WHAT DOES SIN look like?" a nervous, rosary gnawing Ewa asks her priest in the opening scene in Story of Sin. As a member of the turn-of-the-century Polish nobility, it doesn't take Ewa long to find out. Routed from their estates by Nicholas II, the opening message tells us, these hung-up aristocrats fled to the cities and found the streets lined with mattresses. Polish director Walerian Borowczyk's film leers away at one of them, the young Ewa, as the world of decadent prewar Europe opens her eyes. Story of Sin tells the tale of a Victorian miss gone va-va-va-voom.
After a brief bout with Catholic chastity, Ewa begins what amounts not so much to a fall as a skydive from grace. Actress Grazyna Dlugolecka, who looks at times like Faye Dunaway in brunette, has just the right kind of childish yet suggestive face to do this descent justice. Behind her babushkas and grey wool dresses we sense a merciless passion just ready to burst out. Explode it soon does, and smothers a cheeky, high-cheek boned arriviste named Lukasz Niepolomski. A Rudolph Nureyev double, he drools over her, duels over her and introduces her to a new brand of ballet.
Borowczyk, also the screenwriter, does not stop Ewa's fall here. Within the next 45 minutes, and to the triumphant strains of Mendelsohn's Violin Concerto in E Minor, Ewa stuffs her illegitimate child down an outhouse hole, pull a love-sick count by the nose all the way to Paris, and finally succumbs to a shifty-looking criminal who uses her charms to defraud the hapless count. "Isn't this going too far? we begin to wonder.
The next time we see her, she is whistling men off the streets back in Poland for 25 rubles worth of fun. If her passion still burns for Niepolomski, who by this time has landed in prison and made a fast marriage for money, Ewa certainly carries her torch in some strange positions.
"Enough flip talk," more sensitive cineastes will now protest. "This is serious stuff," they will say: it's the heart-rending saga of how, as Tom Milne wrote in the Monthly Film Bulletin, "Ewa becomes enmeshed by a life of degradation and crime, yet herself remains essentially uncontaminated throughout, protected by the purity of her singleminded pursuit of love."
But in this air of Adele H.-like romantic seriousness lies this film's tongue-in-cheek genius. How does one squeeze into two hours, Borowczyk must have wondered, a novel (Stefan Zeromski's Dzieje Grzechu) that puts its heroine through so many wringers of wantonness? "Aha," the inspiration must have struck him, "play it like a real, noble love-story; make it feel like Dr. Zhivago." As the rousing Mendelsohn theme strikes up for the umpteenth time, we hardly register that Ewa has just consented to help her pimp assassinate the now rich Niepolomski. So what if she has to throw herself in front of a bullet to protect him from her own treachery? So what if she dies looking like a streetwalker, her painted face in his hands? The score and the dashing camerawork tell us to accept it all in schmaltzy, romantic stride.
WITH THIS SAME sardonic mischievousness werealize in retrospect Borowczyk has done a whole number on "artsy" filmotography that will probably keep duped "cinema" students taking copious notes. Freudian symbolism gushes from every object close-up: the postcard nudes looking like overripe cherubs, the town philosopher walking his black Great Dane, the chamber pots that our protagonists keep filling with pure water. One bit of this spoof is priceless: after some gorgeous but solemn footage of a French museum, Borowczyk has one of his characters distractedly walk right into the lap of a painted reclining nude.
Yet not once does this slightly preposterous histriography descend to boffo-ness. With a less surrealistic touch Borowczyk maintains the same tenor of classy send-up that Bunuel attained throughout most of The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. Dissected a bit more, the whole business might be interpreted as a restless and repressed Victorian fantasy. But let's refrain from spoiling with pretentious theories a film that makes such good fun of its own pretentious style. Call Story of Sin a paean to romanticism in reverse. And take with a grain of salt its subject matter: the exquisite fruitness of sin.