Director: Walerian Borowczyk
Script: Stefana Zeromskiego & Walerian Borowczyk
Cast: Graźyna Dlugolęcka, Jerzy Zelnik, Olgierd Lukaszewicz, Roman Wilhelmi, Marek Walczewski, Karolina Lubienska, Zdzislaw Mrozewski, Mieczyslaw Voit
Running time: 130 minutes
We first see teenage girl, Ewa Pobratynska (Graźyna Dlugolęcka) confessing her sins in church and she is warned by her orthodox priest about having any impure thoughts or feelings. Returning to her family home, a large multi-roomed apartment, we soon discover that her family has boarders, including an unpleasant, lecherous man with his dog. One day a younger man, Lukasz Niepolomski (Jerzy Zelnik) moves in and the two soon fall in love. Unfortunately, he is married, but is trying to get a divorce, although this is being denied him by local, puritan, church people. He still intends to annul his marriage, come what may, even if it means him having to take a trip to Rome to persuade the heads of the church to make it so.
Later, Lukasz ends up duelling with Count Cyprian Bodzanta (Volt) and is severely wounded. Ewa finds out and ends up living with him as she tends his wounds, and generally looks after him. When he’s recovered he takes off for Rome to get a divorce. In the mean-time Ewa has a child, but, fearing her lover won’t return she loses the plot and drowns the baby.
Sometime later Ewa hears that Lukasz has been imprisoned in Rome so she goes there only to find out that he has already been released. During her wanderings/adventures through France and Germany she finds out that Lukasz has gone on to marry a rich woman and has since returned to Poland. Struggling for money she gets involved with two con men who use her for their own mean-spirited ends and finally want her to trap and kill the nobleman who had almost killed her lover, duelling. But, ultimately, is it she who is using them, and other men, to return home to her family and to her dream-lover, Lukasz…?
Based on a novel by Stefan Zeromski (who co-wrote the film’s screenplay, with Borowczyk, under the pseudonym Stefana Zeromskiego), Story of Sin is typically Polish, somewhat dour and depressing! I’m stereo-typing here, massively, of course, but I’ve never seen a Polish film that wasn’t somewhat pessimistic and depressing…
Unlike many of his other films, which are basically upmarket smut, (and all the better for it!), Story of Sin is a 19th Century romance, full of oil lamps, sexist men, period decor, and, oh, some unrequited love. It’s a story centred on a woman who ends up destroying herself for the love of the man she adores; a little along the lines of classics like Anna Karenina or Tess of the D’Urbervilles, only a bit more action-packed, with a bit of prostitution, infanticide, arson and murder thrown in for good measure.
I have to admit that I struggled with this film and found it a bit of a chore to sit through. It’s very steadily paced (i.e. slow), with many shots and scenes extended well past their sell-by-date, and the interesting stuff, rather surprisingly, is often boringly shot. For instance, there’s a shoot-out (of sorts) at the end of the film, which is poorly handled – the camera frequently turning away from the more exciting elements. Borowczyk does this with other scenes throughout the film too, where he almost shies away from anything that could even remotely hold the average viewer’s attention. In fact, the director is clearly more interested in objects rather than people and holds his shots on, for example, things like curtains and a cash register, for way too long.
On the plus side, there are some great locations used throughout the film, with some marvellous period detail, and the level of acting is uniformly excellent. However, for an erotic picture Story of Sin remains determinedly unerotic and, again, Borowczyk even shies away from the erotic elements of the film, which is unusual for him.
The story reminded me a little of the Marquis de Sade’s opus, Justine, which sees an innocent girl gradually corrupted by the vagaries of life. There’s plenty of philosophical musings here, such as the lead character uttering lines like: ‘The pain of possession leads to the grace of loss.’ And I think lines like that tend to sum up who the audience for such cinematic fayre would be; predominantly poets and pretentious types, I’d suppose...
Story of Sin is being distributed by Arrow Films on DVD and Blu-ray. Extras include:
An audio commentary by Samm Deighan and Kat Ellinger, both from Diabolque magazine and from the Daughters of Darkness podcast;
An introduction by poster designer Andrzej Klimowski (8.5 mins) who talks about Borowczyk’s early work, which were mainly montages and lithographs;
The First Sinner (23.5 mins) – a new interview with Story of Sin lead actress Graźyna Dlugolęcka in which she talks about her sometimes turbulent relationship with the director during the making of the film. She reckons she only got the job as she was the only person still at the school when he came to visit. She felt he saw actors merely as subordinates that formed part of the overall scenery;
The Music Box (19 mins) – film critic, and documentarian, David Thomson talks about the use of classical music in Borowczyk’s films. He points to the director’s use of some quite obscure instruments and his desire for realism when it came to using instruments from the time periods that his films covered. Thomson thinks Borowczyk uses music like a texture in a painting;
Stories of Sin (12 mins) – a video essay by Daniel Bird (from the Friends of Walerian Borowczyk) concerning the director’s obsessions, especially his love of objects, which he saw as being versatile actors;
A Miscellaneous section, which includes some of his short films, including Once Upon a Time (9 mins), Dom (11.5 mins), and The School (7.5 mins); and a video essay on the director’s contributions to newsreel and documentaries, and to art history (7 mins);
Street Art (11.5 mins) – a short newsreel documentary about poster art co-written by Borowczyk himself. This is quite well done.
Tools of the Trade (6.5 mins) – an interview with Juliusz Zamecznik, son of photographer and graphic artist Wojciech Zamecznik;
Poster girl (4 mins) – an interview with poster artist, illustrator and print maker Teresa Byszewska, who appears in his short, Dom;
Trailer (2.11 mins) – mildly interesting, centring on Ewa giving birth.