Friday, 19 February 2021

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne (1981), Blu-Ray review

For a while back in the 70s Walerian Borowczyk was a film-maker who generated a certain amount of excitement. In retrospect the excitement was created mostly his extreme subject matter rather than his ability to make movies. One of his more bizarre movies was his 1981 adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Borowczyk’s movie was originally released as Docteur Jekyll et les femmes (Dr Jekyll and his Women) but the recent Blu-Ray release has restored Borowczyk’s original preferred title, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne.

Borowczyk had a reputation as a maker of arty erotic films. In fact, as is the case with most art film directors who attempt such things, the results were usually gross and disturbing rather than erotic. If you’re an art film director critics will let you get away with erotic subject matter as long as it’s totally lacking in any genuine eroticism.

Borowczyk claimed that he tried to make a film that captured all the essentials of Stevenson’s book while departing as far as possible from the actual text.

The movie opens with Mr Hyde’s latest extremely brutal crime. Then we’re introduced to Dr Henry Jekyll (Udo Kier), who is obsessed with transcendental medicine. His old friend Dr Lanyon (Howard Vernon) thinks, obviously correctly, that this is a load of nonsense and that Jekyll is engaging in foolish wishful thinking. But Henry Jekyll intends to prove his detractors wrong.

We are then treated to a succession of acts of brutality, mostly sexual. Most of the action takes place at the time of a dinner party and virtually all the events of the film take place in Dr Jekyll’s house (which includes his laboratory). Henry Jekyll is engaged to a Miss Fanny Osbourne (Marina Pierro). The guests include a fire-eating retired general (played by Patrick Magee) and a clergyman. Also present is Dr Jekyll’s mother.

I can’t describe the plot of the film because it doesn’t really have a plot. Dr Jekyll transforms into Mr Hyde, kills people, reverts to Dr Jekyll, transforms again and kills a few more people.

I have a horrible feeling that Borowczyk was attempting farce. The sets are what you would expect in a bedroom farce with lots of doors and cupboards and places for people to hide. Much of the film certainly plays as farce, if you can imagine farce done in a ponderous leaden style without a shred of wit or humour.

Borowczyk did come up with a couple of good ideas. Dr Jekyll transforms into Mr Hyde by fully immersing himself in a bathtub filled with chemicals, which neatly avoids the necessity for any optical tricks. Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde are played by different actors (Hyde is played by Gérard Zalcberg). This very cleverly avoids the necessity of silly unconvincing make-up effects. And Miss Osbourne plays a surprising rôle in the story.

Good ideas, but the execution is dull and the whole film has an amateurish anarchic feeling (which is often mistaken for artistic boldness).

It is also a movie with zero emotional content. This is a Dr Jekyll with no redeeming qualities whatsoever, and no personality whatsoever. He is clearly mad and aware of the consequences of his actions (which he equates with freedom) but we get no sense of any of his motivations for beginning his weird scientific endeavours. I like Udo Kier as an actor but here he has nothing to work with.

Fanny Osbourne also has no personality. All of the characters lack personality. Most of the characters serve no purpose, except perhaps to make heavy-handed political points about the Evil Ruling Class or the wickedness of the Church. These political subtexts are totally unconnected with the film itself (unless Borowczyk is trying to make some clumsy adolescent point about Mr Hyde representing rebellion against authority).

Borowczyk wanted a particular look to the film - a kind of misty soft-focus slightly grainy look. It’s certainly different. I suppose it gives the movie a slightly dream-like look.

Borowczyk’s total inability to make a coherent narrative film (or maybe if you accept him as some kind of genius you could be generous and describe it as his lack of interest in doing so) wasn’t a problem in Immoral Tales which was simply a collection of short erotic films, which is something for which Borowczyk does have a certain flair. He seems very much more comfortable making short films rather than feature films. It’s perhaps a pity that he didn’t just make a collection of short films based on Stevenson’s short stories (and Stevenson wrote some superb short stories).

Now personally I don’t have a problem with movies that ignore narrative in favour of pure style (I’m a huge fan of von Sternberg’s movies especially The Scarlet Empress which is nothing but style) but if you’re going to do that you have to have some actual style. Von Sternberg did have style. Borowczyk, sadly, has only ugliness and shock value to offer us.

I do have a problem with being bludgeoned with clumsy political subtexts. I don’t mind shocking subject matter if it’s approached in an interesting way, rather than taboo-breaking just to shock the bourgeoisie. I don’t even mind philosophising as long as it’s something more than adolescent ramblings. I can see some of the things that Borowczyk was trying to do. I just don’t think those things were worth doing in this case.

For their Blu-Ray release (which also includes the movie on DVD) Arrow have included lots of extras. There’s an audio commentary cobbled together from interviews with Borowczyk and others involved in the making of the film, there are documentaries, there are short films. It seems to me that these extras are a desperate attempt to make a very uninteresting movie seem interesting and arty and avant-garde and politically daring rather than a load of pretentious nonsense. I find it very difficult to recommend The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne. If you want to check out Borowczyk’s work Immoral Tales is a better starting point.

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