It is not pornographic. It is a revealing work of art.
One of the oddities of our current age of social media and web connectivity is the pervading sense that we have simultaneously mined the past for everything its worth, and that every second something new and worthwhile will be presented to us. It’s a rare feeling, then, to discover something both old and worthwhile. In this case, it’s The Story Of Sin by the polish director Walerian Borowczyk. Though he worked with some infamy for several decades, he’s relatively unknown compared to his fellow Poles like Milos Forman and Roman Polanski. But thanks to Arrow Academy and their excellent Blu-ray release, fans of international cinema can discover (or revisit) this fascinating film.
Ewa (Grazyna Dlugolecka, lives in a Polish city in the middle of the 19th century. She lives a typical life, doing her chores and going to confession. Then her father takes in a young male lodger, Lukasz (Jerzy Zelnik, Medium), and sparks fly. Lukasz is married, though, and his relationship with Ewa has consequences for both of them.
One of the arguments for the disappearance of most types of “golden era” exploitation fare – the nudie cuties and “medical documentaries” – was that foreign films started to offer the same kinds of pleasures as those golden era films. Certainly European attitudes to nudity and sexuality seemed miles away from their U.S. counterparts, ensuring that a screening of a European art film could offer U.S. audiences a peek at material that domestic products weren’t offering. The fact that they were usually sold as “art films” made it harder to criticize the nudity and sex, since it was “art” instead of “exploitation.”
But as time wore on, some filmmakers started to push that distinction, trying to capture eyeballs with more and more salacious material. The Story Of Sin seems to be a product of this trend in European filmmaking. It also leads The Story Of Sin to have some contradictory impulses that almost overwhelm it.
On the one hand, The Story Of Sin looks like a lot of naturalistic films of the arthouse genre. The formula – take a 19th century novel and adapt it with a focus on the texture of the original – is present in The Story Of Sin, and on paper it doesn’t seem too far off from films by Bergman or Bresson. On this score, The Story Of Sin is a fine example of the form. Borowczyk is attentive to the details of the 19th century world he’s creating, offering excellent costuming and set design to evoke 19th century Poland. He also knows that he has to work to convey the inferiority of his characters as the source novel does.
The novelist on whose book The Story Of Sin is based, Stefan Zeromski, has been called “the conscience of Polish literature.” He would, one suspects, be surprised that his novel has been turned into The Story Of Sin. Borowczyk is just as, if not more, interested in highlighting the salacious details of the narrative. Love (or sexual attraction, take your pick) pulls Ewa out of the trajectory of her pious life, and as a result she falls into a series of adventures alongside her lover. Borowczyk’s eye is just as attentive to the sexual proclivities of Ewa and her admirers as he is to the period details. The combination of salacious details with Borowczyk’s unflinching look at Ewa’s sex life give the film an almost exploitative vibe. Perhaps the novel (which I haven’t read), by virtue of its length, doesn’t seem quite so melodramatic because the plot points are spread throughout a longer narrative. But falling one after the other in only 130 minutes gives The Story Of Sin a feeling closer to an exploitation film than much arthouse fare.
The Story Of Sin gets an excellent Blu-ray release from Arrow Academy. It starts with a 1.66:1/1080p AVC-encoded transfer from the original 35mm camera negative, scanned at 4K. Restoration work ensures that damage is almost completely absent as is jitter (an artifact produced by the use of a faulty camera for some of the filming). Detail is strong overall, though many scenes are intentionally out-of-focus. Grain, however, is appropriately rendered throughout. Colors are muted a bit, but that seems more a function of the period effect than any problems with this transfer. The set’s mono audio is taken from the original magnetic tape, and it sounds surprisingly good. The Polish dialogue is always clean and clear (if a bit hushed at times), and the use of Mendelssohn’s music sounds fairly rich and well balanced.
The film’s extras are extensive, and begin with an introduction by Polish author Andrzej Klimowski, who discusses the book and Borowczyk’s adaptation. Then we get a commentary from Kat Ellinger and Samm Deighan, both of who write for Diabolique Magazine (Ellinger is Editor-in-Chief, and the pair host the Daughters of Darkness podcast). They discuss the film’s production and reception, offering some fun insights into the film. Next up we get an extensive interview with Grazyna Dlugolecka, discussing her role as Ewa and her working relationship with Borowczyk. Critic David Thompson offers an exploration of Borowczyk’s taste in classical music, especially the use of Mendelssohn in STORY OF SIN. Daniel Bird, who was a friend of Borowczyk and instrumental in getting the material together for this release, contributes a video essay about the psychology at work in Borowczyk’s films. There’s another video essay that discusses Borowczyk’s work on news reels. The rest of the disc, with the exception of the film’s trailer, is taken up by Borowczyk shorts. We get a pair of animated tales, a documentary on street posters, and a brief narrative about a soldier who likes to daydream. There are some optional commentaries for these shorts as well, offering some insights into how they fit into Borowczyk’s work as a whole.
There’s something of the neither-fish-nor-fowl feeling about The Story Of Sin. Those looking for an exploitation-style softcore type film will probably be disappointed by all the sitting around and talking in parlors. However, if you’re looking for a 19th century novelesque exploration of the constraints that society and religion place on young women, then all the sex and the melodramatic plot might seem excessive.
Though The Story Of Sin‘s combination of naturalistic presentation and melodramatic plot won’t win over all audiences, those that appreciate the film will be delighted by a solid Blu-ray that presents the film in near-pristine fashion with a host of informative and entertaining extras.