There are two elements of Walerian Borowczyk’s work more broadly that are useful in thinking about La Marge (1976). The first of these relates to Borowczyk’s interest in the particular presence of objects: they are either interesting,1 or he accords them narratively undue attention, animating them or treating them like items in a catalogue or vitrine.2 Secondly, he takes pleasure in the female form; he sexually objectifies women.
In regards to the latter in particular, La Marge is significant because, in the arc of his career, the film is neatly balanced between art and erotica. His earlier works are experimental and art films whose ventures into the obscene are safely grotesque, surreal and excessive. Conversely, La Marge is marked by its restraint, its attentiveness to an obsessive relationship. The film’s subtlety and focus allows the pornographic qualities of Borowczyk’s work to emerge unobscured.
La Marge observes salesman Sigismond (Joe Dallesandro) on a trip to Paris. Staying in the redlight district of Rue Saint-Denis, he is snared by streetwalker Diana (Sylvia Kristel). He repeatedly visits her, becomes lost in her, before ultimately receiving a letter informing him of his son and wife’s death. In a car, alone, he commits suicide. Casting note: both Dallesandro and Kristel are erotic objects; Dallesandro as part of Warhol’s extended artistic family and Kristel as the softcore star of the Emmanuelle series.3 Through this, their intersecting erotic energies, ideologies and lineage inflect the film.
It would be a misreading of La Marge to deny the film’s pornographic function. The film stars Kristel, and the stripping, bathing and sex scenes linger as if predisposed to be cut out as porno loops. Guccione-eseque soft, diffuse lighting gives the film an idyllic cast. At home, before Sigismond departs for Paris, we see a pastoral scene that climaxes with a floral bukkake before, as the couple prepare for Sigismond’s boss’s arrival, the camera closely observes his wife decorously picking out wattle from her pubic bush. Though more likely to adhere to chiaroscuro lighting, the Parisian scenes are similarly attentive to the possibilities of the human form, its look, range of gestures, and the logic of arousal. The attention paid to the body gives it a heft that allows it to cut through the narrative. These framing elements intersect. Borowczyk objectifies women, but in doing so accords them a distinct presence. It is a provincial-minded requirement that people be discrete psychologically, plausible entities rather than images moving through space.
While subjectivity haunts André Pieyre de Mandiargues’s 1967 source novel of the same name, the film is marked by questions of representation. In de Mandiargues’s work, in Francoist Barcelona, Sigismond’s receipt of the letter marks the start of the story while in the film it marks the climax. By shifting the moment of discovery, Borowczyk changes how we understand the work and act of looking. In the novel, Sigismond’s behaviour is a kind of displacement: he explores the margins of reality to distract himself from the horror of the letter he receives, he glances at it but cannot bring himself to closely read the it until the end of the book. Here the margins are both socially and subjectively marginal to the story’s action. Conversely, in the film Dallesandro’s Sigismond betrays his wife after being seduced by the image of Diana. This adds a moral dimension; he has no excuse for his behaviour and so the letter acts as a punishment rather than a cause. It also adds a representational element to how margins are presented. In de Mandiargues’s book, they are molded by Sigismond’s subjectivity: as distraction, in sexualised description (“The elevator, of course, is cylindrical, since it fits inside the shaft, and suggests an artillery projectile sliding into the barrel of a cannon facing straight up”4), or structurally, with the main prostitute given a prepubescent look to evoke his past. Conversely, the margins actively present themselves to Dallesandro’s Sigismond and the audience, the narrative is created by his falling in love with an image. That image shapes the narrative of the film, rather than is used by it.
The presentation of these margins is guided by grace notes that remind us that what is seen is seen within a visual regime. Emblems of visual apparatus – telescopes, icons and performances – dot the film. When Sigismond arrives in Rue Saint-Denis, as he walks down the arcades, the prostitutes are first presented behind glass walls, as department store goods, before his wandering is interrupted by streetwalkers: free, mobile, insouciant agents. These independent agents present their independent story, separate from Sigismond’s story: the arc of a new prostitute and her integration into the marginal community.
It is from this crowd that Diana emerges and dominates, chastising others for occupying her territory and warning them off: there are the caged, the mobile and the hunter. Contradicting the book’s childlike figure, Kristel’s Diana is an adult5, in control and working through a precise repertoire of movements and objectives. When Diana first claims Sigismond, Borowczyk cuts to a hotel owner firing a gun, taking his target out, before emerging to watch Diana take Sigismond briefly upstairs. On the Sigismond’s final departure, the film ends with the images resetting themselves: Sailor’s 1976 pop song ‘Glass of Champagne’ – “I’ve got the money, I’ve got the place/you’ve got the figure, you’ve got the face” – throbs as Diana walks down to the hotel lobby to be propositioned first by a poor boy, and then a rich man. The images loop on without us.
La Marge (1976 France 88 mins)
Prod. Co: Robert et Raymond Hakim, Paris Film Productions Prod: Raymond Hakim, Robert Hakim Dir: Walerian Borowczyk Scr: Walerian Borowczyk Phot: Bernard Daillencourt Ed: Louisette Hautecoeur Prod Des: Jacques D’Ovidio Snd: Maurice Gilbert, Louise Hochet
Cast: Sylvia Kristel, Joe Dallesandro, André Falcon, Mireille Audibert, Denis Manuel
- Borowczyk’s later career forms an intricate relationship with the work of surrealist author André Pieyre de Mandiargues; La Marge, Love Rites (1987), and elements of both Immoral Tales (1974) and Heroines of Evil (1979) all draw on de Mandiargues’s work. However Borowczyk and de Mandiargues relationship was inaugurated with A Private Collection (1973), allegedly a tour of de Mandiargues collection of “erotic mechanisms”, though some are clearly constructed by Borowczyk and appear in his later films as props (Jonathan Owen “The Beach, the Bubble, and the Boudoir: The Meeting Spaces of Walerian Borowczyk and André Pieyre de Mandiargues”, Boro, L’Île d’Amour: The Films of Walerian Borowczyk eds Kamila Kuc & Kuba Mirkuda, Berghahn Books 2015, 148-50). This short acts as a tour of Borowczyk’s interests: with human interaction minimised, the items cease being narrative props and come to the fore as erotic, uncanny objects. ↩
- The most obvious example of this can be found towards the end of his career, in the filming of Emmanuelle 5 (1987), where he filmed the second-unit footage of objects (including items from A Private Collection) while the assistant director show the main sequences, inverting the normal relationship (Daniel Bird “Walerian Borowczyk: The Motion Demon” Electric Sheep May 2014). ↩
- This relationship extends to La Marge being distributed as Emmanuelle ’77, taking advantage of Kristel’s notoriety. By the time Borowczyk filmed Emmanuelle 5, Kristel had moved on. ↩
- And later, “In the huge phallus, he would have preferred to be the object of a solitary elevation than to leap out at the summit, to be launched at once into the statue itself, perhaps.” André Pieyre de Mandiargues, The Margin, trans. Richard Howard (London: Calder & Boyars, 1969), p. 30 ↩
- In her black feather boa she evokes the image of Marlene Dietrich’s notorious Shanghai Lily from Sternberg’s 1932 film Shanghai Express. ↩