Blu-ray Review: The Short Films & Theatre of Mr and Mrs Kabal

Director: Walerian Borowczyk
Rating: 8/10

Koncert pana i pani Kabal (The Concert of Mr. and Mrs. Kabal)If you missed out on Arrow’s limited edition Walerian Borowczyk Collection and are planning on picking up some of the individual Blu-ray releases instead, you might be forgiven for thinking that The Short Films & Theatre of Mr and Mrs Kabal is the one that can safely be left till last, something for completists only. You’d be wrong though, because it was this body of work that turned Borowczyk into a cult figure in the 1960s and a hero to aspiring young filmmakers such as Patrice Leconte and Terry Gilliam. It deserves to be rediscovered without delay.

Fans of Terry Gilliam’s contributions to Monty Python will feel right at home in the surreal world of Theatre of Mr and Mrs Tabac (1967), Borowczyk’s only feature-length animation. The film reintroduces the unlikely husband and wife team who first appeared in The Concert (1962). Mrs Kabal is a tall, scary figure with a raptorish beak and claws and a blouse like an iron breastplate. But none of this protects her from the rather dangerous and unpredictable environment in which they live, and when she falls ill after swallowing a couple of butterflies, it’s her short, mild-mannered hubby who has to save the day by heroically travelling inside her Escher-like innards to chase the intruders out again.

Many of the Gilliam trademarks, the crunchy footsteps and tinny sound effects, the studied pauses that drag a gag out to breaking point and then the sudden flurries of action, seem to have their origin here. But the stark look and Beckett-like ambience of the film are inimitable – the bleak landscapes plagued by strange animals and scoured by hollow winds, all evoked in a seemingly casual, scratchy line-animation against a bold white background, with occasional flashes of colour and live-action inserts (Mr Kabal is forever rushing off to peer through binoculars at bathing beauties – which now seems uncanny, as it’s like Borowczyk seeing his own future as a peddler of soft-core in the ’70s and ’80s). Occasionally the film seems a little weighed down by its own length, but its scary and funny and full of characteristic Borowczyk brilliance.

That said, the undoubted highlights of the disc are the series of animated shorts that Borowczyk made between 1959 and 1964, mainly for a firm called Les Cinéastes Associés. These are astonishing in so many ways: for their range of styles and mood and their technical proficiency, with each one polished like a jewel. The earliest, the 12-minute-long The Astronauts (1959, co-credited to Chris Marker but apparently all Borowczyk’s own work) is perhaps the most brilliant of all. An inventor builds himself a spaceship out of the contents of his attic room and then goes for a spin around town, peeking into a girl’s bedroom through a periscope (why not? After all, this is a Borowczyk flick), stealing a dignitary’s top hat and having various other adventures. This is all portrayed through the most ingenious use of photomontage and collage, with still photographs brought to jerky life. Even today, it seems breathtakingly original and unexpected.

Equally fun is the 6-minute-long Grandma’s Encyclopedia (1963), which animates Victorian wood engravings to create a whimsical vignette of antique motor cars racing around picturesque city squares and over crumbling aqueducts, followed by segments on airships and locomotives. It’s just a delight, and it will have steampunk fans drooling.

But Boroczyk’s shorts are also capable of remarkable emotional weight. Shot in black-and-white, Renaissance (1963) begins with an explosion and a scene of a room blown to pieces. Slowly, things – a stuffed owl, a trumpet, a book, a doll – begin to put themselves back together again. The film uses back-motion (film played backwards), but in an extremely subtle way so that the objects seem to be sentient – the valves of the trumpet screwing themselves back into place and then wiggling like a set of knuckles until they work smoothly. As you watch, you realize it’s not just the pieces of a room that are being restored, it’s the constituent elements of a civilisation – the owl stands for wisdom, the trumpet for the arts, the book for knowledge. It is a protest against meaningless destruction that someone living in the Gaza Strip or eastern Ukraine would understand perfectly.

The 12-minute long Angels’ Games (1964) is like an animated Francis Bacon painting. With a sepia, dirty, blotchy look, it depicts a series of grey prison cells where angels are tortured and slain, and a chapel where the mutilated creatures pray (although this turns out to be a deadly trap too). For modern viewers, Gerald Scarfe’s artwork for The Wall or the grimy interiors of Silent Hill are points of reference, but even they don’t have quite this sense of being plugged into the part of the brain where nightmares live. It’s basically a condensed horror film, a cry of pain about the torturing of innocents, and once you’ve seen a severed angel’s wing seeping blue blood, you’ll never forget it.

The live-action shorts, also included on this disc, that Borowczyk made later in the ’60s for his own production company are interesting and well-executed, but they’re not in the same class as this earlier work, which is so inventive and so meticulously achieved. In these pieces, Borowczyk was a universal artist in a way he was never quite to be again. Even if you’re an ardent admirer of his so-called erotic films, it’s hard not to feel a pang of regret that he didn’t manage to make some larger scale works in the vein of The Astronauts or Grandma’s Encyclopedia.

This Blu-ray has one more surprise. Tucked away among the extras where you could easily overlook it is Holy Smoke! (1963,) a 10-minute commercial that Borowczyk made for a brand of cigars. Using photomontage and collage techniques similar to those in The Astronauts and Grandma’s Encyclopedia, he spins a fantastical satire on snobbery spanning decades. It’s hilarious, inventive, surprising, amazingly beautiful and simply immaculate.

Most of Borowczyk’s animated films haven’t been seen in years, the majority having never made it onto commercial VHS or DVD. It’s a miracle they’ve survived, and the great news is that they come across dazzlingly well on these 2K transfers, many of them from original camera negatives. Theatre of Mr and Mrs Kabal retains one or two scratches and The Concert has a touch of grain, but The Astronauts, etc, all look like they could have been made yesterday, such is their freshness and immediacy.

If you’re wondering exactly how Borowczyk did it, the accompanying 28-minute KABAL_2D_BDfeaturette is unable to cast much light as the director seems to have been very secretive, but it does provide lots of interesting info about Les Cinéastes Associés and his collaborators there, such as the composer Avenir de Monfred (who also had some success with a radio jingle called “Dop, Dop, Dop”). We learn that Borowczyk mainly worked at home, only coming into the office to use the stop-motion camera, and that Theatre of Mr and Mrs Tabac made not a penny. Even given that disheartening fact, young animators will be poring over this disc for years to come and drawing deep inspiration from it.

Following on from their limited edition box set, Arrow have released five Walerian Borowczyk titles on Blu-ray: The Beast, Immoral Tales, Blanche, Goto Isle of Love and The Short Films & Theatre of Mr and Mrs Kabal.

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