Starring: Ligia Branice, Michel Simon, Georges Wilson
Director: Walerian Borowczyk
Blanche (1972) has a lot in common with Walerian Borowczyk’s previous live-action film, Goto, Isle of Love (1969). Like Goto, it’s set in a fortress – only in this case a Medieval one – ruled over by an ogre-ish older male. Again, Ligia Branice plays the ogre’s wife, who, as before, has to juggle various suitors, one wanted, the rest unwanted. And, just as Goto was but even more so, Blanche is a showcase for Borowczyk’s eccentric approach towards composition, and his avoidance of anything resembling directional light. In Blanche the camera stands four-square to the action, holding the characters at a distance, and they come trotting out through doorways like the little figures on a church clock, ready to knock each other over the head with axes.
At the same time Blanche feels deeply, authentically Medieval, an old romance out of an illuminated manuscript. It’s literary source is allegedly a drama based on the life of the 17th century Ukrainian hero Ivan Mazepa, but it’s steeped in an earlier period and attitudes, and you’d swear it was the sort of thing Chaucer, in Knight’s Tale mode, might have made if he’d had a chance to get behind a camera.
It’s a tale of the trials of virtue. When the King (George Wilson) visits the castle of a powerful but elderly baron (Michel Simon), both he and his mischievous page makes a play for the baron’s much younger spouse. Rather than being sympathetic, the baron suspects her of witchcraft and adultery and grows vicious, and even the baron’s more sympathetic son (the one she does fancy, although she doesn’t act on it) is no help. “Cut off your hair and hang yourself,” he advises her – and he’s a fan.
Just as the film tries to avoid natural light and flattens perspective, so it omits character and psychology. People behave as they do in old ballads and legends, extremely, irrationally, with little motivation, and according to their roles, symbolized in some instances by the animals they keep as pets: Blanche has a white dove in a little cage, the King a naughty monkey who perches on his shoulder. The fact that the movie manages to resist the human tendency to view the past through a modern mindset is an achievement in its own right and one of the reasons it achieved considerable acclaim when it was first released, but it also makes for chilly and remote viewing.
It is, though, an ideal environment for Ligia Branice. There’s something antique about her style of acting – her rather gawky presence, her scuttling movements and her large, mime-like gestures – that seems to belong to a pre-cinema age. She looks extraordinary, swaddled inside cowls and long, restrictive dresses that seem like another form of imprisonment.
Beyond that, the film is a triumph of Gothic Revival design, of bright, Pugineseque interiors, odd goings-on in corners and all those curious bibelots that the characters always seem to have about their person, like the heroine’s missal with a false bottom for hiding poison, or the Bible than unfolds into a nightstick.
The HD transfer seems a little dull and soft and lacking in visual snap compared to the high standard set by Arrow’s other Borowczyk releases, but the disc comes with some very good extras. A 4-minute introduction by Leslie Megahey makes a strong case for the film. There’s an informative 28-minute documentary in which we learn that Blanche was mainly filmed in the studio but the castle exteriors were shot at the Chateau d’Anjony in Tournemire, and that the producers wanted Catherine Deneuve for the title role. Complaints about Ligia Branice’s off-screen personality are a running theme of these extras, and apparently Michel Simon didn’t have much time for her.
There’s also a 1 hour, 3 minute “portrait of Walerian Borowczyk”. This consists of what seem to be three separate interviews with the director, shot at more or less the same time (and in the same clothes) in 1984, the same period as he was making his last short animated film Scherzo Infernal. Two of them show him sitting next to his editing table and giving his views (in French) on animation. As is sometimes the way with French arts programmes, the discussion is frustratingly abstract at times, but it at least gives you an opportunity to get a look at the man. The most interesting section is the middle one, where a rude interviewer challenges him on the erotic content of his work, much to his disgruntlement: “I’ve watched a lot of your films, and I think you’re a big pervert!” It’s fun watching Borowczyk squirm.
Following on from their limited edition box set, Arrow have released five Walerian Borowczyk titles on Blu-ray: The Beast, Immoral Tales, Blanche, Goto Isle of Love and The Short Films & Theatre of Mr and Mrs Kabal.