The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Miss Osbourne

(Dr Jekyll et les femmes, Walerian Borowczyk, France/West Germany, 1981)


Co-author Cristina Álvarez López


Phantasmagoria of the Interior


Steven Soderbergh has The Knick (2014-2015), but Walerian Borowczyk (1923-2006) had the flick. It is his auteur trademark, his intimate calligraphy, but if you blink you can miss it: sometimes just a few frames at the end of a shot, where Borowczyk or cinematographer Noël Véry moves the camera off whatever he has been filming, creating a sudden, inconclusive swerve of vision. And this was often kept in the final edit – to confound our contemplation and shake up our senses. It is like the dazzling rays and reflections of light in the images, like the ever-crashing chords and synthesised swirls of Bernard Parmegiani’s music: Borowczyk opens up realms of perception that are beyond the niceties of cultural taste, past the laws of genre, and pay no heed to the supposed distinction between narrative and experimental cinemas.


When we made our audiovisual essay on The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Miss Osbourne in early 2015, one of our aims was is to find, through a creative montage, what video artist and theorist Thierry Kuntzel once called the “other film” hidden inside the surface film: a secret logic, a counter-movie, a hidden pattern. We seek another way to view and hear the film, turning and observing it from a new angle, or locating a hitherto concealed entry-point (such as the particular Vermeer painting that features as an insistent, background detail). Sometimes, this means discovering the experimental film that is lurking inside a seemingly classical, narrative, conventional one – stripping out the fiction and the characters, the evident themes and arcs.


In the matter of Borowczyk and his Strange Case, however, we are (beyond the grave) collaborating with a director who had already, as it were, entirely turned the glove inside out: although there is always a story line, it is his remarkably intricate work with aesthetic exploration that seizes the foreground.


Actually, there is much common ground between Soderbergh’s knick and Borowczyk’s flick as practiced in The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Miss Osbourne (known in some past video incarnations as Dr Jekyll and His Women, a title Boro disliked in any language). Both artists explore a not-so-distant but seemingly medieval past in which the meaning and use of bodies and psyches, blood and chemicals, surgery and sexuality, were all up for grabs. Borowczyk’s film suspends us between the ultra-rationalist, bourgeois dinner-table talk of empirical science (embodied by Patrick Magee, made famous by A Clockwork Orange [1971], and French cinema legend Howard Vernon) and the magical metamorphoses performed, with the aid of a full chemical bath, by Jekyll (Udo Kier in amazing form).


Looking into Borowczyk’s unique style of representation, we ask: what is this foreign country called the past, or history, for him, and how did he reveal its strangeness? How did he connect technology with flesh? And how did he move – both serenely and violently – across the social division of the sexes?


For behind the cabinets of curiosity, someone is watching Jekyll’s transformation into Hyde: it is his fiancée, Miss Osbourne (Marina Pierro). Is she shocked, scandalised, betrayed in the knowledge that the man she loves is secretly, truly an Other? Not a bit; she, too, wants total immersion. Miss Osbourne is the Surrealist Woman, one in a long line of “heroines of evil” that Borowczyk celebrated throughout his career. They go all the way, beyond good and evil. This heady brand of feminism is what Borowczyk added to the classic Robert Louis Stevenson novel that serves as the loose, mythic scaffolding, or merest point of departure, here.


As always in his work (which cinephiles en masse are only now beginning to appreciate, thanks to recent restorations and the availability of much of his oeuvre), Borowczyk’s minutely artisanal, baroque style renders the past as a strange, luminous, trembling place – full of beguiling toys, hidden chambers and transgressive games of love and death. “Phantasmagoria of the interior” is a phrase that derives from Walter Benjamin’s ruminations on the poet Charles Baudelaire, pointing to that intriguing, historical turn when bourgeois privacy – family life spent within the confines of one’s own four walls – takes on a Gothic hue. Benjamin could have been providing a prophetic preview of Borowczyk’s cinema: “The bourgeoisie unabashedly makes impressions of a host of objects. For slippers and pocket watches, thermometers and egg cups, cutlery and umbrellas, it tries to get covers and cases. It prefers velvet and plush covers, which preserve the impression of every touch” (Selected Writings Volume 4, p. 26). With the proviso that, in Borowczyk, the intensification of every kind of energy within these dark, restricted spaces leads not to placid, bourgeois comfort, but the inexorable, paroxysmic explosion of forces.


The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Miss Osbourne ends like no other movie: in medias res, in a phantom carriage that seems propelled of its own accord, with a man and woman between life and death, between ecstasy and the abyss, between everyday flesh and the new, metamorphosed flesh that David Cronenberg later imagined. Borowczyk suspends us once more; he flicks us out of the narrative, the screen – in order, no doubt, to seek and live these delights ourselves.


Note: This text is excerpted from the final chapter of my book Mysteries of Cinema (Amsterdam University Press, 2018). Cristina Álvarez López’s and my audiovisual essay on the film can be viewed on the 2015 Arrow edition of the Blu-ray/DVD, or (with French subtitles) on the Boro box set from Carlotta.

MORE Borowczyk: Love Rites, Immoral Women

© Adrian Martin & Cristina Álvarez López June 2015

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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