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REVIEW — The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne (1981)

May 19, 2015

FilmJuice have my review of Walerian Borowczyk’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne, also known as Blood of Doctor Jekyll, Docteur Jekyll et les Femmes and (somewhat generically) Bloodlust. Borowczyk is a director who has grown on me considerably since I reviewed a collection of his films back in September 2014. While I must admit that Borowczyk’s obsession with the transgressive and emancipatory nature of sex leaves me rather cold, I am still drawn to his work by virtue of its sheer uniqueness. These days, art house film is all too often a narrow and generic exercise in pandering to middle-class mores using an ever-shrinking collection of tools inherited from the Golden Age of European art house film. Reminiscent of Pasolini and Von Trier in his more expansive moments, Borowczyk’s work is strange, arresting and completely mental in a way that few contemporary directors even bother trying to emulate.

Less singular but more accessible than Blanche (Borowczyk’s best film), I describe¬†The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne as:

Gloriously amoral and more than slightly bonkers, this is a film in which parents, society, art, science, and God are all brought low before the terrifying power of the orgasm.

As the title suggests, the film is a re-working of Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde that focuses on the journey undertaken by Jekyll’s fiancee Fanny Osbourne (named for Stevenson’s real-life partner). Borowczyk views Stevenson’s novella as a meditation on Victorian sexuality and the tendency of certain men to keep their vices private even from their own wives. In the world of the Borowczyk’s film, Jekyll is a repressed Victorian scientist who assumes the Hyde persona in order to satisfy a variety of transgressive urges which, if known, would completely undermine Jekyll’s social standing. The film finds Jekyll trapped between his two personae as he struggles to choose between a life of violent debauchery as Hyde and a life of privilege and power as Jekyll. Psychologically unstable, Jekyll moves back and forth between the two personae until his fiancee works out what is going on and solves his dilemma by choosing to take the potion herself and join her husband in a state of complete indifference to bourgeois morality.

Arrow films scanned the film themselves (working from an original negative with the help of Borowczyk’s original cinematographer) and it looks fantastic. Also wonderful is Michael Brooke’s discussion of the film in which he talks about seeing it for the first time in one of London’s long-lost and much-missed flea-pit cinemas. I found this discussion particularly evocative as while I grew up in London and got into film at quite a young age, those types of cinemas had completely disappeared by the time I was old enough to visit them. In fact, by the time I started visiting the West End on my own, the ‘re-development’ of Soho and Tottenham Court Road were already well under way and thinking about a Leicester Square filled with cinemas showing soft-core porn and horror is very much like thinking of some mad parallel universe… only with less airships and more films about Swedish au pairs.

I remember once reading a story about someone going to see Stalker in a cinema near Victoria station. The film started but the person sharing the story kept on being distracted by loud slurping noises coming from the row behind him. Hoping to tell whoever it was to pipe down, they turned around in their seat only to find themselves face-to-face with a man who was eating a plum whilst tossing off the bloke sitting next to him. Funny how our patterns of media consumption change… nowadays they bloke with the plum would probably be watching Avengers.

 

2 Comments
  1. @CW2046 permalink
    May 20, 2015 10:27 am

    “Bonkers” is about right. I watched this film after reading about it in the appendices of Kier-la Janisse’s House of Psychotic Women, though I wish I’d waited for this release (I only saw some… VHS? rip that was doing the rounds on youtube).

    Pierro’s final dive into sin and excess is a stunning moment, and Udo Kier is of course well cast, but what struck me most about the film is how wildly despatialised it was. That, and the illogical behaviour of the characters (like the girl who comes half naked to Hyde for no perceptible reason) leave me feeling a parallel between the psychology of the characters and those winding dark corridors and shuttered rooms. Their insistence on staying in the place, of course, because no-one can leave their own mind. Anyway, I’ll have to give this another watch. Unfortunately I saw it around the same time as a bunch of Andy Milligan’s work so I have a slightly lower opinion in memory than is perhaps fair.

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  2. May 20, 2015 11:00 am

    I remember you talking about House of Psychotic Women on Twitter and I picked up the book on the strength of your recommendation.

    You’re right about the weird spaces and how the failure of corridors and rooms to link up mirrors the way that actions and motives seem completely disconnected. As I said in the review, I think some of the weirdness makes sense if you view Hyde as someone who is at least partially giving his victims what they want, but it is an amazingly weird film in which people seem to be relying on porn-logic rather than common sense or reason.

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