The Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll And Miss Osbourne: Walerian Borowczyk’s Final Masterpiece

Walerian Borowczyk’s radical reinterpretation of the much-filmed horror story is a potent study in hypocrisy and liberation.

Dr Jekyll Et Les Femmes has been one of the more neglected of Walerian Borowczyk’s films, the victim of a fallout between producer and director and subjected to assorted cumbersome and unrepresentative title changes (I saw it first on VHS in the early 1980s as The Bloodbath of Dr Jekyll), heavy censorship (the British VHS release was a particularly brutal bastardisation of the film) and Borowczyk’s deteriorating reputation amongst the more boring film critics who took his move into erotica as a personal affront and could never bring themselves to look at his work seriously again.

Despite Borowczyk’s reputation and the sometimes very graphic nature of the film, Dr Jekyll is not by any means an erotic film.  There are several topless shots, but the only frontal nudity (with the exception of Mr Hyde, which I’ll come to shortly) is post mortem and bloody – and none of this is intended to be arousing in any way.  This could’ve been the film to have helped move Boro out of the softcore ghetto – but the mistreatment of it, marketing it as an exploitation film rather than the arthouse piece it clearly is, did little for the film or the director. Not that this would have stood much of a chance with mainstream critics or audiences – it’s too uncompromising, not only in the mix of sex and violence but also in Boro’s distinctive style, which lingers on objects, features odd shots that conceal rather than reveal and has a pace that is studied and slow. Like La Bete and Immoral Tales, Dr Jekyll has the feel of a classical painting as much as a movie and is shot with a fetishist’s eye for detail.

This is less a faithful rendition of the original novel – a story all too familiar to film audiences through countless adaptations, official or otherwise – and more a warped revisionism of the story – Mr Hyde is relegated from the title, to be replaced with Miss Fanny Osbourne (Marina Pierro), a character not in the original story – in fact, Fanny Osborne was Robert Louis Stevenson’s wife in real life, and so her character sees a curious collision of fiction and reality. In this version of the story, she is hosting an engagement party alongside fiancé Henry Jekyll (Udo Kier), with assorted pompous dignitaries arriving including a general, a priest, a doctor and a lawyer. As they argue over dinner about Jekyll’s theory of transcendental medicine, it is revealed that a child has been murdered (and sexually assaulted) by an unknown figure – a murder we have seen in the film’s fog-shrouded opening scenes. This killer, a man known as Hyde (Gerard Zalcberg) soon turns up at the house, raping, murdering and corrupting the guests.

Of course, we all know that Jekyll and Hyde and one and the same person, and Borowczyk doesn’t insult our intelligence by pretending otherwise. Indeed, the film dispenses with the whole experimentation angle, assuming that we can fill in those gaps ourselves – there are no scenes of mysterious formulas being dramatically swigged from test tubes here. Instead, the director is more interested in exposing the hypocrisies of Victorian society, as his ostensibly respectable characters are shown to be lecherous, creepy and corrupt – Mr Hyde is simply more honest than everyone else, and the film suggests that Jekyll’s experiment is less a case of unleashing the worst side of humanity than it is giving licence to the desires that these people already have. Hyde is perhaps more evil, but he’s also less hypocritical. And so when the strait-laced Miss Osbourne discovers Jekyll’s secret, she is less shocked than excited, and soon joins Hyde in his depravity.

Borowczyk presents this story in what is almost a traditional gothic horror style – there’s a growing body count and a classic genre structure, but he subverts it at every turn. This is, after all, a film in which the ostensible villain rapes people to death with a giant, pointed cock. And in one of several curious parallels that the film shares with La Bete, we get to see this prosthetic phallus in action, a scene that immediately removes this from any sense of traditional horror cinema.  It’s a moment of such outrageous perversity and excess that it is both horrifying and hilarious. Borowczyk is clearly aware of these absurdities and imbues the film with a subtle humour, helped by a typically eccentric performance by Patrick Magee and Jess Franco regular Howard Vernon.

The decision to have Jekyll and Hyde played by different actors is inspired – all too often, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde movies have relied on overt monster make-up that makes the character into a ridiculous monster rather than the darkly attractive and very human character that his ability to move unnoticed through society suggests. Zalcberg’s Hyde looks sinister, but he still looks human. And Kier, always a little sinister himself, adds an edge to his character – this Jekyll has no regrets about what his experiment (here involving jumping into a bath of chemicals rather than drinking a potion) has unleashed. But it is Miss Osbourne rather than Hyde who is his real alter-ego here, a buttoned-down woman with repressed desires who finally allows him to become the man he needs to be – she ultimately prefers the vibrant and unrestrained Hyde to her dull fiancé. Evil triumphs, and for once, its victory feels like a happy ending.

Borowczyk’s career never quite reached the heights of this film again – changing tastes and his unrespectability pushed him into more disposable films like The Art of Love (again with Marina Pierro, and not without its charms), a handful of episodes of the erotic TV show Série Rose (again, decent enough productions) and the fatally compromised Emmanuelle 5. As a sign of what might have been, had he been given the budget and respect that he was due, Dr Jekyyll Et Les Femmes remains – despite recent Blu-ray editions – something of an undiscovered masterpiece and is well worth seeking out.


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