English Title: Blanche
Country of Origin: France
Studio: Abel & Charton, Télépresse Films
Director: Walerian Borowczyk
Screenplay: Walerian Borowczyk
Art Director: Jacques D’Ovidio
Runtime: 92 minutes
Genre: Historical Drama
Volume: East European
Blanche, the young bride of a once wealthy and now elderly gentleman, lives a lonely and isolated life in a deteriorating French castle. Her monotonous daily routine is forever altered by a visit from the King and his page, Bartolomeo, both of whom instantly fall under the spell of her grace and charm. Blanche’s stepson Nicholas, who secretly loves her, notices the visitors’ interest in his step-mother, and later fights a duel with Bartolomeo, whereupon they make a pact and both return to the castle. Unbeknownst to Blanche, the page writes her a note and hides in an alcove in her room. However, when her husband accosts her with suspicions of infidelity, he walls in the alcove, and thus sets in motion of series of events that will bring violence and tragedy to the castle and its occupants.
Borowczyk secured this reputation through a series of acclaimed experimental animated works, some of which were made in collaboration with the seminal artist Jan Lenica. His live-action debut, Goto, l’île d’amour/Goto, Island of Love (1968), was widely celebrated upon its theatrical release as an original and idiosyncratic work, and as a result Blanche had been greatly anticipated, and was similarly well-received, especially for its immersive, painterly mise-en-scène. Indeed, perhaps more than any other film in Borowczyk’s esoteric filmography, it highlights the director’s love of art and design (he had studied and worked in lithography whilst making short films in the 1950s). Aided by the co-cinematographers André Dubreuil and Guy Durban, Blanche has an astonishingly stylized visual quality that, in its stressed two-dimensionality, has the flavour of a picture-book fairy tale or a stirring collection of paintings brought to vivid life. Because of this overtly stylized quality, Borowczyk’s ‘historical epics’ are much more interested in being extreme personal artistic interpretations rather than factual renderings, subjective visions rather than naturalistic narratives.
Blanche was adapted from the epic poem ‘Mazepa’ by Julius Słowacki, and is in many ways an anomalous entry in Borowczyk’s oeuvre in that it foregoes a number of his usual excesses of subject matter and narrative for a surprising, albeit beneficial, restraint and sensitivity. Absent are his now-trademark flourishes of nudity, sex and eroticism; and in their place is a story of a sincere and moral woman who is victimized by the men in her life. Like August Strindberg’s Miss Julie, she is immediately equated with a caged bird, and in depicting her imprisonment (she is initially seen naked and gradually clothed and covered up until only her face can be seen) the film in fact represents Borowczyk at his most gentle and humane, and is powered by his unforgettable, and totally unique, framing (that at times seems to literally frame his actors as if they are models in a picture-frame); and its his sometimes strange but never less than effective cutting skills that capture seemingly inconsequential moments throughout that all add to the overall effectiveness of the piece. It is indeed Borowczyk’s strength as an editor that is perhaps most overlooked, as he manages to heighten the increasingly fractured lives of the characters in Blanche with his supremely intelligent editorial decisions that become increasingly jagged and jarring during the film’s most dramatic moments. The cast also strengthen the film, with Branice delivering a compelling and at times near miraculous performance as the tragic heroine of the piece; whilst legendary French actor Michel Simon is equally good as Blanche’s elderly husband, delivering a performance that is both menacing and monstrous in one of his final screen performances.
Audiences who only know Walerian Borowczyk through his unfair reputation as a purveyor of soft-core erotica will be shocked by the intelligence, grace and skill on hand in Blanche. Beautifully composed, emotional without recourse to sentimentality and entirely, authentically sympathetic to its suffering heroine, Blanche is a film that remains far removed from the accusations of pornography and misogyny that have sporadically been thrown at Borowczyk and his work. Conversely, however, though these aspects of the film are contextually singular, almost unique, Blanche is in other ways succinctly representative of its director’s cinematic sensibility. It maintains the sharply subversive elements that animate a majority of his films, such as his usual distrust of authority and questioning of governmental and religious power, and his always probing exploration of how sexual manipulation can damage relationships between men and women.
Blanche was reasonably well received upon its release in 1972, although because of distribution problems it has never been granted the audience it deserves. Borowczyk would follow the film with the erotic anthology Contes immoraux/Immoral Tales (1974), and with this his reputation as a film-maker only capable of arthouse erotica was sealed. Blanche is a forceful reminder of his importance as a director capable of both powerful and subtle, intelligent film-making.
Author of this review: Jeremy.Richey