Art on film: The Beast

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The Beast: Lisbeth Hummel, Elisabeth Kaza and Marcel Dalio.

In which Polish director Walerian Borowczyk places a little-known Symbolist painting in the background of The Beast, his strange sex film (or should that be strange-sex film?) from 1975. I’ve spent the past week or so working my way through Arrow’s box of Borowczyk films, of which The Beast is the last in the collection. It’s also the one film by the director that many people may be aware of even if they’ve never seen it, thanks to a historical reverie in which an 18th-century woman has a very graphic sexual encounter with the beast of the title, a bear-like creature with a fully-functioning phallus. This episode is framed by a somewhat farcical modern-day story set in a French chateau, with the bestiality flashback being the culmination of a parade of sexual antics that include equally graphic scenes of horse-breeding, female masturbation, and thwarted attempts by the daughter of the house to have sex with one of the servants.

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Frenzy aka Frenzy of Exultations (1893).

And this is the painting that Borowczyk shows. I said that it’s little-known but it happens to be the most visible of all the paintings by Polish artist Wladyslaw Podkowinski (1866–1895), with a popularity in Poland that extends to reproduction on postcards and jigsaw puzzles. (That huge area of shadow must cause puzzle-solvers some headaches.) I only recognised the picture because Michael Gibson includes it in his wide-ranging study of Symbolist art, although he doesn’t have much to say about it apart from its having caused a minor scandal when it was first exhibited. This isn’t too surprising; prior to the 20th century there were few Western artworks that were so overt in their depiction of erotic delirium without tipping into outright pornography. Given this you’d expect Borowczyk to make more of the reference but he keeps the picture in the background, a reward for the small percentage of the audience who can identify the thing at a distance.

Frenzy is dramatically different to Podkowinski’s other paintings, most of which are Impressionist studies, and is further distinguished by having been attacked by its creator when the artist slashed the canvas with a knife while it was still being exhibited. Paintings and sculptures have been subject to attacks by members of the public for many years but this is the first I’ve heard of an artist attacking their own work while it was on display. The scandalous history suits the film as much as the salacious subject matter; The Beast was almost subject to an obscenity prosecution when an uncensored print was shown in London in the 1970s. For a long time it was one of those troublesome features that you’d be more likely to read about than to see.

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Quay Brothers posters

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This Sweet Sickness (1977).

Looking around for Quay Brothers designs turned up an item I hadn’t seen before, a poster for the UK release of a French film by Claude Miller, This Sweet Sickness, starring Gérard Depardieu. I’ve not seen the film either, nor have I read the Patricia Highsmith novel on which it was based although a copy of the book has been sitting on my shelves for some time, together with a couple of other unread Highsmiths. The poster dates from just before the Quays started to get serious about their own film-making.

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Nocturna Artificiala: Those Who Desire Without End (1979). The organ pipes, which don’t appear in the film, are an allusion to the improvised organ score by Stefan Cichonski.

Being graphic designers as well as film-makers puts the Quay Brothers in a very rare class, one where they not only make the films but also design the posters used to promote their films. Offhand, I can only think of the late Eva Svankmajerová as being in the same company so it’s perhaps fitting that her husband and artistic collaborator, Jan Svankmajer, was the subject of an early film by the Quays.

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Street of Crocodiles (1986).

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Stille Nacht: Dramolet (1988). An early use of Heinrich Holzmüller’s typographic designs.

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Weekend links 545

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Colour wheel from The Natural System of Colours (1766) by Moses Harris.

• The Vatican’s favourite homosexual, Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni, receives the ludicrously expensive art-book treatment in a huge $22,000 study of the Sistine Chapel frescos. Thanks, but I’ll stick with Taschen’s XXL Tom of Finland collection which cost considerably less and contains larger penises. Related: How Taschen became the world’s most famous erotic publishers.

• “In a metaphorical sense, a book cover is also a frame around the text and a bridge between text and world.” Peter Mendelsund and David J. Alworth on what a book cover can do.

The Night Porter: Nazi porn or daring arthouse eroticism? Ryan Gilbey talks to director Liliana Cavani about a film that’s still more read about (and condemned) than seen.

What is important about reading [Walter] Benjamin’s texts written under the influence of drugs is how you can then read back into all his work much of this same “drug” mind-set; in his university student days, wrangling with Kant’s philosophy at great length, he famously stated, according to Scholem, that “a philosophy that does not include the possibility of soothsaying from coffee grounds and cannot explicate it cannot be a true philosophy.” That was in 1913, and Scholem adds that such an approach must be “recognized as possible from the connection of things.” Scholem recalled seeing on Benjamin’s desk a few years later a copy of Baudelaire’s Les paradis artificiels, and that long before Benjamin took any drugs, he spoke of “the expansion of human experience in hallucinations,” by no means to be confused with “illusions.” Kant, Benjamin said, “motivated an inferior experience.”

Michael Taussig on getting high with Benjamin and Burroughs

• “Utah monolith: Internet sleuths got there, but its origins are still a mystery.” The solution to the mystery—if there is one—will be inferior to the mystery itself.

After Beardsley (1981), a short animated film about Aubrey Beardsley by Chris James, is now available on YouTube in its complete form.

• Mix of the week: The Ivy-Strangled Path Vol. XXIII – An Ivy-Strangled Midwinter by David Colohan.

Charlie Huenemann on the Monas Hieroglyphica, Feynman diagrams, and the Voynich Manuscript.

Katy Kelleher on verdigris: the colour of oxidation, statues, and impermanence.

• A trailer for Athanor: The Alchemical Furnace, a documentary about Jan Svankmajer.

All doom and boom: what’s the heaviest music ever made?

• At Strange Flowers: Ludwig the Second first and last.

• At Dennis Cooper’s: Krzysztof Kieslowski Day.

Ralph Steadman’s cultural highlights.

• RIP Daria Nicolodi.

Michael Angelo (1967) by The 23rd Turnoff | Nightporter (1980) by Japan | Verdigris (2020) by Roger Eno and Brian Eno

Raoul Servais: Courts-Métrages

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“Courts-métrages”, the French term for short films, is one of those phrases like “bande dessinée” that I prefer to its English equivalent. Among the weekend’s viewing was this double-disc DVD release devoted to the animated films of the Belgian director Raoul Servais. Some of the films are very familiar and have been the subject of previous posts, but the set comprises 14 films in total, and includes many I’d not seen before. Like Jan Svankmajer, Servais is generally the writer/director of his films rather than the animator which accounts for the great variety of graphic styles, although both directors helped animate their early works. The Servais art styles range from the flat UPA-derived idiom of the 1950s, through a variety of drawing techniques, to the later films which deploy “Servaisgraphy”, a process that combines live action and animation with drawn or photographed backgrounds. The last two films in the collection use digital technology.

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Harpya.

If there’s a common thread to this oeuvre it would be the Belgian brand of Surrealism, which might seem like a lazy comparison when so much animation can be described as superficially “surreal”. In the case of Servais, however, the connection is made explicit in Nocturnal Butterflies, a film dedicated to the Surrealist painter Paul Delvaux, whose paintings also inspired the director’s flawed feature film, Taxandria (1994). The Servais masterwork, Harpya, which won a Cannes Palme d’Or for best short film, is Surrealist to the tips of its feathers, a dark and absurd dream that’s a world away from his moralistic early works. One of the films I’d not seen before, November Diversion, resembles a Svankmajer live-action short, a wordless piece about a man trying to escape from an automobile cemetery. All the shorts have been restored by Cinematek, the Belgian film archive. I ordered my DVDs from Potemkine, Paris.

Contents
Disc 1: Harbour Lights (1960) / November Diversion (1962) / The False Note (1963) / Chromophobia (1965) / Sirene (1968) / Goldframe (1969) / To Speak or Not To Speak (1970) / Operation X-70 (1971) / Pegasus (1973) / Halewyn’s Song (1976) / Harpya (1979) / Nocturnal Butterflies (1998) / Atraksion (2001) / Tank (2015)
Disc 2: Servais (2018), a 60-minute documentary by Rudy Pinceel

Previously on { feuilleton }
Papillons de Nuit, a film by Raoul Servais
Sirene by Raoul Servais
Harpya by Raoul Servais
Taxandria, or Raoul Servais meets Paul Delvaux

Satan’s Saint

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Digging in a box for an errant paperback turned up this volume which I’ve owned for years but never read. Having recently watched Jan Svankmajer’s Lunacy, which has a Sade-like character among its cast, I thought I should give it a proper look. Sade’s irreligious and libertine philosophies haunt the Surrealist world, hence Svankmajer’s interest, Jean Benoît’s performance art and so on. Surrealism didn’t have any saints but it did maintain a pantheon of precursors, with Sade accorded the status of “Genius of Wheels” (ie: revolution) in the Surrealist deck of playing cards.

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Guy Endore (1900–1970) wasn’t a genius, a satanist or a saint but he was an interesting character, an American writer best known today for The Werewolf of Paris, another novel I own and have yet to read. He was a vegetarian and a socialist at a time when both these pursuits were regarded with suspicion or outright hostility (his Communist sympathies later caused him to be placed on the Hollywood blacklist). He wrote a great deal of historical fiction—in addition to Satan’s Saint there are novels based on the lives of Casanova, Voltaire and Shakespeare. And his Hollywood credits include work on scripts for Tod Browning (Mark of the Vampire, The Devil-Doll), writing the source novel (Methinks the Lady) that became Otto Preminger’s psychological film noir, Whirlpool, and, with John Balderstone, adapting Maurice Renard’s The Hands of Orlac into the screenplay that became Peter Lorre’s Hollywood debut, Mad Love. The latter is a great film that I’d love to see again. Satan’s Saint was first published in 1965. This Panther edition appeared in 1967. Now I just have to find the time to read it…

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