THE STORY OF SIN (1975) Blu-ray
Director: Walerian Borowczyk
Arrow Academy

In between his notorious international upsets IMMORAL TALES and THE BEAST, Walerian Borowczyk returned to Poland for the much-underrated period drama THE STORY OF SIN, on Blu-ray from Arrow Academy.

Named after the first woman, Ewa Pobratynska (Grazyna Dlugolecka) is a good Catholic girl; but no sooner is she instructed about the nature of sin and how to avoid it than she notices how pleasurable she finds the appreciate glances of men on the street as well as the "obscene" paintings and books "that spread sin" in which she finds escape from the routine of her life in turn-of-the-century Warsaw in which the recession has demanded that she take a job as a copyist and her mother and father rent out rooms in their apartment to boorish guests like whore-mongering philosopher Horst (Marek Bargielowski). When Ewa must give up her own room to anthropologist Lukasz Niepolomski (Jerzy Zelnik, MEDIUM) who has come to Warsaw to arrange a divorce from his wife, she is easily charmed by the handsome young man and they carry on a chaste affair under her parents' very roof, posting love letters to one another in the letterbox at the front door, and stealing glances and touches in the corridor. When Ewa's mother (Karolina Lubienska) finds out, she sends Lukasz away and Ewa becomes shamelessly lustful in defiance ("I'm not a slut yet but I may become one"). Managing to track Lukasz down through a publisher when she discovers one of his recent scientific articles, she reunites with him and they physically consummate their relationship whereupon Lukasz leaves again with the promise of seeking a divorce from his wife in Rome. When Ewa learns that Lukasz has been shot in a duel with benefactor Count Zygmunt Szczerbic (Olgierd Lukaszewicz, A SHORT FILM ABOUT KILLING), she rushes to his bedside, posing as husband and wife but living in separate rooms in a boarding house as he slowly recuperates while she works as a seamstress. When a healed Lukasz leaves on another trip to Vienna, Ewa discovers that she is pregnant and comes to believe that she has been abandoned by Lukasz. Learning that Lukasz is in jail in Rome for forgery, she relies upon the apparent benevolence of Szczerbic only to arrive after Lukasz has been set free. Her efforts to pursue Lukasz even as she comes to believe the worst of him cause her to fall in with other acquaintances of her lover who plan to exploit her in their own intrigues.

Based on the novel by social reformer Stefan Zeromski (THE ASHES), THE STORY OF SIN seems like fairly straightforward melodrama for Borowcyzk were it not for the distance from which he observes the more overt dramatics while picking out details of Ewa's subjective experience including some actual cutaway glimpses to subjective handheld camera. Unlike some of Borowcyzk's other films, sexuality is not so much repressed as suppressed with Ewa receiving roses from Lukasz at her job, ripping off the blooms and stuffing them into her blouse in order to enjoy them in the privacy of her room (spreading the petals over her naked body in an image than anticipates a sequence in THE BEAST). While she rushes headlong into ecstasy, hoping that Lukasz will divorce his wife while not seeming to desire to marry him and bear his children, Ewa's sexuality is exploited, first by her father – who flies into a rage when his wife sends Lukasz away since the younger man has secured him a job – then by Lukasz who has her model poses from nude artwork as part of their lovemaking, and then by the band of criminals who offer to take her to Lukasz. Even before falling in with the latter group, she comes to suspect ulterior motives from those who offer help after encounters with Horst and the Jewish landlord of the rooming house where she and Lukasz stay during his convalescence, distrusting Szczerbic whose sense of honor drives him to reunite Ewa with Lukasz, and cynically interpreting the invitation of Count Cyprian Bodzanta (Mieczyslaw Voit, THE HOURGLASS SANITORIUM) to join his utopian community as pretense. The tragedy is not that she becomes a whore in the end, but that she must do so in order to own her sexuality even if she intends to damn herself for her sins.

Given limited theatrical release in the US by Tinc Productions (Barbet Schroeder's MAÎTRESSE and Andrzej Wajda's THE PROMISED LAND), THE STORY OF SIN was less of a priority in bringing to home video than the naughtier titles in Borowczyk's oeuvre with the first DVD release coming from the UK in 2005 through Nouveaux Pictures. Following Arrow's wondrous crowd-funded Blu-ray/DVD combo boxed set CAMERA OBSCURA featuring animated feature THE THEATRE OF MR AND MRS KABAL, BLANCHE, GOTO: THE ISLE OF LOVE, IMMORAL TALES, and THE BEAST as well as a host of bonus material – of which Arrow was only able to port THE BEAST and IMMORAL TALES stateside while BLANCHE and GOTO were acquired by Olive Films for stripped-down editions – and their dual territory combo release of THE STRANGE CASE OF DR. JEKYLL AND MISS OSBORNE, THE STORY OF SIN gets a similarly thorough treatment starting with a 2K-mastered 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.66:1 widescreen transfer that suits the cold, crisp look of the film that often uses diffusion within the frame rather than on the camera lens to prettify things. The Polish LPCM 1.0 mono track cleanly delivers the dialogue as well as Borowcyzk's use of classical source music. Optional English subtitles are provided.

The film is accompanied by a new audio commentary with Diabolique magazine's Samm Deighan and Kat Ellinger is as rich in background on the film as it is in their unique takes on the material. They reveal that the production begun filming with Borowczyk's wife Ligia Branice in the lead but the producers deemed her too old (although she would later play a literal novice in Borowczyk's later BEHIND CONVENT WALLS) as well as her replacement by inexperienced student Dlugolecka, the source novel and the author's reputation as the "Polish Dickens", its condemnation by the Catholic Church (which may have contributed to Borowczyk's fondness for the text), as well as the ways in which the film differs from Borowcyzk's others in its approach to female sexuality. Their analysis of the feminist aspects of the film brings up some intriguing observations such as finding Ewa is less comparable to TESS OF THE D'URBERVILLES than the male protagonist of Hardy's JUDE THE OBSCURE. They also discuss his early collaborations in Poland with fellow graphic artist Jan Lenica, and how Borowczyk and Branice used the prophets from the collaboration "Dom" as their ticket to the west, his finding prestige among critics for GOTO and BLANCHE but then being branded as a pornographer for IMMORAL TALES and THE BEAST.

Video extras start off with an introduction by poster artist Andrzej Klimowski (8:22) who discusses Borowczyk's beginnings as a graphic artist and animator, the links between Polish graphic artists and literature in addition to other visual arts, and Borowczyk's collaborations with Lenica. In "The First Sinner" (23:33), actress Dlugolecka recalls meeting Borowczyk when he came to her school in search of a young actress to play the role. She recalls having no issues with doing nudity because of how Borowcyzk had handled sexuality in his earlier films, only to feel that his approach had changed with IMMORAL TALES. She points out how she and an actress from Andrzej Wajda's THE PROMISED LAND were singled out by critics who could not attack the films so they chose to attack the morality of the actresses for doing nudity and sex scenes. She also notes that Lubienska, the actress who played her mother, had previously played Ewa in a 1933 adaptation of the novel. In "The Music Box" (19:00), filmmaker David Thompson discusses the uses of music in Borowcyzk's films, from the well-known classical music in GOTO and IMMORAL TALES to the Scarlatti harpsichord piece in THE BEAST, to the more experimental work of Bernard Parmegiani for THE STRANGE CASE OF DR. JEKYLL AND MISS OSBORNE, and the juxtaposition of spiritual and carnal ecstasy in sound and image that mark his films. "Stories of Sin: A Guide to Walerian Borowczyk" (11:49) is a visual essay by Daniel Bird – who had provided an audio commentary for the film on the previous DVD release from Nouveaux Pictures – that covers recurring themes of the director's filmography in a series of text screens intercut with clips from several of his films.

With the US rights to some of Borowczyk's films have prevented Arrow from directly porting over their CAMERA OBSCURA packages to the United States, so they made an effort to spread some of the extras from the other sets onto their US editions THE BEAST and IMMORAL TALES. The short films and animation included on THE STORY OF SIN, however, are not simply ported over from the twelve shorts and three television commercials supplementing the UK-only (but region free) combo of THE THEATRE OF MR. AND MRS. KABAL but are an entirely different selection and Arrow has impressively given each of them optional commentary tracks of their own. "Once Upon a Time" (1957; 9:11) and "Dom" (1958; 11:27) are accompanied respectively by commentary with art historian Szymon Bojko and composer Wlodzimierz Kotonski (both moderated by Daniel Bird) while "The School" (1958; 7:24) features Bird alone. "Miscellaneous: Newsreels and Documentary" (7:06) is a new visual essay on the collaboration between Borowczyk and Lenica while "Street Art (1957; 11:34) is a Borowczyk-penned history of promotional art. "Tools of the Trade" (6:24) is an interview with Juliusz Zamecznik, son of photographer and graphic artist Wojciech Zamecznik, who displays the rostrum used by Borowczyk in his animation, and "Poster Girl" (4:05) is an interview with poster artist Teresa Byszewska who also acted in Borowczyk's and Lenica's "Dom". The film's theatrical trailer (2:11) rounds out the video extras. Not included for review was the 44-page booklet with writings by Andrzej Zulawski & Daniel Bird, an interview with filmmaker Stanislaw Rózewicz, and a reprinted Polish interview with Borowczyk. (Eric Cotenas)