Doctor Jekyll (Udo Kier) is engaged to be married to Fanny Osbourne (Marina Pierro). To celebrate this engagement, a party is being held at the Jekyll home. In attendance are Jekyll’s mother and Osbourne’s mother (no fathers?), an eccentric general (Patrick Magee) and his indulgent daughter, a reverend (Clément Harari), and Jekyll’s long-time friend and academic rival, Dr. Lanyon (Howard Vernon), amongst others. In the film’s meticulous first-act sequence, following a murder on London’s streets, the guests arrive in staggered fashion to the party. As each arrives, he or she signs a commemorative guest book. Of course, this is classic character exposition, but Borowczyk concludes his first act effectively--the last, late guest to arrive, in a darkened foyer, is Edward Hyde. His signature more than announces his arrival: it begins the second act of terror as he has his way with the party guests.
The underlying theme of Borowczyk’s take on Stevenson’s story is personified in the relationship between Jekyll and Lanyon. Jekyll is an advocate of transcendental medicine while Lanyon is an empiricist. Lanyon sees life as limited by what is perceived by human senses. Jekyll intends to prove during this evening’s events that there are senses and awareness beyond the scope of human perception. This awareness can be achieved and realized.
The philosophical theme of Docteur Jekyll isn’t belabored with dialogue: it comes only as dinner conversation. Borowczyk’s visual style is the real commentary. Think of the classic, “objective” film style: wide frames (often used as establishing shots), medium shots (primarily focuses on character action), and close-ups (which focus on characters’ faces and highlight emotion). Now think of the subjective shot. This camera positioning is to substitute for the point of view of another character. The subjective composition is designed to be unique, so what is shown in the frame is to expose something about who is doing the seeing in as much as it is about what is being shown. The framing of a subjective shot differs from the classic, “objective” style: off-kilter framing is typical and handheld work of the camera is frequent. What is so interesting about Docteur Jekyll et les femmes is that it is composed primarily of subjective shots. At first glance, I thought that Borowczyk’s style was arbitrary framing, but that thought gave way with subsequent viewings. The reason that I thought the style was arbitrary was that there were myriad shots composed as if they were glances around corners, through doorways, and down hallways. There was an overtly voyeuristic quality to these sequences, yet there was no character to reference these subjective shots. In one sequence, for example, Jekyll has handed his last will and testament to his lawyer in which he disposes all of his property to Edward Hyde. The scene is covered with primarily one composition of Kier standing in his laboratory with the camera from behind a door’s threshold and partially obscured from a corner. This is clearly not a shot from the point of view of Edward Hyde, lurking in the darkness, as the viewer is “looking” at Hyde in his form as Jekyll. This is a subjective shot with no character reference: a subjective shot from no character, subjectivity beyond a human perception...very nice.
As masterful, meticulous, and playful Borowczyk’s film appears, according Howard Vernon, who plays Dr. Lanyon, perhaps it was more chaotic on the set:
“I can remember a German actor named Udo Kier in this picture. He was also very nice but became quite angry during filming because Walerian had to finish the picture earlier than planned. He had some money problems and so many, many nice and important scenes had to be cancelled. He also cancelled a very interesting scene with me. I played a doctor who does an autopsy on a young murdered girl...[Vernon’s response edited by me for “spoilers” here]...Borowczyk was very much in love with the leading actress, Marina Pierro, an Italian girl.” (European Trash Cinema, Vol. 2., No. 5, ed. Craig Ledbetter, Kingwood, TX: 1992, p.42)
Vernon’s final statement is a truly an understatement. Any casual or cursory stroll through Borowczyk’s cinema involving Marina Pierro will instantly see his worship for the actress. As Fanny Osbourne, her character is objectified as Jekyll’s fatal flaw: as much as Jekyll wants to merge his old self completely into his new self as Hyde, the only vestige of his old life which he wishes to keep is his love for Fanny. The film’s most famous sequence comes from Fanny’s point of view, where she witnesses Jekyll’s transformation. It’s a low-key sequence in terms of action but it’s hypnotic in its rendition, with appropriate dim lighting, Parmegiani’s score perfectly punctuating the action at key moments, and its languid pace. The transformation sequence perfectly sets up Fanny’s later decision in the final act where the film escalates to its violent and chaotic conclusion. The compositions of Pierro in the third act, especially, are marvelous. Haunting and beautiful.I would be remiss to not add how nasty Docteur Jekyll et les femmes is. There are few filmmakers that I can think of who love to upset and disturb conservative viewers more than Borowczyk. In terms of erotic content and flesh display, Docteur Jekyll pales to other Borowczyk cinema (although quite erotic sequences are included). The lack of erotic sequences may make Docteur Jekyll more accessible to conservative viewers, as erotic sequences tend to divide and disturb those viewers more than violent scenes. While Docteur Jekyll has more grisly aftermath scenes of victims than of scenes of graphic violence, they are, in my opinion, equally affecting. So prospective viewers are forewarned. I have never watched Docteur Jekyll et les femmes just once. When I view the film, I have to watch it again. It’s a mesmerizing experience, as it’s just one of those films which takes everything that we hold dear in our culture and turns them on its head. Playful and perverse, beautiful and disturbing, creative and innovative: that’s Docteur Jekyll et les femmes and Walerian Borowczyk cinema.