Unfairly maligned as a pornographer during his most fruitful years as a filmmaker, the late Walerian Borowczyk has since become at once a contentious and celebrated name in cinema, eliciting both admiration and disgust, depending on whom you speak to.
Beginning his formative years as an animator, the Polish-born director (who would live and work in France for most of his life) soon earned the praise of fellow colleagues and cinephiles for his equally clever and crude short films of animations, which have since inspired everyone from the Quay Brothers to Terry Gilliam with their ingenious mix of eroticism, high camp and baroque pretentions.
Soon after, Borowczyk would earn plaudits and even wider attention for his first live action feature, Goto, l’ile d’amour (1968), a surreal political fable that was awarded the Prix Georges Sadoul and landed the cover of the legendary Cahiers du Cinema magazine. Bridging a gap between the oneiric exploits of Jean Cocteau and the bleak austerity of Ingmar Bergman, Goto heralded a talent that expressed deeply the sympathies of exiled Polish expats, its grim and dreamy movements in passion and violence relaying the anxious desires to be freed from a society imprisoned by its political impediments.
If it wasn’t for his utterly bizarre detour into soft-core erotic films, Borowczyk might have held on to his title as one of the most gifted and accomplished directors to emerge from Europe. To be fair, Borowczyk didn’t exactly make soft-core films per se—an accusation levelled against him by many a critic back in the day. Rather, the filmmaker explored acutely the nature of human behaviour through sexual proclivities and human passions. His examinations on sex and sexuality were frank, bold, and unflinching, and as a result he dearly paid the price for such uninhibited displays of erotic communions. His work was routinely dismissed by audiences and critics, which left his reputation damaged beyond repair.
Blanche, Borowczyk’s second live-action feature, would appear in 1971. It was one the few films he made prior to his transformation to a connoisseur of desire and the flesh. If it isn’t his best film, it is arguably one of his best, one that is truly exemplary of his abilities as an artist and filmmaker who took his visionary genius to Olympian heights.
Blanche tells the story of a 13th century woman who is the wife of a baron, living a complacent life in a secluded castle. When she and the baron are visited by the king, the king’s page and the baron’s son (Blanche’s stepson), Blanche’s unassuming and quiet life is turned upside down after the three visitors soon begin lusting after her. Soon, jealousies begin to rage and the innocent wooing turns deadly. When the baron gets wind of what’s going on, the blame ultimately falls upon his timid wife whose unsuccessful attempts to remedy the situation ends in tragedy for all.
Blanche, a staid medieval drama, is far from the sex-saturated surrealism that Borowczyk would later earn his reputation for. The filmmaker pretty much does away with the sex and nudity that would feature later in his work, but the strong-held passions and desires of his characters run like electrical currents through the static space they inhabit, hurtling the narrative forward while building upon the inherent threat of death that impregnates the story. The bridled eroticism, tightly bound within the gilded cage of the castle walls, is acknowledged here through the idea of love as violence, a weaponized emotion used as currency to buy and conquer both body and soul.
Borowczyk exercises an almost desperate obsession in human acquisition; not having even the basest of survival instincts, Blanche is an open, albeit unwilling, victim in a deadly quartet of men who surround and imprison her with blind lust. Blanche must simply concede with the patriarchal devices that conspire to overwhelm and oppress her until she is left with the only option available to her as a means of a way out. The film’s harrowing climax is brought to an eerie, abrupt end, its narrative death-marked for an unforgivable and ultimate finish.
A master of visuals, Borowczyk left no talent wasted on Blanche. His stunning recreation of a medieval world is a highly commendable artistic achievement in style and execution; his actors, strategically framed and shot, move about in an almost stylized and affected manner, like the figures in the Bayeux Tapestry come to life. The shots are often stationary, with people congregating against a static backdrop of stone castle walls, sparsely furnished rooms or the claustrophobic exteriors of a dense forest. As well, little details are given utmost attention, from the placement of a table or a bouquet of flowers to the fine jewelry that adorns the hands of maidens. Borowczyk gives us a world which belongs to a time and place centuries ago but seems as real and defined as the space in our own living rooms.
Blanche is especially notable for one of its leading stars: the great French actor Michel Simon. This was one of his final roles before his death in 1975 and he still retains his grand theatrical sweep of commanding a scene, a signature in style present in all of his work. Playing opposite as the titular character is Ligia Branice, the director’s wife. Her doe-eyed beauty and bashful charm stand nakedly stark against the lumbering and grotesque figure of the elderly Simon. While Branice is more than suitable in her role as the doomed wife, it is the four men of the film who bring electricity to the story.
Having said all of that, Blanche is definitely not a film for everyone. It’s paced at a slow-crawl, which will test the patience of anyone used to seeing a flurry of activity every five minutes or so. As well, given that this is a film from 1971, much of the stylistic direction is fairly antiquated, and not just because this is a medieval drama. Borowczyk practiced a much clipped style of editing, in which the action quickly cuts away from longshots to close-ups that make the sequences move along like a series of tableaux. It’s not distracting, but it is unusual by today’s methods of assembling footage.
Arrow Films has to be commended for the superb job they have done in restoring this rare film. For years, Blanche had not been available on DVD format; this Blu-ray exceeds all expectations that one might have had. Colours are rendered crisp and clear, featuring a monochromatic colour scheme of steel-greys and dull coppers for the interior shots. Outside the castle walls, autumnal hues fill the open space with fern greens, rusty oranges and the brown of oaks crowding the frame. The image restoration is stunning; there is just the right amount of film grain and no smearing of colours or any discernible damage in the print. It would have been enough to simply have made this film readily available to the public, but Arrow Films has given this release the loving attention and care that will please fans of Borowczyk to no end.
Included on the disc are a set of supplements dedicated to the making of the film; these are interviews with the producer and assistant director of the film, which provide insight into Borowczyk’s work ethic. Also included is an interview with the director himself, discussing, above all things, cinema and sex. An entirely separate documentary short (entitled Gunpoint), an early effort from the filmmaker, rounds out the supplements along with a collector’s booklet. The film is French-language with optional English subtitles. And though manufactured and released in the UK, the Blu-ray is region-free and will play on North American players.
Fans looking for the highly sexual works normally associated with Borowczyk will undoubtedly be disappointed. The filmmaker’s most notorious film involved a young woman being chased and ravished by a hairy, well-endowed beast; it was the tipping point which, for some, spelled the end for the director. What audiences are served here, however, is a meditative and quietly unnerving showpiece that dispels the belief that the filmmaker was simply a prisoner of his own erotic fantasies. Held up against the best of them, Borowczyk had a deeper understanding of cinema’s visual power, his work textured with humanistic touches both unprepossessing and beautiful. He continues to remain on the fringes of film, exiled for the crime of inventing a cinematic language only he could speak.