on Borowczyk (Nos 128 and 129), while on the internet several Borowczyk sites emerged, including one at www.vidmarc.demon.co.uk. The Annecy Festival, too, had a retrospective of Borowczyk’s drawings and paintings and in May 2001 La Bête was finally released in the UK in a director-shortened but uncensored form. Two months later, a cinema in London ran a mini-festival of Borowczyk. In 2004, La Bête was released on DVD in its original (and far superior) version, making it one of 10 legal DVD releases currently in circulation: Goto, l’île d’amour, Contes Immoraux, Dzieje Grzechu, La Bête, La Marge, Interno di un Convento, Les Héroïnes du Mal: Margherita, Marceline, Marie, Ars Amandi: l’arte di amare, Emmanuelle 5 and Cérémonie d’Amour.
  8. While the Italian title has quote marks, the French does not.
  9. Regie Cassette Video (France); in French without subtitles.
  10. Empire Video Gold (Italy); in Italian without subtitles.
  11. Pioneer (Japan); in French with removable Japanese subtitles. There is ludicrous optical fogging on shots of genitalia.
  12. André Pieyre de Mandiargues, La Musée Noir (Paris: Robert Laffont, 1946). There is no English-language edition of this, de Mandiargues’ first, book.
  13. The above credits follow the methodology devised for the author’s Australian Film 1978-1992: A Survey of Theatrical Features (Melbourne: Oxford University Press in association with The Australian Film Commission and Cinema Papers, 1993), pp. 5-11, which has since been adopted by some international writers on film.
  14. The Italian version incorrectly drops the hyphen in “Jean-Claude”.
  15. The Italian video is cut by 12 seconds in this scene, notably a wide-shot of Tomaso and Margherita having actual intercourse, and that section of the left-to-right pan to the lovers’ pounding thighs. Overall, this episode is 26 seconds shorter than the French original. (The DVD is complete, but fogs the ‘explicit’ parts.)
  16. There is a parallel here with the protruding telescopic rifle of kidnapper Antoine (Gérard Ismaël) in “Marie”.
  17. In the “Erzsébet Báthory” episode.
  18. It is part of a later sex sequence with a red-plumed helmet. Its inclusion here is one of two major misjudgements of the film (the other concerns a husband’s appearance at the end of “Marie”).
  19. for the many feminists of both sexes who criticized Borowczyk for only showing female nudity, how can they explain all this male nudity, which is far more extensive and explicit than that of Margherita?
  20. There is a surprising parallel here with Emmanuelle 5, where Emmanuelle (Monique Gabrielle) strips naked in a Saint Tropez restaurant because she claims it is too hot.
  21. In the 1982 Arena documentary, The Orson Welles Story, Welles says vis a vis a discussion of Touch of Evil (1958), “What I was trying to do was to make something that was unreal, but true. And I think that’s the definition of the highest kind of theatricality. That’s the kind of theatricality that can exist in films, too.”
  22. There is an outrageous 5-second cut here in the Italian VHS version, a gloriously sensual shot of Raffaello embracing Margherita’s bottom and kissing her lower back. (It is in the DVD version.)
  23. After Raffaello’s death, it fell on Romano and another apprentice to finish the fresco in the Stanze della Segnatura.
  24. Grateful thanks to Rolando Caputo for pointing this out, and for the loan of the invaluable I Modi: The Sixteen Pleasures: An Erotic Album of the Italian Renaissance: Giulio Romano, Marcantoni Raimondi, Pietro Aretino, and Count Jean-Frederic-Maximilien de Waldeck, edited, translated from the Italian and with a commentary by Lynne Lawner (Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1988).
  25. Not all the positions are by Romano. Margherita rejects, in order, positions 14, 9, 15 (sort of Romano), 9 (ditto), 11, 10, 18 (pure de Waldeck), 11 (another variant) and 5 (also de Waldeck).
  26. This scene has parallels with the girl (Marie Forså) putting pearls inside her vagina in “Erzsébet Báthory” (Contes Immoraux), Diana (Sylvia Kristel) inserting folded banknotes in La Marge and Sepora (Mireille Pame) placing a coin there in Ars Amandi: l’arte di amare.
  27. On La Bête, the actor’s name is spelt “Hassan Fale”.
  28. These credits are from the French VHS and the Japanese DVD; the Italian VHS deletes all the actors’ names from this episode, except for Gaëlle Legrand’s.
  29. Oddly, some reviews say it is at lunch.
  30. The first is “La Marée” in Contes Immoraux.
  31. Marceline is 14 in de Mandiargues’ short story; no age is given in the film.
  32. The rabbit is named Forello in the Italian version; and the equivalent of Dandelion in the German, according to Christian Keller, “How to Look at It: The Beastly Art of Walerian Borowczyk”, Video Watchdog, Special Edition #1, p. 93.
  33. Lewis Carroll, The Annotated Alice: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, with an introduction and notes by Martin Gardner (London: Penguin, 1965), pp. 25-6.
  34. The rabbit is yellow-orange in de Mandiargues’ short story; the change to white in the film verifies the Lewis Carroll connection.
  35. This has the cruellest scatological implications.
  36. People have made love on sheep-skin rugs for millennia, but never before in the cinema on top of a live sheep!
  37. Tom Milne, “Héroïnes du mal, Les (Three Immoral Women)”, Monthly Film Bulletin, July 1981, p. 139: “summarily raped”.
  38. There is a key (14-second) shot missing here from the Italian version of Pétrus stroking his semi-erect penis in medium close-up, with straw stuck to the skin with hymeneal blood and seminal fluid. Overall, this episode is 21 seconds shorter than the French original. (The DVD is uncut but digitally fogged.)
  39. Kessler, in “How to Look at It: The Beastly Art of Walerian Borowczyk”, p. 93, writes that Pétrus “later remorsefully hangs himself on one of the hooks, resulting in the memorable ironic shot of lambs licking the blood of their butcher”. But Pétrus never slaughters sheep (he’s just a delivery boy/watchman) and it is not blood the sheep are licking at his feet.
  40. Carroll, p. 164.
  41. This episode in the Italian video is 45 seconds shorter than the French original. Shots are cut at random (four from when the husband waits outside the bookshop, for example), but the crucial difference is the last shot which has been pruned by 14 seconds, taking out the part where Marie (Pascale Christophe) reclines on the floor of the van with the dog. (The DVD is uncut here.)
  42. In Georges Franju’s Les Yeux sans Visage (1960).
  43. It only cuts once in the Italian version.
  44. One is momentarily tempted to speculate that the husband was part of the kidnapping (especially given the Détective billsheet), but such a reading ultimately makes no narrative sense.
  45. “Len” (aka Lenny Borgen), Variety, 23 May 1979, p. 27.
  46. All quoted films titles have been silently corrected, if required.
  47. Milne, p. 139.
  48. Adler, p. 26.
  49. Kessler, “How You Look at It: The Beastly Art of Walerian Borowczyk”, p. 94.

About The Author

Scott Murray is a filmmaker and co-Editor of Senses of Cinema.

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