The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Miss Osbourne
Dr Jekyll and the Women
Docteur Jekyll et les Femmes
Walerian Borowczyk, 1981, France-West Germany
Borowczyk offers Robert Loius Stevenson’s seminal work as a chamber piece where a gathering of the upper class pontificating about metaphysics and transcendence, that kind of thing, find themselves destroyed from the inside-out as Dr Jekyll’s alter-ego uses the event as an excuse to rape and murder.
Where Stevenson’s tale can be seen as good intentions leading to the worst of man, Borowczyk’s version here is more the perverse outcome of the ego and the pretensions of the upper class. There is plenty here that might verge on the unintentionally laughable, not least the dubbing – which always tends to make things unintentionally laughable – some over-ripe acting – which is par-for-the-course in this kind of venture – and its verging on the “Stupid Female” syndrome; and of course then there’s Jekyll’s considerable penis and the sewing machine as an erotic prop. But the atmosphere overcomes such potential weaknesses as well as the sheer audacity, including having Dr Jekyll’s transformation being reduced to flaying around in a bath.
The framing and the use of light transcend the straightforward imagining of the Dr Jekyll (Udo Kier, who always seems game for this kind of thing) story as a chamber piece to create a dreamy, painterly and immersive experience. The blue filters for night and the soft golden interiors are a vivid contrast. Sometimes the edges of the frame are soft or dark, making frames resemble a painting, perhaps something by Johannes Vameer who features as an example of “transcendent” art and of a dowry. The jewellery catches the light and sparkles. It’s like an ornate doily covering an obscene ornament. This mood is helped by Bernard Parmegiani’s electronic score that flirts with the discordant to make the whole thing feel more like a psychedelic excursion of the era typical of, say, Nicolas Roeg than a period piece.
There is some abstraction to the threat with the group mostly finding violence's remains, the corpses that keep cropping up. They react by hankering down and shooting innocents by accident. The paranoia and frantic responses of the privileged not to mention the hypocrisy makes for ripe satire. Borowczyk ultimately wants to cross genders with this usurping of upbringing and civility and here it truly departs from Stevenson’s agenda, making women just as complicit.
At the end, Borowczyk lets the craziness out, but it consumes itself in the back of a carriage before it gets too far. It’s a perverted comedy of manners, a phantasmagoria of genre absurdities reaching for the sublime, a farce of murder and debauchery.