For decades, producer Pierre Braunberger’s compilation film, Collections Privées (1979), has been lost and unlamented. Made quickly and cheaply by directors Just Jaeckin, Shuji Terayama and Walerian Borowczyk, it made almost no impact with audiences and reviewers alike. Only Terayama’s colourful “Le Labyrinthe d’Herbes” (“The Grass Labyrinth”) seemed to ignite even the barest spark of critical interest. Jaeckin’s opening effort (“L’île aux Sirens”, starring Laura Gesmer), like almost all his work, was wrongly thought unworthy of comment, while Borowczyk’s closing “L’Armoire” was written off as a minor footnote in a fast-declining career.
Apart from reviews by “Len” in Variety and Christian Kessler in Video Watchdog (1), it has long been hard to find anything in print on this obscure film … or indeed even a copy to watch. A VHS dupe of a dupe of a dupe all that was that seemed to be on offer. However, a gloriously restored DVD from Severin in the US (Private Collections), released this month, has changed all that forever.
* * *
The Borowczyk episode is based on “L’Armoire” (literally, “The Closet”), a short story by Guy de Maupassant that first appeared under the pseudonym of “Maufrigneuse” in the magazine Gil Blas, on 16 December 1884. It is now available in the second of Gallimard’s two-volume Bibliothèque de la Pléiade edition of de Maupassant (2), on the internet (3) and in English translation under the bizarre (mis)title of “Florentine”, the extra “e” turning a boy’s name into a girl’s (4).
“L’Armoire” is one of several short stories de Maupassant wrote about prostitutes and, like many of his tales, begins with a dinner party:
We were talking about girls, for what else is there to talk about, among men?
One of us said:
“Wait! A strange story occurs to me on this subject.”
And he related it […] (5)
The reader never knows whether this dinner guest is speaking from personal experience.
Borowczyk’s film begins with a male voice-over. The text is precisely that of de Maupassant (in this most faithful of adaptations):
One evening last winter, I was suddenly overwhelmed with one of those moods of desolate weariness, which seize one’s soul from time to time. Alone at home, I realized that if I stayed there I’d suffer one of those dreadful attacks of sadness, the kind that lead to suicide if they occur too often. (6)
This is heard over a side-on close-up of a nameless Man (Yves-Marie) sitting in a dark room in front of a painting.
After a brief close-up from front-on, the voice-over continues over a medium-shot of the Man walking down a night street under an umbrella. In the background can been seen the twirling red windmill of the Moulin-Rouge, located at 82 boulevard de Clichy in Paris’ 18th arrondisement.
I roamed here and there, looking for somewhere to spend a few hours, noticing for the first time that Paris had no place for nighttime entertainment. Finally, I made my choice.
In the original story, de Maupassant is quite explicit as to that “choice” and the Man’s reason for going there, writing “I decided to enter the Folies-Bergère, that entertaining girls market.” (7)
However, Borowczyk’s place of assignation remains unspecified. It cannot be the already glimpsed Moulin Rouge, because the Man strolls off in an opposite direction. However, it could be the Folies-Bergère, at 32 rue Richer in the 9th arrondisement, precisely in the direction the Man is headed.
The Man is next seen standing backstage at the unnamed cabaret. What follows is a montage of demi-monde life: two gay men kiss (rare in Borowczyk) while a French girl says in English, “I love you … you are ze only one … forever”, in one of those look-up-and-down-and-up close-ups so beloved of Borowczyk; lesbians indulge in half-naked erotic play in a dressing-room; elaborated decorated showgirls run by as a workman carries props; a security guard excepts brides from bourgeois men to let them in; the French girl cracks her whip at her American ‘gentleman’; on stage, an elderly chansonette sings of the “chagrin d’amour”, the audience never glimpsed.
All the shots have a painterly, Degas-like quality, excelling on a graphic rather than narrative level, as in animation. It is a fine evocation of fin-de-siècle Paris, achieved with the barest minimum of cast, sets and pieces of furniture. The noble presence of Max Ophüls’ Le Plaisir (1952) seems ready to tincture every frame.
The editing, too, is witty, if occasionally too explicit: the shot of the gays kissing cuts to a heterosexual kiss; a man smoking cuts to a woman smoking; and so on. There is less of the crispness that usually announces Borowczyk as a supreme master of montage.
In midst of all this activity, the Man is lured up some stairs by an unnamed stage-girl (Marie-Catherine Conti), who claims her shoe is hurting. Unseen by the audience, the Woman quotes a price for a half-hour assignation, but the Man says he wants her for the whole night, and offers double her usual rate. The Woman reluctantly agrees – the thought of six hours with one client oddly troubling her – and accepts the wad of banknotes he hands her. The exchange, like many in Borowczyk’s La Marge (1976), is soulless.
Whereas de Maupassant has the Woman take her client to “a big, big house in rue Martyrs”, Borowczyk (by never having the couple venture outside) gives the clear impression that the cabaret is also a brothel or, at least, that the owners tolerate their girls plying a second trade in its rented rooms.
The Woman leads the Man through a Borowczykian labyrinth, down twisting staircases and along ever-narrowing corridors to her dark and windowless room. It is extraordinary how claustrophobic this journey so becomes. One also strongly senses a sexual metaphor in this uterine-like journey.
At the door to her apartment, where the Woman insists she lives alone, she asks the Man to wait outside. As he does, the Man hears a male voice coming from inside the apartment. He looks about suspiciously, Borowczyk brilliantly creating a burst of unexpected tension and unease. Many a client must have followed a courtesan and, at some point, been overtaken with fear about what may happen (a mugging? blackmail? pure pleasure?), a deliciously Batailleian flux of fear and desire.
Confident of his physical prowess in the advent of a struggle, the Man decides the voice belongs to the Woman’s pimp, before being distracted by sexual noises emanating from a room down the hall. He spies through the keyhole of number 28, but Borowczyk does not reveal what the Man sees. It reminds one of how Luis Buñuel never allows the audience to see inside the mysterious box carried by the Asian Client (Iska Khan) in his sublime tale of prostitution, Belle de Jour (1967).
The Woman then surprises the Man by returning suddenly, with a glowing oil lamp. It is a lovely shot, sensitive and radiant. (8)
Inside the apartment, Borowczyk cuts, almost subliminally, to a table on which there are some apples, including a rotting, almost-totally-eaten core. Here, in an unsettling moment full of melancholy, Borowczyk reveals again his obsession with the Garden of Eden.
A few shots later, Borowczyk cuts back to the apples again, the shot finishing with one of his classic, briefly-glimpsed zip-pans away. One is now firmly in the grip of the master.
The Man, still unsettled by the male voice, takes his time to undress, his libido dissipating. The Woman ridicules his tardiness – “What’s wrong? Turned into a pillar of salt” – and the power-balance begins to shift, ever so imperceptibly.
The Woman undresses and sits on the bed in her petticoat. It is a stunning shot, the cleft of her bottom glimpsed in a parting of cloth. It has been said many times before, but few directors film the naked or near-naked form as delicately and lovingly as Borowczyk.
The Woman lies down in the bed, half-covered by a covering of the finest brown lace (has anyone else in cinema so honoured their characters with such exquisite bed linen?). The Woman looks at herself in a round mirror (a very Balthusian image (9)) as she awaits her client in bed. The camera pans down her covered form as she stretches her legs; it is extraordinarily erotic.
The sex encounter that follows is sensuous, sad and tactile. There is a painterly sense of composition not seen before in Borowczyk. That is not to suggest his images are ever less than painterly (they are not), just that there is a subtle new æsthetic at work here. Take the shot where the woman lies down from her on-top position, disappearing behind the wooden bed-end. There is nothing showy or clever, just a rarefied, almost austere sense of lighting and framing.
But no words can describe the complex emotions of this moment, of sex desired by one and not by another, shot at a discrete distance without the director feeling the need to highlight either character’s emotions. A glimpse of a head turning to the side says all we need to know about how the Woman is feeling.
After the Man climaxes, he rolls off, only to find a lump under the mattress. It turns out to be a mediæval mace.
“A woman on her own needs to defend herself sometimes. Some men are rascals!”, she remarks.
– Yes, but not me. I’m an honest man.
– You’re an angel.
The Man again hears a strange noise and, despite the Woman’s attempts to stop him, he gets out of bed to track down the source … mace in hand!
At first, his carrying the weapon seems a light-hearted bit of Borowczykian humour, but it soon reduces this Parisian sophisticate to the pitiful clone of a Neanderthal male on some primordial quest.
As she waits his return, the Woman – at times apprehensive, at others eerily calm – goes about her toilette. The Man enters to find the Woman putting on perfume. In an ancient battle of wills, played out so many million times, male versus female, he asks if he can smoke a cigar, suggesting it will gently perfume the air. (10) She reluctantly agrees, placing an enormous metal ashtray where they lay on the bed. She leaves.
Reclining on the bed, the Man decides he should play a power game, of enticing the Woman to reveal personal and private things:
Driven by the silly curiosity which makes all men question these creatures about their first love affair, to raise the veil on their first sin, to find a trace of their lost innocence, to love them, perhaps, for a fleeting memory evoked by a word of truth, by their former ingenuousness and modesty, I questioned her about her first lovers. I knew she’d lie. It didn’t matter. Among the lies, perhaps I’d discover something sincere and moving.
It is a monologue of astonishing arrogance, the Man imagining himself to be the LORD God and interrogating Eve about her first ‘sin’.
The woman returns, eating an apple (just in case anyone missed we are back in Eden).
– Tell me, who was your first man.
– He was shipbuilder, honey.
At least, that is how the subtitles have it. The Woman actually uses the word “canotier”, which means rower or oarsman. Shipbuilder is far too grand a term.
– Tell me about it. Where were you?
– What were you doing there?
– I worked in a restaurant. […]
– How did he court you, this shipbuilder [sic]?
– While I was making his bed, he forced himself on me.
The Man does not believe her, as revealed in his voice-over:
Suddenly, I remembered the theory of my friends’ doctor – an observant and philosophical doctor whose work at the hospital put him in daily contact with unwed mothers, prostitutes, with all the shame and misery of women, the poor women, the prey of awful men who roam around with money in their pockets. “Always”, he told me, “a girl is always corrupted by a man of her own class and social standing. I’ve seen it time and time again. We accuse the rich of picking the common girls’ flower of innocence, but that’s not true. The rich buy a pre-picked bouquet. They might pick from the second flowering, but never the first blossom.”
Extraordinarily, in what may be a post-modern first in cinema, the Man mouths “ca n’est pas vrai” (“that’s not true”) in exact synch with his voice-over. Of course, he may just be one who likes to talk while he thinks.
– I know your story. I do. The shipbuilder wasn’t your first.
– I swear it, honey.
– You’re lying, my pet.
– I promise.
– No, you’re lying. Tell me the truth. I’m a sorcerer, pretty girl. I’m a sleepwalker. If you don’t tell me the truth, I’ll put you to sleep and I’ll find out.
– How did you guess?
– I told you, I’m a sorcerer. Go on, talk!
Despite the chilling edge (the ambiguous “put you to sleep”), the conversation is bourgeois and polite. The Man switches between arrogance and sweet concern as he wrestles for control of the Woman. But he may have met his match. No man could ever fully deconstruct this Eve, no matter how many learned doctors and philosophers he can rely on for help.
The performances here, it must be said, are superb. It may well be the finest chamber pieces of acting in all Borowczyk. Visually, too, the pleasures are intense. The shot of the Woman sitting against a wall – slightly side-on to camera, her red jacket glimpsed lying on the shoulders and across her arms, highlighted against a dappled cream wall broken by green fluted columns on either side – is one of the most elegant and timeless images Borowczyk-the-painter has ever conceived. It is a subtle masterpiece of composition, light and colour. (The DOP is Noël Véry, who worked seamlessly with Borowczyk on several films.)
While in this position, the Woman reveals: “The first time wasn’t much. It was at the village festival.” She tells of how a chef-for-the-day, a Monsieur Alexandre, approached her after finishing in the kitchen:
“Come on, kid. Take me to the river and show me the sights.” Like a fool, off I went. Down by the river, he forced himself on me so fast I didn’t know what I was doing. He left on the 9:00 train. I never saw him again.
The encounter resulted in a son, Florentin, which, as the Man quickly deduces, was passed off to the shipbuilder as his own. “Very good, my girl”, he comments with both cynicism and admiration. “You’re not as dumb as people think.”
After the Woman shows the Man a framed photograph of her son, the mysterious noise from earlier re-occurs and the Man leaps from the bed. He goes to a cupboard in the wall and opens the door to find Florentin, hunched up inside. (11) “Mommy!”, he cries out, tears streaming down his face. “I went to sleep and fell. Don’t scold me.” The tiny cupboard is finally revealed as the final confined space at the end of that ever-narrowing journey from cabaret to cramped small room. That earlier, half-suspected sense of the being journey being towards the womb is now powerfully confirmed.
There are exquisite shots of Florentin standing next to his mother, tears running down his face, an innocent victim of adult desires and expectations. And the colours – the Woman’s red dress, the boy’s black shawl and white shirt, the cupboard Borowczyk’s favourite shade of green – are perfect. As a director-set designer, Borowczyk has few if any equals.
The Woman picks up her son and explains, with heartfelt emotion, that she has nowhere else to put Florentin when she has company. That is why she prefers short bookings, not overnight ones.
When someone comes for an hour or two, he can stay in the cupboard. He’s used to it. But when you stay all night, it’s bad for him to sleep on a chair! I’d like you … to spend the whole night on a chair! […] I’d like to see you try it!
The Man came to the cabaret hoping to ease his lassitude with an undemanding sexual encounter paid for with money. With total self-possession, he thought he could control how the encounter would unfold, unaware that the reality of a woman’s private life would derail his plans and expose him to the realities of life.
This is the story of a man removed from life who has been helped by a Borowczykian heroine to address his own humanity, to re-engage with those around him. It is perhaps Borowczyk’s greatest recurring theme, one that will find its finest flowering in his final cinema offering, Cérémonie d’amour (Love Rites, 1988).
Near reduced to tears, the Man does the only thing he knows how to do: he hands the Woman extra money, but she turns away. As she moves away to clean up the room (the mace to be hidden once again), the Man hands Florentin the banknotes. He then ever so tenderly strokes the boy on his tear-stained cheek and leaves.
On the far side of a dangling curtain, he pauses to look back at the boy as he counts the money aloud, yet another case in Borowczyk of how money and the need for it can sour and corrupt even the most innocent.
In de Maupassant’s original, the Man, while recounting the story to his dinner companions, remarks, “The child wept […] I, too, had a desire to weep.” The child’s plight has clearly touched him, but not so much that it delays his heading home to a forgetful night’s sleep.
It is here that Borowczyk makes a profound change to de Maupassant. The Man is seen backstage at the cabaret. At first, it feels as if it could be later the same night, though the repetition of elements from the earlier montage hint at this being a day or so later. The stage manager is then heard discussing with the elderly chansonette the second-rate quality of tonight’s audience. So, it must be a different evening from the first visit. And isn’t that the Woman descending from a disused merry-go-around in all her finery to go on stage?
The film closes with an extended medium-shot, shot from side on, of the Man as he peers at the unseen stage. It is a deliberate reprise of the opening close-up, the Man no longer contemplating suicide but no doubt waiting for the Woman, perhaps in the hope that they, and even the boy, can be together again.
Having metaphorically journeyed down many stairs and corridors to reach the very source of life, and found a fatherless child in the womblike sanctum of a dark cupboard, the Man now wants to be part of this new-found family.
Even though the fiercely anti-religious Borowczyk would have been apoplectic to hear it said, this is a profoundly Catholic film.
* * *
For film-lovers, there are obvious parallels between “L’Armoire” and Alfred Hitchcock’s Marnie (1964), where a prostitute is revealed at the end to have placed her daughter outside on a fire escape (including during a fierce storm) while entertaining clients. But Hitchcock’s mother is far more damaged than Borowczyk’s, and the harm suffered by her child is far worse.
Ingmar Bergman also makes references in several of his films to the terror he felt when locked up as a child in a dark cupboard, as in Vargtimmen (Hour of the Wolf, 1968). But the Gothic and Freudian horrors Bergman evokes are worlds apart from Borowczyk.
In several films, Borowczyk has delighted in the idea of children being hidden in closets, especially in La Bête (1975), where the naked Clarissa de l’Espérance (Pascale Rivault) opens a cupboard after making love to Ifany (Hassan Fale) to reveal two exquisitely dressed children. However, the boy’s plight in “L’Armoire” exhibits none of the director’s usual whimsy and evokes instead true pathos.
The most powerful sense that comes across in this small film is that of a concerned humanist. While many of Borowczyk’s films are fascinated with the mechanics of prostitution, with the relationship between woman and client, “L’Armoire” seems to suggest that paying for sex may be wrong (the overpowering of natural desires by force of money, capitalism at its most insidious), that the sex act is really about propagating children. From every act of unprotected vaginal sex, there is a risk of pregnancy (a child in a womb, a child in a cupboard).
Now, while Georges Bataille argued that every act of heterosexual intercourse is a denial of death (because life may spring from it), the encounter between the Man and the Woman in “L’Armoire” feels like a denial of the natural order. In this way, it evokes the same Catholic principles this author (and seemingly no one else) finds so powerfully resonant in La Marge.
For far too long, “L’Armoire” has been unloved and ignored. For many, it may appear a very minor work, a catching of breath after the extraordinary Les Héroïnes du Mal: Margherita, Marceline, Marie (1979) (12). Its canvas is so minimalist, its pace so gentle and its sensitivities so delicate that its charms could be easily overlooked. This author, in fact, had to watch it three times before allowing the film’s unique qualities to weave their magic.
“L’Armoire” is a glorious miniature, one of the finest examples of Borowczyk’s mastery as a visual composer, a conductor of light, movement and shape. It may also be, with the “Marceline” episode of Les Héroïnes du Mal and La Marge, his most tender work.
Borowczyk told interviewer Christian Kessler, “I’m satisfied with my episode.” (13) And well he ought be.
Adapted from a chapter in Scott Murray’s (still!) forthcoming book on Borowczyk, Heroines of Desire.
- Christian Kessler, “How You Look at It: The Beastly Art of Walerian Borowczyk”, Video Watchdog, Special Edition #1, 1994, p. 92.
- Guy de Maupassant, Contes et Nouvelles, texte établi et annoté par Louis Forestier (Paris: Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, Gallimard, 1979).
- Guy de Maupassant, “Florentine [sic]”, in The Collected Stories of Guy de Maupassant: Ten Volumes in One, translated by Walter Dunne (New York: Avenel Books, 1985).
- The Collected Stories of Guy de Maupassant, p. 406.
- This translation, fairly faithful, is from the Severin DVD. This will continue to be the case unless otherwise stated.
- Translated by the author.
- Without being able to check a 35mm print, it seems as if the Severin DVD has been printed too brightly; it needs to be graded down a bit.
- Istvan (Pascale Christophe) does the same thing in Contes Immoraux (1975).
- At least in de Maupassant. The Severin subtitles opt for the mundane claim that his cigar is “mildly fragrant”.
- Oddly, Kessler, op. cit., p. 92, states that the child is a girl.
- Les Héroïnes du Mal has also just released by Severin on DVD as Immoral Women.
- From an interview conducted in German by Christian Kessler, posted on the internet. Translated by Norbert Loeffler.