Monday 8 February 2016

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne

Jekyll Finger Of Fate

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne
(aka Docteur Jekyll et les Femmes)
France/West Germany 1981
Directed by  Walerian Borowczyk
Arrow Blu Ray/DVD Dual Format Edition

I’m still not sure where I stand with Walerian Borowczyk. His cinema is rich and sumptuous in terms of its visual manifestation and, sometimes like here, its audio presentation. However, I find I react very differently to his movies... sometimes they’re a bit of a miss with me, other times a big hit. Or, like this one, the film is a combination of both with the sheer brilliance of some of the visual and aural distractions not always quite enough to keep me entertained for the full running time.

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne is the film which won Borowczyk the 'Best Feature Film Director' prize at the Sitges Film Festival for 1981 but I, myself, found the first half an hour or so of the movie, which is the set up for the shenanigans which occur throughout the rest of the story, much more enthralling and generally noteworthy than the rest of the feature. I was given this movie by a couple of friends as a Birthday present in January and it came with the cautionary tale that, back in the 1980s, the father of one of the two who gave it to me had bought this in the UK in an early VHS tape edition. However, the gentleman in question was so unimpressed by the content of the film that he took it back for a refund. I can kind of understand where he was coming from in some ways... especially if the film frame was chopped up into a 4 by 3 aspect ratio, as was the norm for video tapes back then. I can kinda sympathise.

What is in no doubt, however, is that the people behind the scenes at Arrow have done a beautiful job at the restoration and transfer of this print, even making the Blu Ray and DVD multiregion, something which the company has not done in the past (see my review of Borowczyk’s Immoral Tales here) but which I personally see as a huge step forward for fans of art versus commerce, no matter what the copyright holder sees as the overruling factor in such situations. So good for them, is all I can say.

After a brief but striking title sequence which mixes bursts of credits appearing and disappearing at speed and mixed with sketches of old London in blue, each accompanied by eerie stabs of electronic, musical tone provided by composer Bernard Parmegiani (possibly needle dropped), we are hit up with a quote from Robert Louis Stevenson’s original story The Strange Case Of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde before going into the film properly. The story then starts with the night time streets of London shot in a similar blue lighting which seems to indicate the outside world of the house in which the majority of the movie is set. Here we witness the near murder of a child which interpenetrates the story later on as one of the principal characters is a police investigator.

The setting of the film is an engagement party for Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne and the majority of the interiors seem to be made up of the absolute opposite of the exterior scenes in terms of colour, with lots of warm yellows and oranges seen in contrast to the treacherous night time settings of old London Town. There are also some great flash forwards during the main narrative in the early part of the film which come with similar stabs of atonal electronic music as we heard in the main title sequence and which are similar, in fashion, to the sudden blink and you’ll miss them rushes forwards and backwards in a lot of director Nicholas Roeg’s work. The way Borowczyk handles this is enhanced not only by the intrusive contrast of the score onto the previously musical bereft scene but also, of course, by using scenes often bathed in the blue lighting scheme of the earliest sequences of the movie in stark juxtaposition... so much so, in fact, that for a little while I actually thought one or two of the characters were flashing back to a back story element, rather than flashing forward to incidents seen later in the film.

Early shots within the house are particularly interesting as the guests such as Jess Franco favourite Howard Vernon and the always delightfully over the top Patrick Magee are welcomed into the home of Dr. Jekyll, played by the always watchable Udo Kier, and his beautiful fiancee, Miss Osbourne, played by the truly stunning Marina Pierro. What he does is to use the natural framing of a house with a lot of vertical interiors and then uses certain areas which also have a strong horizontal dominance... splitting the shots up into squares and rectangles and pitching the characters into these sections to add a certain dynamism to the frame. At one point it gets so predominant I kept being reminded of a checkerboard. Later in the movie, the horizontal splits aren’t so prominent but the verticals still dominate the action and make for an interesting look to the frames as they are edited together.

Many of the shots, especially in the second half of the movie, seem to be smaller frames surrounded by contrasting darkness or black at the extremes of the screen... giving one a sense, almost, that various sequences have been sculpted out of light and whittled away by a master craftsmen until they are teased out of the surroundings. Of course, since we’re talking about Walerian Borowczyk here, I don’t think the metaphor is inappropriate for a true artist of cinema such as he.

Alas, that’s all the enthusiasm I can muster for this because once Hyde makes an appearance, played with a real sense of chaos by actor Gérard Zalcberg, the film becomes a chase/romp around the house in a situation where anyone else would have maybe got the police properly involved and sharpish. Hyde is threatening and totally unsympathetic but his actions and movements seem choreographed in such a way that he seems more like one of Borowczyk’s early cartoon characters in his shorts (reviewed by me here) rather than a manifestation of the evils of the id out of control. This kind of takes away from the feel for him as a flesh and blood human character and, for me, eked out any sense of caring what happened for the remainder of the film... which seemed a little dull in comparison to the strong opening of the movie.

That being said, there are lots of good things about The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne and my brain certainly didn’t come away from this empty headed, so to speak, not withstanding the decreasing mental acuity of your less than humble reviewer. Arrow have done a bang up job of getting lesser known works by major artists released in as uncut a form as our stupid moral guardians will allow and are to be congratulated on this and many others of their releases, which it is a privilege to own in such wonderful prints and transfers. Not exactly my favourite Borowczyk movie, for sure, but certainly a interesting gem, boosted by a number of those little extras which Arrow tend to adorn these unmissable releases with. So if you're a Borowczyk fan, this is another essential purchase, I think. Probably the best international release this film has ever received and certainly a long way away from those days of early and considerably overpriced VHS tapes of yesteryear.

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