Walerian Borowczyk’s second feature length film found the director taking on the medieval melodrama with a revolutionary approach and never less than fascinating results. As a consequence, BLANCHE was a huge critical success, and the movie was lauded at festival showings. Part of the reason for this was the film’s attempt at an authentic depiction of thirteenth century life – right down to the use of period music and instruments. Those who have come into contact with Borowczyk’s universe through their enthusiasm for the genres of either horror or erotica should therefore be warned – apart from a little bit of nudity at the beginning, and a decent bricking up scene in the middle, there’s precious little of either in this.
What BLANCHE does offer, however, is a whole lot of melodrama. The title character is the wife of the elderly Master. To his castle (a lovely, grim and threatening location in itself, surrounding by damp, freezing-looking woods) comes the King, who takes an unexpected shine to her. With him is his page, Bartolomeo, who also immediately fancies Blanche. Attempts to bed her ensue, with the movie that follows starting off almost as a bedroom farce, but quickly descending into misery and bloodshed.
The literary influences to BLANCHE are manifold. Based on the epic poem Mazepa by Juliusz Slowacki, most viewers will more likely be reminded of Shakespearean tragedy by the number of dead bodies lying around at the end. In the middle, the film pinches a bit from the fine short story La Grande Breteche by Honore de Balzac, when the husband gets Blanche to swear on the cross that there's no-one hiding in an alcove (there is) and then proceeds to have the poor chap bricked up in it on that basis.
The directorial style of BLANCHE is certainly fascinating, and in an age where Frank and Panama’s THE COURT JESTER (1955) or Joshua Logan’s CAMELOT (1967) were what audiences commonly accepted as Hollywood’s version of medieval life, it’s easy to understand why the approach was so lauded. Many of the indoor scenes are filmed to give the viewer a sense they are watching a play, even though, oddly enough, what we see never feels 'stagey'.Perhaps best enjoyed on a ‘medieval misery’ double bill with Polanski's MACBETH (made around the same time), fans of Terry Gilliam (who should pick up the Borowczyk SHORT FILMS collection as well) should also find BLANCHE of great interest. Gilliam's early pictures, especially JABBERWOCKY (which almost seems to revel in the muck and filth of the period) feel like the natural descendants of Borowczyk's trend-setting original, while the director himself was busy moving on to explore others areas of wild fascination with works like IMMORAL TALES (1974) and THE BEAST (1975).
Arrow's Blu-ray of BLANCHE includes an introduction by director Leslie Megahey (whose SCHALKEN THE PAINTER is also reviewed on this site) which actually helped me to appreciate the film more. Extras include a short film called Gunpoint, which Borowczyk edited but didn't direct. It's about pheasant shooting, so if you're not keen on that sort of thing you may want to give it a miss. Otherwise there's a documentary about the film, a portrait of the director (Obscure Pleasures), and the usual reversible sleeve and collectors' booklet.
Arrow Films are releasing Walerian Borowczyk's BLANCHE on Dual Format Region B Blu-ray and Region 2 DVD on 8th September 2014