Docteur Jekyll et les Femmes (1981)

Director/Screenwriter: Walerian Borowczyk

By Roderick Heath

Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, like many famed, oft-filmed horror-genre properties, has never been accurately adapted. Stevenson’s story possesses a cool, serpentine suggestion of elemental evil living within the brick and stone of Victorian London’s hidebound certainties, a low-key power that I had not actually encountered in any of the film versions, partly because of Stevenson’s strength of prose, and perhaps because most of the films follow Jekyll on his journey, and make it explicit and coherent, rather than view it from without in alarming, menaced snatches. In addition, unlike many of the film adaptations, Stevenson’s story almost completely lacks female characters. For example, the seminal 1932 Fredric March version provided Jekyll with a decorous fiancé and Hyde with a tart to harass, to extend and embody the schism behind the antihero’s cryptically described debaucheries. Stevenson himself had no time for the suggestion his story was about sexuality, and many such adornments in fact came from Richard Mansfield’s infamous stage production.

Polish filmmaker Walerian Borowczyk, who would make this bizarre and savage takeoff on the Stevenson story, could be described as an infinitely less lucky Roman Polanski or Miloš Forman. Borowczyk made a name for himself in the 50s and 60s as a maker of surrealist, short, animated films. He influenced Terry Gilliam, amongst others, who named his Jeux des anges (1964) one of the best animated films of all time. Borowczyk then gained significant acclaim with his first few feature films, including Goto, l’île d’amour (1968), Blanche (1971), and the Palme d’Or-nominated Dzieje grzechu (1975), but his career was generally perceived as losing steam in the later 70s, and his later work was dismissed as mere grindhouse fare. His short film Une Collection Particuliere (1973), a wry catalogue of the peculiarities of Victorian-era pornography, saw him drift perhaps out of personal taste toward sexuality-themed films like Immoral Tales (1974), and particularly, his variation on Beauty and the Beast variation La bête (1975); he eventually made Emmanuelle 5 in 1987 in final consummation of his drift into skin flicks. And yet prominent Australian film critic Scott Murray suggested in 1998 that Borowczyk’s oeuvre was ripe for reappraisal and that Docteur Jekyll et les Femmes (aka Dr. Jekyll and his Women; The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne; The Blood of Dr. Jekyll; and Bloodlust), a fruit of the officially debased end of his career, looked like his greatest film.

Borowczyk’s Jekyll makes no pretence of fidelity to the Stevenson’s story—in fact, it’s surely the loopiest adaptation ever—and yet it captures the threat lurking within the tale to a degree that dwarfs all rivals. Borowczyk had an antiquarian streak that infused his films with a highly physical evocation of the intangibly appealing past, and Docteur Jekyll et les Femmes displays this quality with an alternately grimy, ghostly, and hazy beauty evoked in the period Victoriana that’s comparable to a full-colour The Elephant Man. Borowczyk’s take on the story begins with a dread-provoking, mysteriously filmed sequence that conflates two incidents from the book: an adolescent girl runs for her life from a shadowy man through alleys and dark buildings before he finally chases her down and beats her with his cane, which shatters. He starts tearing her clothes off, but an interloper scares him away.

A short distance away, at the house of Henry Jekyll (Udo Kier), guests start arriving to celebrate his engagement to Miss Fanny Osbourne (Marina Pierro). Osborne’s mother presents a unique dowry to Jekyll’s limping, pianist matriarch: a Vermeer painting recently discovered in Glasgow, which one invitee, Rev. Donald Reagan Guest (Clément Harari), proclaims to be a summit of human achievement. Other guests include General Carew (Patrick Magee) and his daughter Charlotte. Fanny is looking forward to a chance to spend the night with Jekyll as the couple’s sensual enthusiasm strains the boundaries of the acceptable: when they kiss with illicit glee in Jekyll’s laboratory, she flinches at the sight of Jekyll’s father’s portrait staring at them from the wall.

Jekyll’s recently published The Laboratory and Transcendental Medicine, a book that lays out his new theories of metaphysical medicine, is hotly debated about the dinner table by Jekyll, Reagan, and Jekyll’s colleague and critic Dr. Lanyon (Howard Vernon, an ubiquitous figure of Euro-exploitation). Borowczyk suggests what’s coming as, throughout the dinner conversation, flash cuts reveal glimpses of atrocities that will be committed by night’s end. For the evening entertainment, Victoria Enfield, the daughter of one the guests, dances, but the frivolities are interrupted by news of the discovery of the fatally beaten young girl.

All hell begins to break loose when Victoria, resting in an upstairs bedroom to recover from faintness after her dance, is raped with startling savagery and left for dead by an intruder. The men immediately presume the man who attacked the girl has infiltrated the house, and the General takes charge, ordering the women to lock themselves in their rooms and then setting out to track the man down; instead, he accidentally shoots the Osbournes’ coachman. The General is then sprung upon and tied up by the intruder, who tears off his medals and stamps on them, prongs his surprisingly willing daughter in front of him, and dashes off to do more mischief, including sexually assaulting one of the young male guests. Jekyll, who has seemed to have been outside tending to the coachman, returns at last in an exhausted state, and the servant he sent to fetch the police turns up dead. Now in a state of siege, Lanyon has the women take a sedative so they can more easily be kept locked together. Fanny avoids taking the draught and sneaks down to Henry’s lab, where she watches him bathe the solution that he uses to transmogrify into Hyde (Gérard Zalcberg).

It’s a touch of inestimable cheek on Borowczyk’s part to name Jekyll’s fiancé after Stevenson’s real-life wife, whose criticisms of the work reputedly inspired Stevenson to burn his first draft of the novella. And yet explicitly setting the drama in a blurry mid-ground between reality and fantasy helps signal that this is a riff on a familiar tale, and it then proceeds to conjure a bold and troubling fever dream out of Stevenson’s raw material. Whilst the besieged set-up and single-night structure is original, Borowczyk, like the original story, keeps the identity of Hyde mysterious for more than half the film, with Hyde’s appearances fast, obscured, and punctuated by unnerving glimpses of perverted savagery. Hyde’s killings aren’t just symbolic of sexual aggression as they are in so many horror movies: they are sexual aggression, for in the course of the film he kills at least one man and one woman by sexual penetration (or so we’re told) with his gigantic, animalistic phallus, as Lanyon notes with increasingly queasy apprehension. Lanyon realises they’re up against a creature not only brutal in nature but completely lacking in all sense of behavioural prohibition.

Some critics had, amusingly, condemned Borowczyk in his earlier films for making erotic films that weren’t erotic, and Docteur Jekyll et les Femmes extends this contradiction at least to the extent that Borowczyk is completely uninterested in the usual brands of eroticism or violent hype. Only in one scene, that in which the General’s daughter eagerly presents herself to Hyde, the beast fumbling with his colossal silhouetted penis, does the film slide into clumsiness, although the image of the prim Victorian lass eagerly giving herself to a monster to taunt her trussed-up, tyrannical father fits into the anarchic structure neatly. When she unties the General after he promises not to punish her, he immediately slaps her and then bends her over to whip her arse with unchecked fury. Magee, a tremendous actor who delighted in playing grotesques, had played the Marquis de Sade in Peter Brook’s similar, if far more self-consciously highbrow Marat/Sade (1967). Borowczyk’s film explores a genuinely Sadean side to Stevenson’s parable, which bears more than passing resemblance to 120 Days of Sodom and the film version Salo (1975) by Pasolini. Docteur Jekyll is not that grotesque, though some moments, like swiftly employed, nightmarish visions of Hyde’s victims hanging, their bloodied genitalia on display, evoke the furthest reaches of Sadean imagery.

Stevenson’s story contributed to the growing strain of psychic pessimism in late Victorian fiction that also manifested in H.G. Wells’ scientific romances and, finally, clearly breached the walls of symbolist fiction in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Borowczyk’s film successfully closes that circle, as the film’s remarkable final 20 minutes build a mounting sense of apocalyptic threat. Like Conrad, Borowczyk suggests the dissolution of civilisation through the totems of colonial conquest in Africa, in this case, poisoned arrows the General has brought back him from the “Black Continent” and given to Jekyll as his wedding present, a martial man’s gift that stands in opposition to the art of Vermeer. Hyde makes eager use of the arrows, shooting Fanny with one, and then making a pin-cushion out of the General, to his daughter’s giddy delight, until Hyde casually riddles her with barbs, too.

Borowczyk realises with power and integrity the implicit dichotomies of Stevenson’s text, as Jekyll’s “transcendental medicine” unleashes a force of utterly barbaric nihilism, yet still remaining, in a curious fashion, transcendental. The acting isn’t very important, with Kier and Pierro dubbed. Pierro, nonetheless, embodies Fanny with panther-like force, and both Borowczyk and Jean Rollin, to whose films Borowczyk’s display much in common, used her several times. As alarming and fascinating as Jekyll is until this point, the film doesn’t entirely hit its stride until the last 10 minutes, when Jekyll reconstitutes himself with Lanyon’s aid. Lanyon has saved a small amount of a substance needed to work the restoration from a batch Hyde has destroyed; the revelation that his friend is the monster so horrifies Lanyon that he falls dead from a heart attack. Jekyll then picks up a wounded and bewildered Fanny and takes her to his laboratory, explaining his system not with shame and self-hatred but with enthusiasm about being the first man to truly present two dichotomous faces to the world. He immediately sets about making another bath of his solution, unable to and uninterested in resisting the call of Hyde again.

Rather than being mortified by his revelations, Fanny declares she must take the bath herself. To save herself from the arrow’s poison and to join with Jekyll in his barbaric liberation, she dives right in and turns into a yellow-eyed demon who, with Hyde, sets about laying waste to the house and murdering the rest of the inhabitants. Fanny enthusiastically knifes her own mother, and the pair burn books and destroy artworks, including the Vermeer and the picture of Jekyll’s father. In its sheer unleashed anarchy, Jekyll bests anything Godard came up with to suggest the crack-up of Western civilisation in Week-End (1967).

In the film’s final mad moments, the couple flee in a coach, rutting on the floor of the carriage and lapping the blood streaming from each-other’s wounds, as Bernard Parmegiani’s driving electronic score pulses to ecstatic rhythms and then runs down like a steam engine losing force to the film’s final puff. This is utterly brilliant filmmaking that packs a tremendous wallop. l

  • Jeremy spoke:
    17th/03/2010 to 1:44 pm

    Terrific piece on probably my second favorite Borowczyk film after LA MARGE. I’m particularly glad you made special note of the last ten minutes or so of the film, as it features some of the most astonishing filmmaking I have ever seen. I so wish that this film would finally be granted a decent DVD release as I would love to see it properly presented visually for more people to see.
    Great stuff, thanks for writing on such a distinctive work from a master who rarely gets his due.

  • Greg F spoke:
    17th/03/2010 to 2:53 pm

    I think every review on Ferdy on Films should have a bare-ass spanking picture of a beautiful woman. Let’s make this thing happen people.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    17th/03/2010 to 3:02 pm

    Thank you for another trenchant comment, Greg!

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    17th/03/2010 to 4:26 pm

    Ah Rod, you are REALLY talking my language here with this director! His greatest film is BLANCHE, which featured a tiring Michel Simon in his valedictory role, but both the bizarre and surreal GOTO ISLAND OF LOVE (which for several years was so desired on DVD that I wrote letters to have it released, after watching my colleague’s British PAL VHS) and LA BETE, which of course is available too on a superb two-disc set. That film is one of the most sexually provocative an dshocking films ever made, yet’s it’s also beautiful and is some kind of perverse masterpiece, while GOTO informs John Waters’s DESPARATE LIVING in more ways than one. He’s an intoxicately, no-holds-barred cinematic artist, whose gift for composition at least equals his disturbing black homor and jarring imagery. IMMORAL TALES is another eye-opener, needless to say! Alas though, I cannot make claim to seeing this film, I’m sorry to say, but this fueled my eagerness to see what you have to say here, and as usual your work is outstanding. I’m not surprised at your summary judgement either, and you do a great job with bringing in all the cinematic comparisons.
    I agree with you most vital point, however, which you state at the outset, contending that Stevenson’s novel has never really had a satisfactory cinematic transcription, though in spite of your sensible objections, I still feel on balance that Mamoulian’s 1932 version with Frederic March is easily the best we have. The transformation segments, despite their age and obsolescence, remain as technically adroit as anything we have today, but that’s hardly the point, and we are discussion literature here.

    I will definitely move my butt to watch this ASAP.

  • Rod spoke:
    17th/03/2010 to 8:56 pm

    Greg: That’s actually not one of my screencaps, so that shot’s presence indicates Marilyn’s kink, not mine. Chew on that for a while.

    Jeremy, Sam: This is my first complete Borowczyk viewing, so obviously I can’t compare with other works: obviously getting hold of more is now a personal priority. Certainly yes, Sam, the Mamoulian version is the best mainstream adaptation of the work – indeed just how fluidic and effective it is compared to the slower and more self-consciously elevated Spencer Tracy version, which I grew up with, can’t be overstated – and the 1972 British film I, Monster with Cushing and Lee actually took a fairly creditable stab at more faithfully adapting the story, ironically with the character names changed. But this just blew ‘em all away for me. Yes, Jeremy, this film needs a good DVD release and pronto – the version I watched was taken from an ancient VHS release plastered over with Dutch subtitles! – to help get cinephiles more aware of this perverse masterpiece (hole in one with that phrase, Sam).

    There’s a whole wonderland based in the Eastern European sense of the fantasy tradition out there I’m trying to explore at the moment that I’ve found to be very symbolically knowing – see my upcoming commentary on Valerie and Her Week of Wonders – and I think Borowczyk channels into his take on this ostensibly Anglo-Celtic myth. This is the rare kind of film that devotees of art cinema, lovers of underground film, and fans of horror movies can all get behind.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    18th/03/2010 to 9:33 am

    I found three screencaps that were sharper than the ones Rod sent. I used that one because it was a good image and illustrated a sentence in the review. Call me kinky about precision.

  • Greg F spoke:
    18th/03/2010 to 8:48 pm

    Okay. You’re kinky about precision.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    19th/03/2010 to 8:03 am

    (Rim shot.)

  • Rod spoke:
    19th/03/2010 to 9:06 am

    Sigh.

  • ian powell spoke:
    15th/04/2012 to 4:25 am

    I was lucky enough to see this projected about ten years ago and part of its joy is that, although in parts ridiculous it is an intense poetic vision and probably the nearest to Stevenson’s unconscious vision. It is aparently locked in some legal wrangles and thus cannot be released. I would gladly buy the rights if I could. I was a PR at the time of the original (limited) UK release and remember meeting the critics at the press screening of a film called Big Meat Eater after they had come from this. They were in a state if swaying shock, not unlike one of Hyde’s victims and had no idea what they had just seen.

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