Color, 1975, 132m.
Directed by Walerian Borowczyk
Starring Grazyna Dlugolecka, Jerzy Zelnik, Olgierd Lukaszewicz, Roman Wilhelmi, Marek Walcewski
Arrow Academy (Blu-ray & DVD) (US/UK RA/B HD/NTSC) / WS (1.66:1) (16:9), Nouveaux Pictures (DVD) (UK R0 PAL) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9)
The same year he outraged audiences with The Beast and permanently bore the brand of "erotic filmmaker," Walerian Borowczyk also released his fifth live-action feature film and the only one shot in his home country, Poland: The Story of Sin, an elegant adaptation of classic novel by Stefana Zeromskiego previously filmed in 1933. On the surface it looks like one of the filmmaker's more genteel and restrained films, though his trademark flourishes start to show through before long. The end result is an appealing gateway film for those new to Borowczyk but wary of his more extreme titles, showing off his skills as a stylist and a peerless creator of rich atmosphere with bursts of shocking passionate behavior where you least expect it.
Introduced during confession at church and warned of following impulses of the flesh, young Ewa (Dlugolecka) finds those lessons put to the test when her parents take a new boarder into their home: Lukasz (Zelnik), a flirtatious anthropologist who's been studying abroad and with whom she's destined to begin a torrid but secret affair. He still has an estranged wife in Italy (the Catholic church refused to grant a divorce), but Ewa, who wears buttoned-up clothes and tends to every household chore dutifully, feels compelled to be with him, particularly after a severe injury following a duel. Soon her life becomes a chain of dramatic reversals involving pregnancy, abandonment, crime, and murder.
Though essentially true to its literary pedigree, The Story of Sin is a highly cinematic experience with a particular aesthetic debt to filmmaker G.W. Pabst, whose Pandora's Box was later remade by Borowczyk as the sadly underseen Lulu five years later. Dlugolecka makes for a fine protagonist, starting off mousy and restrained before going through a number of physical and emotional changes over the course of the film. The sexual content isn't terribly extreme here, though the film does pack a punch with its most famous image of a nude Dlugolecka adorned with roses, similar to a more graphic variation in The Beast. Borowczyk is a filmmaker almost always on the side of his female characters, and that's certainly the case here as well as he never allows sympathy for Ewa to wane even when she's gliding through life changes that would have most people spitting on her in the streets.
The Story of Sin (also billed as Story of a Sin or just Story of Sin) first appeared as an English-friendly DVD as a region-free UK release from Nouveaux featuring an audio commentary by Daniel Bird, three sets of production notes ("Dziecjc Grzcchu 2000," "Stefan Zeromski," and "Father Walerian of the Devils: The Strange Case of a Wayward Auteur"), and two interviews, "All about Eva" (7 mins.) with Grazyna Dlugolecka and "In the Beginning was Lust" (6 mins.) with Borowczyk, both of which sidestep the sexual focus of his work in favor of emphasizing his cinematic themes ("I think Disney is more erotic") and use of "ironic innuendo." The transfer was okay for the time, taken from a 35mm print with frequent scratches and speckles, with the framing cropped a bit to 1.78:1. One of the cameras was apparently defective as well, which means some shots have a very visible wobble.
In 2017, Arrow Video added this film to its essential run of Borowczyk special editions as a dual-format Blu-ray and DVD release in both the US and UK, featuring a new 2K restoration from the negative carried out in Warsaw. The correct 1.66:1 framing has been restored, and the presentation is much cleaner and healthier with that annoying wobbly camera finally fixed as well. The color scheme is a few notches colder than the prior DVD, but considering all the hands involved, this was presumably true to the film's original look. The LPCM Polish mono audio and optional English subtitles (a new translation) are top notch as well.
Interestingly, nothing from the prior UK DVD has been ported over here; instead it's a massive slate of entirely new bonus material including several key short works by Borowczyk finally filling in several gaps in his video filmography. Smart, very articulate critics Samm Deighan and Kat Ellinger, of Diabolique magazine and the Daughters of Darkness podcast, provide a thorough audio commentary about the film's place in both Polish cinema history and within Borowczyk's filmography as a rare example of his non-French output, with an emphasis on its portrayal of gender relations and its frequent misclassification as a sexually extreme work. Three of the director's Polish shorts (all more or less animated) are included: "Once Upon a Time" (9 mins.), the beautifully unnerving 11-minute "Dom" (an unexpected dry run for some visual ideas in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne) (both made in conjunction with Jan Lenica), and "The School" (7 mins.), with optional audio commentaries by art historian Szymon Bojko (with Bird moderating), composer Wlodzimierz Kotonsk, and Bird, respectively. What's fascinating here is how we see Borowczyk pushing the definition of animation beyond what was shown in Arrow's previous set, including one charming piece done entirely with photographs of a single actor. Also included are an 8-minute video intro to the main feature by poster designer Andrzej Klimowski, a new and completely different Dlugolecka interview called "The First Sinner" (23 mins.) with a less sunny account of the making of the film, and a 19-minute look at Borowczyk's use of preexisting classical composers in "The Music Box" with critic and filmmaker David Thompson. Bird's prior commentary basically gets condensed down to 11 minutes in the new video essay, "Stories of Sin," about how the director's usual artistic concerns made their way into this project, while "Miscellaneous" (7 mins.) covers Borowczyk's collaboration with Lenica on those animated shorts. The 11-minute vintage newsreel piece "Street Art" co-written by Borowczyk is an enjoyable little tour through the history of promotional posters, with a particular focus on Parisian and Polish art using bold lines and splashy color to draw in the eyes of the public. The Borowczyk-Lenica team is also highlighted in the 6-minute "Tools of the Trade," with Juliusz Zamecznik, son of photographer and graphic artist Wojciech Zamecznik, showing off the camera used to create "Once Upon a Time" (with an unexpected connection to Mondo Cane as well). The 4-minute "Poster Girl" offers a short and sweet look at illustrator and print maker Theresa Byszewska (who cameos in "Dom") covering her art schooling and move into the creation of commercial art and her relationship with Lenica, which also involved her expulsion from school and her path to professional art. A wordless 2-minute trailer (which appears to be newly created) is also included, while the packaging (with reversible sleeve options including a new design by Klimowski) features, in its first pressing, an insert booklet featuring an essay by producer Stanislaw Rozewicz, notes by art historian and Borowczyk collaborator Szymon Bojko; and the first English presentation of some selections from Borowczyk’s memoirs..