LoveRitesThe final feature by the great Walerian Borowczyk, who delivered a uniquely spare and poetic—and obnoxiously uneventful—erotic reverie with extremely dark overtones that erupt in the horrific final scenes.

This 1988 film followed EMMANUELLE V (1987), the most insulting of all Walerian Borowczyk’s features. Aside from being the cheesy straight-to-video crapfest it inherently was, EMMANUELLE V wasn’t originated by Borowczyk, and so lacked the idiosyncratic obssessiveness that marks the rest of his films, good or bad. LOVE RITES (CEREMONIE D’AMOUR/QUEEN OF THE NIGHT) is far from the best Borowczyk was capable of, but at least it marked a return to form for this skilled auteur, who died in 2006.

Hugo is a lecherous antique dealer who finds himself seated next to the leggy Miriam, a wannabe actress/prostitute, on the subway one morning. He’s immediately smitten, especially since she makes quite a few subtle but unmistakable overtures. This leads to much miscommunication until the two finally meet—and almost have sex.

Instead they retreat to a church where they discuss art and Miriam’s debauched life—and still fail to consummate their relationship. After a walk through the streets of Paris they end up at Miriam’s apartment, where Hugo promises, “I’ll make love to you as if you were my sister.” This of course leads to a further bout of chatter.

“Stop talking and take a look at the cock that has sprung up before you,” Hugo begs. Miriam obligingly sucks him off but he’s unsatisfied. They finally have intercourse, which ends with Miriam tartly informing Hugo that his every move has been recorded by hidden microphones—and then she attaches Freddy Kruger-like claw extensions to her fingers and slowly slices him up!

There’s a compelling surreality to this film, which is extremely uneventful and not a little pretentious, yet contains many arrestingly bizarre touches. The early conversation between the protagonists is one such example, conducted via back and forth shouts between two subway platforms (a none-too-subtle comment on the difficulty of real connection in modern society). The dialogue is outrageously stilted and artificial (“Doesn’t an actress crave publicity as a panther does flesh?”…“We will now kiss with open lips, and you will surrender your pink-tipped tongue to me”), with the juxtaposition of such overtly poetic, old world verbiage with gritty urban settings initially quite interesting. The effect gets old quickly, however!

Where the film is most intriguing is in the sensuous and detailed imagery of Walerian Borowczyk, who can always be counted on to come up with something visually arresting (such as a seduction sequence viewed entirely through outside windows), even when not much is happening onscreen (which in this film is unfortunately quite often). This is especially true in the unforgettable climax, when Miriam slashes Hugo with her claws. The sequence is a triumph of surreal grotesquerie, mixing beauty and horror in a manner that recalls Borowczyk’s masterpiece DR. JEKYLL AND HIS WOMEN.

As for the softcore sex scenes (which the Cult Epics DVD cover art makes out to be far more copious than they really are), don’t get too excited, as there’s little here to get a rise (pun intended) out of anyone.

Vital Statistics

Sara Films

Director: Walerian Borowczyk
Producer: Philippe Goes
Screenplay: Walerian Borowczyk
(Based on a novel by Andre Pieyre de Mandiargues)
Cinematography: Gerard Monceau, Jean-Paul Sergent, Michel Zolat
Editing: Florence Poulain, Guila Salama, Lili Sonnet, Marie-Helene Zirisch
Cast: Marina Pierro, Mathieu Carriere, Josy Bernard, Isabelle Tinard, Jacques Couderc, Guy Bonnafoux, Jean Negroni