Friday, July 10, 2015


Walerian Borowczyk, 1972
Starring: Ligia Branice, Michel Simon, Georges Wilson, Jacques Perrin

The young, beautiful Blanche seems happy with her much older husband, an indulgent nobleman who spoils her. But a visit from the King and his handsome page, Bartolomeo, changes the dynamic of their castle irrevocably. The King and the page both pursue Blanche and her husband’s son, Nicholas, feels compelled to protect her. But Nicholas and Blanche, who are the same age, are secretly in love with each other. The nobleman refuses to believe that she has remained faithful and is convinced a lover is hiding in her chambers, resulting in tragedy and violence.

For anyone introduced to Borowczyk through such irreverent, sexually explicit works as The Beast or Behind Convent Walls, you might be shocked to find yourself watching this gorgeous medieval fantasy with elements of the fairytale, morality play, and the tragic melodrama. Yet Borowczyk’s beautiful yet simple rendering of the Middles Ages is far more than just a historical costume drama. It makes a fascinating pair with its predecessor, Borowczyk’s first live action feature, Goto, Island of Love. Like Goto, Blanche takes place in an isolated community that exists in an imaginary time and place, a netherworld that mimics medieval France. And like Goto, it focuses on the relationship between a beautiful young woman and her much older husband, a man who also happens to be an absolute ruler, and includes the theme of infidelity.

But the totalitarian themes of Goto are absent in Blanche. The King, though ultimately powerful, is a droll man more inspired by his appetites than a thirst for dominance or control. In another filmic universe, Blanche would be honored by the attentions of a King — or at worst she would be raped with the begrudging consent of her husband in the alleged droit du seigneur. But here, Blanche is not tempted by wealth or power (symbolized by the King) or by male beauty and sexual prowess (the King’s rather saucy page), but by true love. In a perhaps less perverse twist on Racine’s classic Phaedra (itself based on a Greek myth), Blanche loves her own stepson, the King’s honorable, handsome son.

Blanche does not, however, go in the direction you may suspect. Like Goto, this is about suppressed and unfulfilled desire. Though there are only brief moments of nudity, Blanche constantly threatens to spill over into the erotic pseudo-exploitation films of Borowczyk’s later career. He deftly suggests the flood of sexual excess without allowing any of the characters to act on their desires — though they are all punished for the thought, if not the deed. The nobleman, once a confident, tolerant, and utterly paternal husband, is revealed to be insane with jealousy and even walls up Blanche’s bedchamber, convinced he has caught her in the act. Her husband is certainly not the only one affected; her unveiling as a sexual being alters all of the film’s male characters, leading ultimately to their deaths. In this way it foreshadows Borowczyk’s future films, most of which are about the consequences of bridling female sexuality, which, once released, is revealed to be chaotic and often violent.

Considered an art house masterpiece upon its release, this deceptively pale-looking film has a painterly sense of light and color and an unusual soundtrack that was allegedly recorded on medieval-style instruments. As I said, don’t expect The Beast or anything resembling a ‘70s-style sexploitation film, but it is well worth your time and would make an excellent double feature with Goto, Island of Love. There are some great performances — particularly from Borowczyk’s wife Ligia Branice as Blanche and classic French actor Michel Simon (L’atalante) as her husband — but the shining star here is undoubtedly Borowczyk’s direction.

There is something familiar but unknowable about Blanche. While the story initially seems like a repetition of established myths, tragic drama, or epic poems, something about it is alien and unexpected. Borowczyk’s unusual reliance on objects and animals may play into this sense and the film is definitely worth a repeat watch just to see exactly how the director manipulates each scene.

Thankfully Blanche was recently restored by Arrow Films and you can pick it up individually or as part of Arrow Video's (sold out) set, Camera Obscura: The Walerian Borowczyk Collection. There are a slew of great extras, including the 30-minute documentary Ballad of Imprisonment: Making Blanche, the archival interview Obscure Pleasures: A Portrait of Walerian Borowczyk, a short that Borowczyk shot and edited, and more. The film comes recommended and it is, at the absolute least, a rewarding visual journey.

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