Thirteenth-century France. In his castle, the Baron (Michel Simon) waits a visit from the King. He is married to the beautiful and much younger Blanche (Ligia Branice). With the royal visit, the lady of the house attracts the unwanted attentions of not just the King (Georges Wilson), her stepson Nicolas (Lawrence Trimble) and the King's philandering page Bartolomeo (Jacques Perrin)...
If Goto Isle of Love took us into a fantasy world of Borowczyk's own creation, Blanche, made in 1971, takes us into another one, one found in history, the middle ages. Also, this being the early 1970s, the black and white of the previous film has now become less commercially viable, so we are in colour throughout, though Guy Durban's Eastmancolour goes for softer, muted hues. Yet the filmmaking style of Goto has been carried forward here, with only a few modifications. Borowczyk prefers a camera that's largely static, the occasional pan or tilt notwithstanding. Characters (and animals) move in or out of the frame, without the camera following them. People are shot mostly from straight ahead, with telephoto lenses further reducing depth. The influence of medieval paintings and tapestries have been noted, but this is a style that Borowczyk used in the decidedly non-medieval setting of the island nation of Goto.
There's a whole library of discussion of the notion of the male gaze: the idea that cinema is for the majority of the time, both male and heterosexual, especially when female characters are looked at. There's certainly no doubt that this director was both of those things, and is far more likely to show unclothed women than unclothed men on screen, even if you consider that the latter, then and now, would be more likely to attract censorship than the former. But as with Glossia in Goto, Borowczyk shows more sympathy for the woman at the centre of this story than the men, both trapped beauties – and both played by Ligia Branice, his wife. The film opens with shots of the castle and surrounding countryside, to the sound of a medieval hymn, three musicians backing the eerie high keening of a castrato singer. But Borowczyk (his own editor) quickly intercuts a shot of a captive dove, and then scenes of Blanche herself, emerging from a bath, dressing. It's not hard to see that the former is a symbol for the latter, and this is something that recurs throughout the film. Similarly, a pet monkey corresponds to the male lust that Blanche becomes the target of, from three different men, trapping her in an already circumscribed world. The film is based on Juliusz Słowacki's narrative poem “Mazepa” but by all accounts radically changes its emphasis from the title character of the poem (who becomes Bartolomeo here) to the title character of the film.
As we have seen from the Short Films and Animations disc, Terry Gilliam is an avowed admirer of Borowczyk's work, and like him a filmmaker given to creating distinct and highly detailed self-contained worlds. It's not too much of a stretch to see Borowczyk's influence in Gilliam's two exercises in medievalry, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, which he codirected with Terry Jones, and Jabberwocky, which he directed solo. A few other auteur directors also visited the Middle Ages in the same decade, with very different results to Borowczyk: for example, Eric Rohmer in Perceval. Rohmer is a director far removed from Borowczyk's usual aesthetic: normally a naturalist, Perceval was the furthest he and his DP Nestor Almendros went in the direction of non-naturalistic visual stylistisation. But this stylisation is brought about by lighting and set design; with Borowczyk it is a function of framing and camera movement. The backgrounds are as realistic as he could make them, even if they are sets designed by him and feature props he made himself, a crucifix-dagger and miniature Bible with a secret compartment among them.
The use of authentic medieval instruments for the music score – which, at the start especially, blurs the line between diegetic and non-diegetic sound – is certainly ahead of its time. It is performed by a real quartet, le Groupe des Instruments anciens de Paris. Authenticity doesn't extend to the use of a real castrato, needless to say: the voice is that of counter-tenor Michel Maurice.
As with Goto, top billing goes to a larger-than-life older actor: Pierre Brasseur in the previous film, here Michel Simon, seventy-six at the time. Jacques Perrin had made an impression in a leading role in Costa-Gavras's Z and also worked as a producer, and continues in both careers to this day. Borowczyk came under pressure to cast Catherine Deneuve as Blanche, but insisted on casting his wife, Ligia Branice. Her Blanche is a companion role to her Glossia in Goto, both women living circumscribed existences in enclosed worlds, and both find drastic solutions. Borowczyk and Guy Durban make much of her pale complexion, almost living up to her character's name. Further down the cast you can see the dwarf Roberto, co-star of Borowczyk's 1967 short Gavotte.
Following featival showings in 1971, including one at the London Film Festival, Blanche went on release in 1972 in France. It was a critical hit but a commercial failure. However, when it opened in the UK in May 1973, the critical reception was positive and the film was successful on the arthouse circuit, running for several months in London. I would rate it as perhaps Borowczyk's best film, though it would be overshadowed and its director's reputation irrevocably altered by what came next.
Blanche is an all-regions dual-format release from Arrow Academy, either on its own or as part of the five-film box set Camera Obscura, which is limited to a thousand copies and is as of this writing sold out.
While it earned a AA certificate (fourteens and over) on its cinema release, presumably for brief but full-frontal natural nudity at the start as Blanche rises from her bath, it now has a PG certificate for home viewing. The disc as a whole is rated 18, though, for some distinctly family-unfriendly excerpts from Borowczyk's other work in the “Obscure Pleasures” featurette.
The Blu-ray is transferred in the correct ratio of 1.66:1. As I say above, Guy Durban's cinematography goes in for muted colours, pale blues, whites, earth browns, with the occasional red standing out, and is somewhat softer-focus than other films in this set. The transfer was scanned by Arrow in 2K resolution and restored for this release, and the results speak for themselves: grain is certainly present but is natural and filmlike. I'm in no doubt that, short of a new 35mm print, this is as close to what the film should look like as present-day digital technology permits.
The soundtrack is mono, presented as LPCM 1.0. Dialogue is well-balanced and clear, and the medieval music comes across very well. English subtitles are optionally available for the feature and the non-anglophone extras (everything except “Behind Enemy Lines”).
Another filmmaker influenced by this film was Leslie Megahey, and he drew on it in his recreation of seventeenth-century Holland for the BBC, Schalcken the Painter. His introduction (3:54) to Blanche is derived from the extras for that release.
“Ballad of Imprisonment” (28:28) is a newly-made featurette about the making of Blanche. It begins with Patrice Leconte, who first became aware of Borowczyk's work from his short films, and who reviewed both The Theatre of Mr and Mrs Kabal and Goto for Cahiers du Cinéma. He then met Borowczyk and served as second assistant director on Blanche, the only time he ever worked as an assistant director. The production was occasionally fraught, with some backbiting at the expense of Ligia Branice, only there it was suggested because she was married to the director. However, the result was, Leconte says, a great film. We also hear from André Heinrich, a first assistant director, who had worked with Borowczyk on his earlier short films, camera assistant Noël Véry, and Borowczyk's long-standing producer Dominique Duvergé.
“Obscure Pleasures” (63:15) is edited from two interviews Borowczyk, one during the making of the short “Scherzo Infernal”, and another to Keith Griffiths in 1985 for Channel 4, with plentiful extracts from his work, not just those included in these five discs but also others which are not: the early Polish shorts co-directed with Jan Lenica, the later features La Marge (The Margin - released as The Streetwalker in the UK) and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Miss Osbourne, and also some very grainy black and white behind-the-scenes footage from The Margin. Borowczyk's approach to animation, and his defence of his methods, wouldn't have earned him many friends at Disney, whose output he decries as manufactured rather than creative.
Gunpoint (11:04) is a short documentary directed by French-resident Englishman Peter Graham in 1972, who was a friend of Borowczyk. It 's a look at the annual French pheasant shoot, with some not-so-subtle criticism of the wealthy men taking part. Borowczyk helped out his friend in the editing and, along with regular DPs Guy Durban and Noël Véry, shot most of the film.The result didn't go down well with the film's subjects, one of whom threatened to punch Graham on the nose if he ever met him, as Graham relates in “Behind Enemy Lines” (5:16), a short piece about the making of the film.
The booklet, after the usual list of contents and film credits, begins with an essay by Daniel Bird, “Needles in the Embroidery”. This usefully fills in the background to the film, like its companion-piece Goto a project Borowczyk had had in mind since the early 1960s. He also outlines the considerable differences between Mazepa and this film.
Next up are extracts from British reviews of the time, all positive, and the entirety of Philip Strick's piece in Monthly Film Bulletin. A page gives us the original Latin and an English translation of “Sic mea fata”, an extract from Carmina Burana, which is sung (in unsubtitled Latin) at the start of the film. Add Christopher Newby to the list of Borowczyk devotees who went on to direct films themselves, and in particular take a look at his 1993 feature Anchoress in comparison with the present feature. In 1996 he wrote a short tribute to Borowczyk for Sight and Sound, which is reprinted here. The booklet concludes with transfer notes, disc credits and acknowledgements.