Director: Walerian Borowczyk
Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists
Poland, the nineteenth century. Eva, a teenage girl, takes confession. The priest warns of impure thoughts and giving into lust and sin. Her family take in a young man, Lukash, as a lodger and soon they fall in love. Lukash is married, and since he is unable to acquire a divorce, he and Eva live in sin and Eva is disowned by her family. When Lukash leaves for Rome, Eva falls pregnant. She drowns her newborn child. Count Szczerbic, who wounded Lukash in a duel, tells Eva that Lukash is in prison in Rome, but when she tracks him down, he has been released and deported. Lukash remarries, believing that Eva has began a relationship with Szczerbic. Eva then conspires with two conmen to take revenge on Szczerbic, who Eva believes is responsible for Lukash’s absence in her life. She poisons him as they make love. Eva then becomes a prostitute back in Poland, but is rescued by a kindly gentleman who offers her work. However, the two conmen return, using her to lure Lukash. As she warns Lukash that the conmen intend to kill him, she is shot dead.
The late Polish filmmaker Walerian Borowczyk has two very different reputations. First, he is considered one of the most influential and acclaimed animators of the post-war era, spoken of in similarly reverential tones to the likes of Jan Svankmajer. Second, and most notable, he is considered a director of softcore pornographic films with artistic ambitions. Borowczyk’s career perhaps changed forever in 1975, the year he directed ‘The Story of Sin’ but also his most notorious film ‘The Beast’. These two films could not be any more different. ‘The Story of Sin’ has adult themes and features nudity, but with reason and justification. ‘The Beast’ on the other hand aspires to be a Bunuelian satire on class vanity and ambition, but this is a pretty specious definition at best. Its crude simulation of bestiality is more comic than erotic but nevertheless the censors took action. Borowczyk’s career sharply declined, culminating in the indignity of making the fifth instalment of the Emmanuelle franchise. Reassessing earlier films such as ‘The Story of Sin’ would rehabilitate Borowczyk’s reputation; despite being made in the same year as ‘The Beast’, it is a significantly more interesting film.
‘The Story of Sin’, based on a novel that was banned by the Catholic church (and filmed twice previously) is a tale of a woman who suffers for love much like ‘Madame Bovary’ or ‘Anna Karenina’. Eva is, in her own words, ‘a victim of circumstance’, whose love for Lukash, constantly thwarted by both fate and society is the cause of her downfall. Borowczyk’s fidelity to the literary tradition is one of the film’s strengths; making Eva’s rise and fall the central feature of the film rather than the more salacious subject matter. The adult content, involving two lovemaking scenes are never over-elaborated, completely the opposite from the path Borowczyk would later take. His earlier films had the reputation of being filmed through a fetishist’s eye and the early scenes in ‘The Story of Sin’ between Eva and Lukash positively crackle with sexual tension. Conversations occur with the focus purely on the eyes though the talk is flirting in nature. Memories blur with real life. Just look at how Borowczyk directs the seemingly casual tossing of items of clothing; hats, gloves, coats with the camera following with great interest. Busts and vases are placed in the centre of the frame. It is a unique and sensual approach to filmmaking, done with great subtlety.
‘The Story of Sin’ also contains a number of satirical barbs, not something that the film is renowned for. Eva’s initial piety, dedicated to avoiding sin and impure thoughts, does not seem to be shared by the other members of her family or local society. Whilst she covers ‘sinful’ works of art and books, others cheerfully avoid attending confession. When Eva falls in love with Lukash, she is cast out by her family as a slut and a whore, despite their own lack of piety. Borowczyk hints at the moral corruption at the heart of this society. Eva is exploited and taken advantage of by everyone she meets; no matter how much she searches for Lukash or attempts to create a life for them both together, society moves to prevent it. Conmen use her body as a means of committing murder; her motives to kill Szczerbic are noble of sorts but the conmen seem purely motivated by greed. Exploited and rejected by all, Eva’s fate is sealed. The satirical elements of Borowczyk’s work, when subtle and not over the top, remains underrated, obscured by the more sexually frank reputation he has.
Nominated for the Palme D’Or and the only film of his shot in his native Poland, ‘The Story of Sin’ is an impressive contrast to ‘The Beast’, the other Borowczyk film of 1975. Unfortunately, not much of his earlier work (or later work for this matter) remains currently available. Certainly one considers that the director has a career of two halves; one half mature and subtle, the other sensationalist and wilfully provocative. Whatever the reasons behind Borowczyk’s decline, which mirrors the heroine of this film (both victims of a sexually prudish society?), there is enough here to warrant rediscovery and rehabilitation.