By Tara Judah
Rights holders will always play a part in taste making. But, even as they set the goal posts, others, born of passion and determination, defend and strike back. Sometimes they succeed. We owe these people a great debt of thanks because without them we would never see the likes of Walérian Borowczyk’s Docteur Jekyll et les Femmes (1981, alternatively titled The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Miss Osbourne); digitally restored and presented at a prestigious film festival, accompanied by a thoughtful and provocative video essay, taking pride of place, on a Saturday night at 6.30pm, on a big screen.
Adrian Martin and Cristina Álvarez López cast their critical eyes across Borowczyk’s (wilfully) forgotten surrealist stunner and created their own audio-visual work, one that I like to think of as the illegitimate lovechild of Edward Hyde and Miss Osbourne, post-bathtub transformation. Their video takes Johannes Vermeer’s painting, Woman in Blue Reading a Letter (1663-1664), as its departure point and uses it to highlight elements of Borowczyk’s skilled composition, his complex spatial design and gender-saturated subtext. They draw links between the mise-en-scène and narrative that would surely wash over even the most perceptive first time viewer; they point to but never over-explain or condescend in their analysis. Their video essay is a work of art in and of itself, and the feature that follows only becomes all the more enjoyable for its accompaniment.
Docteur Jekyll was poorly received on release, and didn’t necessarily appeal to those who championed his earlier, more formally experimental works, either. Even after his death in 2006, the revival of interest in his oeuvre didn’t seem to extend to this particular film. It was, for many years, lost to the living room archives of 1980s VHS nostalgiasts. Thanks here are also owed, in part, to Daniel Bird, who liaised with the Borowczyk Estate and Arrow Films, to bring this lost phantasmagorical masterpiece back from its banishment.
If I’ve come away from last night’s screening with any certainty about restoration it’s that we simply can’t allow rights holders alone to control the conversation. Screen culture must be diverse and that includes content that some tastemakers might view as explosive, even toxic. The restoration of these so-called lost films must undergo their own Edward Hyde style metamorphosis: the process might be painful, but it might also unleash a uniquely uninhibited beast from the hiding, allowing what is too often dismissed as ‘carnal pleasures’ to be viewed as legitimate art – even if that still sits somewhere within a scholarly context of exploitation. Such stunning images, rich in psychological association, baroque without irony, and sexy with sincerity, deserve their place in the history of cinema.
How wonderful it is to see this amatory tool – the visual essay, the critics’ choice – used to uncover joys, carnal and otherwise, living and breathing, inside the image.
Internacional Film Festival Rotterdam- Critics’ Choise
Docteur Jekyll et les femmes, Walérian Borowczyk, 1981 – selected by Adrian Martin & Cristina Álvarez López