Walerian Borowczyk, 1967
Starring: Louisette Rousseau, Pierre Collet, Louis Jojot
Director Walerian Borowczyk’s first feature film and his last animated one is this French-language tale about a mismatched married couple, the short, round, and voyeuristic Mr. Kabal and his tall, stately, and pushy wife who may also be a robot. This blackly comic, surrealist film is intentionally devoid of a linear plot structure, so it’s a bit difficult to summarize. Borowczyk combines animation and live action. He even briefly appears himself at the film’s introduction and conclusion, where he has amusing conversations with Mrs. Kabal. She is revealed to be proud and controlling and rebukes Mr. Kabal’s sexual advances. She is often cruel to him and seems to find him ridiculous — after all he is a rotund little figure with a huge, sloping mustache — though it would be difficult to imagine the film with just one of the Kabals and not the other.
While Mr. Kabal remains in a fairly fixed form throughout the film, Mrs. Kabal occasionally changes. In the film’s opening, she is given a series of different heads — presumably to see which one will be the best fit — and is shown to have robotic parts (including a large, singular bosom in the middle of her chest). Though there is little dialogue in the film, her voice is like a distorted, mechanical imitation of a human voice and is subtitled. She is often a figure of fun and in one scene, she grows to a large size after swallowing a butterfly. Mr. Kabal climbs down inside her, where she shouts orders to him to relieve her discomfort. The humor is slapstick, often physical, and revolves around the domestic disarray and discomfort frequently found in marriage. Borowczyk has excellent comic timing, but his humor is often sad or at least bittersweet.
The two characters originated in the short film, Le concert de Monsieur et Madame Kabal (1962), and I’ve read that this was initially intended to be a short television series. The couple does have a variety of adventures — in addition to the butterfly-swallowing incident, they go to the beach, the movies, and to a concert hall. Mrs. Kabal watches TV and has some (literally) colorful dreams. Sexuality is a common theme throughout all Borowczyk’s films and it is certainly not absent here. There’s a funny running gag that Mr. Kabal is always trying to spot ladies in bikinis (models shot in live action cut into the film) through his binoculars, but he’s always caught in the act and disturbed by either Mrs. Kabal or an old man.
This absurd, flat world is largely empty and devoid of life, though there are occasional splashes of color and butterflies are a constant. In the recent Arrow release, an essay on the film states, “To describe Theatre of Mr & Mrs Kabal as ‘animated’ risks giving the wrong impression. Whilst the film features live-action, not to mention clips from Corps Profond (a 1963 documentary in which the inside of a living body is filmed using micro-photography), it is no Mary Poppins.” It is decidedly absurdist, in line with writers like Gogol, Ionesco, Kafka, and Beckett. These elements would appear again in varying forms in Borowczyk’s later works — though all of his live action films have relatively linear narrative structures — as well as in the films of other Polish exiles, like Roman Polanski and Andrzej Zuławski.
Obviously Mr. and Mrs. Kabal’s Theatre is not for everyone, but this is a must-see for film fans who like absurdist, experimental cinema, and/or anyone who loves Monty Python. Terry Gilliam actually provides an intro for the Arrow release this film is included with, Walerian Borowczyk: Short Films and Animation. The disc is an absolute treasure and is full of additional special features, including many of Borowczyk’s short films, the approximately 30-minute long documentary Film is Not a Sausage, and a visual essay from Daniel Bird on Borowczyk’s non-film art, including paintings, posters, and more. As a whole, the release comes so highly recommended that you really should pick it up immediately.