Friday, August 5, 2022

Docteur Jekyll et les femmes (The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne), aka Bloodbath of Dr. Jekyll | Walerian Borowczyk (screenplay and director, based on “Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” by Robert Louis Stevenson) / 1981 [film]

the colors of pleasure

by Douglas Messerli


Walerian Borowczyk (screenplay and director, based on “Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” by Robert Louis Stevenson) Docteur Jekyll et les femmes (The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne), aka Bloodbath of Dr. Jekyll / 1981


Since Docteur Jekyll et les femmes was never shown commercially in the United States nor in Britain where it played at only one cinema theater of a week, it is not surprising that this film is basically unknown in the English-speaking world. And Polish director Walerian Borowczyk, who began his career as an animator, but when he moved to film features focused on films of adultery and illicit love, came quickly be described, particularly in the US as Margalit Fox described him, “ a genius who also happened to be a pornographer.”

      Beloved in France and other European countries Borowczyk’s films are still likely to be banned in many US and British theaters, although several of works have been brought to DVD and there is currently even an English-dubbed version in with Dutch subtitles on YouTube of Docteur Jekyll.

      Frankly, if this work is typical of his films, his images of sexuality are far less transgressive that many an LGBTQ film that has been brought into the “ordinary” cannon (i.e. consisting of works that emphasize artistic content over pure phonography) by directors as various as Peter de Rome, Radley Metzger, Wakefield Poole, or even Pier Paolo Pasolini.   

     The basic tenant of Borowczyk’s work is that after killing the young female child in his neighborhood, Dr. Jekyll’s other self, Edward Hyde (Gérard Zalcberg) has no need to roam the London streets. Dr. Henry Jekyll (Udo Kier) simply invites his doctor friend Dr. Lanyon (Howard Vernon), his personal friends Mr. Utterson (Jean Mylonas) and Mr. Enfield (Eugene Braun Munk), along with the family minister Reverend Guest (Clément Harari), family friend General Carew (Patrick Magee), his mother, and his mother-in-law to be, along with their families, Carew’s daughter and a young girl who dances to celebrate his engagement to Fanny Osbourne (Marina Pierro). By simply jumping into his bathtub with a vial of the important formula sprinkled into the tub water, Jekyll through a pleasurable plashing and far a more visually interesting thrashing rather than swilling down of a mixed chemical drink, turns himself in Hyde time and again so that he can encounter everyone at the party in his own time, delving them out their just desserts.

      It’s absolutely brilliant since it saves poor Jekyll all those trips back and forth to seedy cafés and rooming houses with the police hot on his heels, and gets almost immediately to the heart of the matter of maiming and killing all Jekyll’s hypocritical friends such as Utterson, Carew, and Guest, and allows him to brutally fuck all the pretty girls and boys he wants, in this case also sometimes doing them in simply because this Edward Hyde is possessed of an enormously enlarged cock.


     People bring gifts, books, from the General a shaft of poison Amazon tribal arrows, and a painting in the case of his mother-in-law by Vermeer. And the women dress up so very beautifully that we know they’re all ready for whatever the unknown guest might mete out to them each. 

     It also permits Stevenson’s story to reveal the supporting characters’ hypocrisies more readily, as we observe both the general and Reverend flirting with Fanny, their mothers as boring matriarchs demonstrating a commitment to the arts through money and in Jekyll’s own case by pretending to be an accomplished pianist when at times she can hardly hit the right notes.

     Just as in their private conversations in Stevenson’s tale, this film shows the conservatism and small-mindedness of his dinner guests in a grand dinner party first introduced in the 1920 version and repeated thereafter. Jekyll is a good sport about Lanyon’s and Reverend Guest’s grand  pronunciamientos about the good doctor’s experiments concerning the good and evil elements within each of us, but Hyde has no such reservations about destroying them for their limited abilities to comprehend the “transcendental” or just for the smug beings they truly are. Each time Hyde appears, in fact, he begins like a small schoolboy by tossing over sacred books and paintings, scrawling upon them, or even burning them.

     He has no time for such cultural accretions. Hyde is pure pleasure whether he be stomping someone he doesn’t like to death like the young seemingly innocent child of the very first scene, or breaking Jekyll’s mother legs after having demanded she play the piano until her fingers are almost bleeding, acts obviously motivated by Jekyll’s years of unbearable patience, a patience with which Hyde isn’t blessed, being in fact a totally damned being.

     The evening “fun” gets underway with Hyde attacking one of the guest’s teenage daughters who has just performed a dance dressed in what is supposed to look like a ballerina’s tutu, but appears to be more like undergarments and panties. She excites all the men, but Hyde gets to break her hymen so powerfully that the young sleeping virgin expires in the sexual act. 

      Thus begins an evening wherein the men suddenly all grow hysterical in the demand of their patrimonial control, ordering the women to the bedrooms, Dr. Lanyon secretly providing them with morphine to help them sleep through the ordeals. The General gets out his gun and begins shooting at everyone who suddenly appears out of the corners of his eyes, accidently shooting and killing Mrs. Osbourne’s coachman, to which Jekyll, suddenly returned to their midst, is sent out to see what he can do for him. The man, Jekyll later reports, suffered interminably for 20 minutes before he died.

      With Hyde now back, he takes on the General’s buxom daughter, who seems quite delighted in the fact that she is about to be raped, bending over to reveal her bare bottom as she leans forward  hugging a sewing machine, symbol of what might have been her future. Hyde has already tied up her father so that he must witness, as a voyeur, the act, revealing to us for the first time just how endowed this monster is.

       Unfortunately for both Hyde and Miss Carew, they are interrupted. But even after being “saved,” the daughter is frightened about untying and loosing the ropes around her father, terrified of the inevitable “punishment.” He assures her that he will not punish her, but he lies, slapping, striking, and spanking her in what his clearly the old man’s Sadist pleasures.

      It is clear by this time that like Gore Vidal’s 1955 Jekyll, the good, kind doctor actually enjoys himself as Mr. Hyde, and as in that TV version, he demands that Lanyon provide him, for the very last time, with the antidote through which he is transformed back to Jekyll, in part, just to force this closeted figure to realize what is on the other side. More than any beating or sexual abuse, Lanyon falls in a faint and perhaps into a mental breakdown simply by realizing the truth.

      Meanwhile, lest you think this Hyde is simply a womanizer, he attacks the blond, curly-headed young merchant boy who has joined the party, sodomizing him, again his tool causing the cute kid to bleed in his abdomen, although he evidently survives.

      Having refused to drink the morphine potion provided by Dr. Lanyon, Fanny finally makes her way back to Jekyll’s private room and watches him, while hiding, thrash through his transformative bath, wide-eyed with wonder.

     But when she meets up with Hyde, who has already done in his mother and, despite, the ready arms of Carew’s daughter, has shot them both with poisoned arrows, he seems to be unable to recognize Jekyll’s fiancée, thrusting an arrow into her arm as well. 

      Drinking Lanyon’s solution, he returns to being Jekyll, horrified of having hurt his beloved Fanny, although apparently regretting none of Hyde’s other acts. But it is here, as critic Glenn Kenny observes, that the work “turns genuinely subversive.”


      “Shot throughout with diffused light that gives the whole thing a feverish, half-remembered quality, the movie builds inexorably to a (to lift a phrase from Ed Wood) nightmare of ecstasy, a truly Sadean paroxysm. The film indulges a subversive impulse that’s genuinely in the realm of the capital-S Surreal. I was reminded of Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali’s 1930 mini-feature L’age  d’Or, whose focus was on a couple in the most extreme stages of mutual “amour fou”—the viewer first sees them trying to have sex in a mud puddle—who are constantly separated and thwarted by societal pressures. ‘What joy to have murdered our children’ goes a rapturous voice-over in a garden scene just as the couple is about to be reunited in eye-rolling erotic squalor. Borowczyk’s film is like the Buñuel and Dali vision suddenly awarded a “happy” ending. Fanny does not physically transform in Jekyll’s chemical bath, but as the Rolling Stones put it, the change has come. But rather than operate under the oppressive weight of Hyde’s appendage, Fanny becomes an equal partner. Bounding a carriage to who-knows-where at the end, the now fully-compatible couple draws each others’ blood.”


      What I have not yet expressed about Borowczyk’s work of cinema, is the spellbinding beauty of the whole. Much of the time we feel, given the dark shadows that pervade this Victorian world, that, as in Duchamp’s Étant Donnés, we are viewing Hyde’s and Jekyll’s acts through a peephole in which as “through a glass darkly” we are witnessing these heinous but yet so-delicious “crimes against society and nature”—as we have forewarned by the dinner guests. But when we do glimpse the rooms, the baths, the nude bodies, the burning books and slashed Vermeer, even the gore of the vampirish blood, the colors of the images are so rich and sensuous that they can hardly be resisted, reminding one of the cinematic worlds of Gregory Markopoulos, Werner Schroeter, or Luchino Visconti, three gay artists who entice us into their frames through their blues, reds, greens, purples, and yellows. We patiently wait for the dark to be briefly lifted so that we, like Hyde, might take our pleasures as voyeurs to the destruction of Jekyll’s universe.

      I suspect that had Robert Louis Stevenson seen this film, he would have astounded and outraged. Yet I feel that it comes closer to his original story than any of the other cinematic tellings I have witnessed.


Los Angeles, August 5, 2022

Reprinted from World Cinema Review (August 2022).

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