CAPSULE: LOVE RITES (1987)

Cérémonie d’amour; AKA Queen of the Night

DIRECTED BY: Walerian Borowczyk

FEATURING: ,

PLOT: A man pursues a prostitute he meets on a train into a web of sadomasochistic mystery.

Still from Love Rites (1987)

COMMENTS: If you’re visiting this site, there’s a good chance that you’ve heard of Walerian Borowczyk, the brilliant Polish animator turned art-house pornographer. Much has been made of his infamous fall from grace, which began with 1973’s unsettling and twisted Immoral Tales and hit a spectacular climax with 1975’s  The Beast [La Bête], a Baroque passion play of bestiality that flew in the face of all accepted standards of good taste, and left Borowczyk to wander the wilderness making low-budget schlock for the rest of his days.

Or so the story goes. I can’t speak for the rest of Borowczyk’s work after The Beast, but Love Rites, which turned out to be his last film, finds his eccentric brand of perversion still intact, just a bit mellowed by age. A middle-aged clothing buyer, Hugo (Mathieu Carrière) pursues a clandestine affair with Miriam (Marina Pierro), a mysterious prostitute whom he encounters on a subway. After a game of cat-and-mouse and a lengthy conversation about poetry and acting shouted across opposite sides of a train platform, the two lovers take refuge in a church before making their way to a secret boudoir for an afternoon of sexual domination and submission.

From that description, you might wonder about this movie’s weird credentials. Indeed, on the surface, this is little more than a stereotypical French erotic drama, with the first half of the film’s brief running time devoted to tedious intellectual monologues veering between philosophy, religion, and deadpan tales of past sexual abuse–all of which are apparently intended to be titillating overtures for the real action which is surely lurking just around the corner. After all, don’t forget that The Beast begins in much the same way, with a good 45 minutes devoted to a glorified period soap opera with occasional insinuations of a beastly secret that eventually pays off in a big way.

There’s a troubling development here though, away from the cinematic and towards the literary. Once we enter the boudoir of Miriam’s ominous “friend and mentor,” more and more of the action becomes relegated to a narrator—to the point that most of the juicy stuff that Borowczyk is famous for is hidden off-screen. With sophisticated relish, the narrator relates the sordid events taking place just out of view, as if reading from the works of the Marquis de Sade for an audience of horny aristocrats. The action is hidden from view with compositions designed just as tastefully as the narration is blunt and smutty, with visual motifs evoking cages, butterflies and birds. As the action builds into a fever dream of emasculation and perversion, the narration gradually diminishes, eventually disappearing completely as the film reaches its head-scratching denouement.

But while the film’s muted tone can be both frustrating and boring, there’s no denying that Love Rites is pure Borowczyk. Libertine perversion pervades the film, despite its attempts to hide these qualities from view. If Borowczyk’s intention was to deny the audience’s desire for easy erotic payoffs in lieu of something more esoteric, he succeeded. What’s happening out of view, in the margins, remains perpetually out of our grasp. Who is the unseen madame who demands that games of submission be played in her boudoir? What about the mute Cambodian slave who could appear at any second to carry out some inconceivable orgy of torture?

Alas, Borowczyk is not about to give us the answers to these questions, much like Miriam, who teases her male prey with promises of erotic fulfillment but then confounds her client’s expectations, eventually turning the tables and leaving poor Hugo with more questions than answers. For those who enjoy such esoteric mind games, Love Rites might be just what you’ve been looking for. And for Borowczyk historians, the new Blu-ray release from Kino-Lorber offers the uncut theatrical version as well as a shorter director’s cut that cuts some of the flack from the film’s first half (which is chock full of it). But if you’re new to Borowczyk, you might be better served by checking out his earlier, more infamous films, and then streaming this one as an epilogue.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…an object lesson in creating a surrealist work of art. The 1987 film exhibits an exacting preoccupation with the specificities of places and objects, while at the same time remaining open to spontaneity.”–Budd Wilkins, Slant (Blu-ray)

2 thoughts on “CAPSULE: LOVE RITES (1987)”

  1. Now if Behind Convent Walls would finally come out, pretty much the entire Borowczyk canon would be available on blu-ray.

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