Confession time, friends: I was sold on the notion of watching Walerian Borowczyk’s 1980 film "Lulu" not based around what I'm going to detail below, but based entirely upon the fact that I'd heard Udo Kier appears as Jack the Ripper. Much like my review of Jess Franco's "Jack the Ripper" appeared with a warning about the lack of History Actual, this review will carry a similar warning about this being not-at-all an "Udo Kier as Jack the Ripper" vehicle. More's the pity, really.
Those of you who were looking for a film with a rich historical context, however, are in luck! Hell, I'll even toss in a Kinski tie-in for maximum circularity.
In 1979, Werner Herzog directed "Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht," a reimagining of F.W. Murnau's silent film "Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens," which was in turn an unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker's "Dracula." The former film was a clever mixture of Herzog's artistic choices (including the casting of Klaus Kinski in the title role--there's your tie-in, friends!) and familiar source material, updated for contemporary audiences. Similarly, "Lulu" is Walerian Borowczyk’s reinvention of G.W. Pabst's 1929 silent film "Pandora's Box," based on plays by German playwright Frank Wedekind (1895's "Erdgeist" and 1904's "Pandora's Box"). Bob-sporting beauty Louise Brooks became synonymous with the tragic heroine she played in "Pandora's Box," to the point where she was frequently referred to as "Lulu" by fans.
I'll give you a moment while you stuff all that in your Film & Literature Class and smoke it.
"Lulu" tracks the rise and fall of a beguiling dancer whose sexuality is tied directly to her fortunes. The titular nymph-like seductress flits from romance to romance, strategically positioning herself for social and financial gain. Each of her lovers embodies a Victorian archetype, from the old professor showing off what would now be called a "trophy wife" to the bohemian artist to the bourgeois newspaperman to the naive young man. Borowczyk's adaptation of Wedekind's melodramas emphasizes the satirical nature of the story, skewering upper middle class attitudes towards sexual relationships.
And believe you me, this is HIGH melodrama, folks! Lulu's story is sketched out in a series of five scenes, each highlighting one of her relationships. After her first husband suffers a heart attack while walking in on her lovemaking with a young artist hired to paint her portrait, Lulu inherits his fortune. She doesn't dispense with her philandering ways after marrying the artist, however, and her relentless--to say nothing of ENTIRELY SHAMELESS--affairs lead to the artist's suicide. Her performing star continues to rise, and she effectively blackmails a successful newspaper owner into marrying her, but she kills him after an emotional confrontation over the fact that she's sleeping with his son. From here, the unwitting murderess is forced to live in squalor and sell her body to support herself, leading to her death at the hands of Jack the Ripper. Yes, I know--it's pretty much four seasons of "Falcon Crest" jammed into ninety-five minutes of film. This stop-and-start structure mimics a stage production very effectively, and Borowczyk's frank camerawork evokes the experience of watching a theatrical piece, to the point where some shots are partially obscured by columns, doors, or screens. The period setting is deftly handled by the director, featuring highly detailed sets and thoroughly researched costumes. While not as bombastic as the also-Period-Piece "Dr. Jekyll and his Women," which would follow in 1981, there's an exploration of similar themes using a similar set-up of familiar literary/cinematic source material.
The decision to rely heavily on dialogue to forward the plot instead of the kind of insane visual setpieces Borowczyk employs in "Dr. Jekyll" will turn off many viewers. It will particularly alienate the kind of viewer who gets enthused about the whole "Jack the Ripper" portion of the film (read: "me")--that's a five-minute coda. Udo Kier's appearance as the sarcastic killer (dubbed in English with a sorta "Guys and Dolls" gangster voice that is... off-putting) is more cynical than sinister, and it provides an abrupt and downbeat end to the tale. The decision to underplay the violence through most of the movie is a conscious one, but I'm not convinced it's a wise one. It felt like there were unexplored moments here, and while the screen is frequently filled with nudity in the form of the comely Lulu's unclad frame, the decision to handle most of the explosive moments through characters talking to one another felt--I dunno--antiquated? Overly stagey? Kinda actually boring...? Yes, all of that. For a movie about a seductress who destroys men and is ultimately destroyed by a man, "Lulu" is pretty empty, especially when contrasted with the iconic status of "Pandora's Box" that is its inspiration.
"Lulu" wasn't a total dud for me, however, and I found enough moments of interest to sustain my interest. The five vignette scenes are linked by the portrait of Lulu painted by her artist-lover. This painting, Expressionist in appearance with a foreboding blood-red backdrop, follows Lulu through her tumultuous life a little like "The Picture of Dorian Gray." The portrait is ultimately kept safe by Baroness Geschwitz, who acts out her unrequited lesbian desire for Lulu on the painting. And because this is a Borowczyk film, I mean that entirely literally.
One of the subversive touches here is that Lulu and her newspaper owner husband are played by Anne Bennent and Heinz Bennent, a real-life father-daughter pair. The fact that their on-screen chemistry was pretty darn convincing made this after-the-fact-to-me-anyway revelation rather uncomfortable...!
The soundtrack by Giancarlo Chiaramello is composed of classical refrains, including one that sounds so similar to Camille Saint-Saëns' "Danse Macabre" as to make my ears perk every time it played behind a scene. Although there is an opera adaptation of "Lulu," the choice not to use that music here was a wise one, as the unusual scale and tonality used in the opera would distract from the on-screen action. Don't believe me? Check out a thirty-one part YouTube playlist of composer Alban Berg's "Lulu" here. You'll dig what I mean after Chord One.The traditional style of music employed in the film heightens the drama and might actually be my favorite non-Udo-Kier element! The opening and closing song, in German cabaret style, is composed of Borowczyk's own lyrics and is brought to life by Beatte Kopp, who also plays the Baroness Geschwitz. It's a heart-wrenching performance that bookends the story quite nicely indeed.
See? I'm putting a frame of Udo Kier at the very end, just like this film does. I kept you hanging on, didn't I?
For fans of Borowczyk's work, "Lulu" is an interesting novelty. When contrasted with movies like "Dr. Jekyll and his Women," "Behind Convent Walls," and "Immoral Tales," however, it just doesn't measure up favorably.