Polish writer/director Walerian Borowczyk was quite the card. In a 40-year career (he died in 2006), he built a reputation as an agit-provocateur through a series of highly regarded, often artily pornographic, but never less than beautifully-produced films that channelled his fascination with the absurdities and constraints of polite society and religion. His output was nothing if not eclectic; alongside high profile, critically lauded works such as bonkers anthology Immoral Tales (aka ‘the one with the cucumber’) and its companion film The Beast (both 1975), he found time to branch into more conventional horror with Blood of Dr Jekyll (1981, featuring genre stalwarts Udo Kier and Patrick Magee) and franchise erotica with Emmanuelle 5 (1987, apparently one of the better ones).
By his own standards of censor-bating, 1975’s The Story of Sin – a rare post-1960’s excursion back to his native Poland - is fairly tame but still has a lingering eye for the naked female form in the tradition of Tinto Brass or Ken Russell at his most mischievous. Adapted from the novel by Stefan Żeromski (1864–1925), this period melodrama is actually the third filmed version of the tale (the others being in 1911 and 1933) but is widely regarded as best of the three.
Giving a virtuoso performance, Grazyna Dlugolecka is Ewe (“Eve”), an early 20th Century lady not too far from removed her Old Testament counterpart in that she is a source of great temptation to mankind, a troubling issue we find her discussing with a (leering, obviously) priest at the film’s start. But her pious state of grace is turned on its head when a handsome lodger called Luasz (Jerzy Zelnik) moves into the spare room of the stately house she shares with her lascivious father (men generally equal ‘slime’ in this one). This lodger chap is in the process of seeking a divorce from his wife and before you can say ‘Bigos Marrowsky’ the two of them are at it like knives. But the path of true love does not run smoothly; soon they are separated by fate and she’s off down a rabbit hole of prostitution and crime, all the while trying to get him back. As the film progresses, she is pursued and lusted after by various blokes who generally treat her like a sexual plaything. The allegory isn’t subtle, nor does it try to be.
While the plot is rather undemanding (did they really need to make three versions of this?) The Story of Sin is Borowczyk right at the top of his playfully polemical game. The eroticism is never gratuitous, the satire is well judged and the dialogue in English translation is delightfully on-the-nose. The episodic structure and use of natural lighting is very reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (also released in 1975) but, on the downside, it also shares that movie’s rather detached attitude to its characters which means that, at 130 minutes, it’s a bit of a slog for non-believers.
Not for the casual viewer in search of lightweight frivolity, this remains a provocative and unusual work from one of Polish cinema’s true originals.
THE STORY OF SIN (1975) / CERT: 15 / DIRECTOR: WALERIAN BOROWCZYK / SCREENPLAY: STEFAN ŻEROMSKI, WALERIAN BOROWCZYK / STARRING: GRAZYNA DLUGOLECKA, JERZY ZELNIK / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW