A scalpel lacerates the painting by Vermeer.
Margaret, her legs apart, raped, in the kitchen.
The portrait of Jekyll’s father destroyed by sulphuric acid.
– Extract from Borowczyk’s script.
Two images form central motifs in Walerian Borowczyk’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne (1981). The first is a portrait of Jekyll’s father, a severe Victorian gentleman posed in profile. The second is a painting of a heavily pregnant woman in a quiet moment of absorption – Vermeer’s A Woman in Blue Reading a Letter (1663-4). Both are held up as ideals of sorts, the former adorns the wall of Jekyll’s laboratory; the latter is displayed as an aspirational image of romanticised domesticity. That these images are ideals is only half their story: their stillness is in stark contrast to the film’s otherwise vital style. Rigid and unchanging, these portraits exemplify the film’s fundamental tensions between identity as fixed and fluid, the constraints of Victorian respectability, and the will to unbridled hedonism. By the film’s end both images will have been defaced and destroyed, cast into a fire fed with signifiers of an overturned bourgeoisie.
The frenzied destruction of these two symbols finds a parallel in the source material’s history. Reportedly the product of illness and a drug induced fever dream, the original manuscript of Robert Louis Stevenson’s masterpiece The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) was also ruined. One retelling has the document reduced to ashes by Stevenson’s wife Fanny Osbourne, who found the erotic content too scandalous to publish.1 Borowczyk inserted himself into this history, claiming to have discovered the remnants of Stevenson’s original (although later admitting this to be a hoax2). In any case, Borowczyk’s film—a mixture of the profane and poetic—is an imaginative answer to what might have been lost to Osbourne’s flames.
Gathering the players for an opulent dinner party to commemorate the engagement of Henry Jekyll (Udo Kier) and Fanny Osbourne (Marina Pierro), the assembly of societal icons (doctor, lawyer, general, reverend, chemist etc.) feels not unlike a game of Cluedo waiting to unfold. In true Buñuelian fashion, Borowczyk pokes fun at his guests: propriety and good taste ever on the verge of deteriorating into the lecherous fancies that are concentrated in the figure of Hyde. The film has a theatrical sensibility; almost exclusively confined to a labyrinthine mansion, its characters run frantically upstairs and down in search of their elusive intruder. Hyde (Gérard Zalcberg) darts about the screen like an agile Nosferatu. When we finally glimpse him, he is freakishly pale, his face distorted by shaved eyebrows. Six centimetres in diameter and approximately thirty five centimetres in length, his manhood is worthy of a de Sade novel; Dr. Lanyon (Howard Vernan) can only estimate its proportions by examining the corpse of a ravished victim noting it was large enough to perforate the poor maiden’s stomach.
And yet, if we think of Jekyll and Hyde as a tale about the transformation of man, Borowczyk prompts us to think again. As its title suggests, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne places the emphasis as squarely on its heroine as it does on its flawed hero. Where Stevenson’s novella relegates women to the periphery as either victims or witnesses, Borowczyk blurs the boundaries between fiction and biography, inserting Osbourne as a central character. Played by long term collaborator Pierro, Osbourne proves a formidable match for Jekyll and his alter ego, developing over the course of the narrative into an active agent in pursuit of her own desires. Significantly, where Kier’s Jekyll seems beholden to a force that has grown beyond his control, it is Fanny’s curiosity and voracious appetite for experience that sees her become realised. The recurrent presence of Vermeer’s expectant mother stands to remind us just what is at stake in Fanny’s temptation to wilful abandon.
At the core of the film, in a remarkable set piece, Fanny conceals herself behind a pair of cabinets peering through the gap to watch her lover transform. At a superficial level, the moment is stunning—the slow, smooth movements of Fanny’s face as she adjusts her vantage; the contrast between heavy diffusion and dark shadow that caresses her skin; Bernard Parmegiani’s undulating and otherworldly score. But this is also where Borowczyk shows his hand with the shifting of the film’s ‘erotic consciousness’ to the female voyeur.3 It’s moments like this that diminish the weight of critics who dismissed Borowczyk as nothing more than a pornographer. As Fanny observes Jekyll’s transformation into Hyde, we are simultaneously witnessing the transformation of woman as object into woman as subject.
This moment of figurative awakening prefaces a literal one; against his protestations, Fanny throws herself into Jekyll’s transformative elixir. Osbourne and Hyde emerge from the alchemical solution as equals, and the film crescendos in a spree of devastation. Where the real Osbourne’s destruction of Stevenson’s manuscript was an act of erasure, Borowczyk stages another reversal; eroticism is triumphantly celebrated. The indurate portraits are made animate through their incineration—the oils that make up Vermeer’s mother simmer in the flames; smoke folds out of the great hole torn in the father’s face.
The film culminates in an orgasmic spectacle of bloodlust, the unholy couple united at last not in the binds of matrimony but in the collision of Eros and Thanatos. Images of Osbourne and Hyde—now Jekyll and back again—writhing in a devouring embrace pile upon one another until it is unclear where the one ends and the other begins. Parmegiani’s score similarly builds in an ecstatic and manic layering of dissonance upon dissonance, overwhelming the visuals. And then a final spasm: the image itself shudders, the score gradually deteriorating into a decelerated mechanical pulsing like a failing engine, the film’s world on the brink of complete collapse. A sharp decrescendo. A vortex of sound and image. The world becoming is the world upturned.
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne (1981 France/ West Germany 93 mins)
Prod Co: Allegro Productions, Multimedia Gesellschaft für Audiovisuelle Information mbH, Whodunit Productions Prod: Ralph Baum, Robert Kuperberg and Jean-Pierre Labrande Dir: Walerian Borowczyk Scr: Walerian Borowczyk, based on the novella by Robert Louis Stevenson Phot: Noël Véry Mus: Bernard Parmegiani Ed: Khadicha Bariha Prod Des: Walerian Borowczyk
Cast: Udo Kier, Maria Pierro, Patrick Magee, Gérard Zalcberg, Howard Vernon
- André Pieyre de Mandiargues, “Preface”, Borowczyk: Cinéaste Onirique. Éditions Walter/Albatros, 1981. ↩
- Kuba Mikurda, “Boro Escape Artist”, Boro, l’île d’amour: The Films of Walerian Borowczyk, ed. Kamila Kuc, Kuba Mikurda and Michał Oleszczyk (New York: Berghahn, 2015), p. 33. ↩
- Aga Skrodzka notes this dynamic at work in Borowczyk’s earlier film, The Beast (1975) when Lucy, ‘an avid scopophiliac’ assumes the active and desiring gaze through her Polaroid camera. See “Women’s Body and Her Pleasure in the Celluloid Erotica of Walerian Borowczyk”, Studies in European Cinema 8.1, 2011, p. 75. ↩