Director: Walerian Borowczyk
Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists
France, the 13th century. Blanche is the young second wife of a much older baron. Nicolas, the baron’s son returns from fighting in Egypt. He is secretly in love with his stepmother. The King and his page, Bartolomeo, visit the secluded estate. Observed by Nicolas, the philandering Bartolomeo instantly tries to seduce Blanche but she rejects his advances. Because of his own lust for Blanche, The King informs the Master that Bartolomeo was pursuing Blanche, invoking the Master’s temper. Blanche confides in the King about Bartolomeo’s pursuit, and he promises to punish his page but instead he seeks to exploit this.
The Master believes his wife’s innocence and asks Nicolas to duel with Bartolomeo to defend Blanche’s honour. Bartolomeo has the chance to kill Nicolas but declines, realising that they both love the same woman. The King seeks to win Blanche by sending Bartolomeo away and then having him arrested; a plan that Bartolomeo discovers. The Master gradually doubts Blanche’s innocence, accusing her of bewitching Nicolas and cavorting with Bartolomeo when the latter is found in her room. Bartolomeo defends Blanche’s honour and kills Nicolas in combat. Blanche also soon dies. The Master seeks revenge on Bartolomeo but the King argues doing so would be equivalent to armed rebellion. In a fury, the Master has Bartolomeo dragged by horses. The King attacks the estate where the Master kills himself.
As alluded to in previous reviews of his films (The Story of Sin) and (The Beast), few directors have ever achieved the critical fall from grace that Borowczyk had in the late 1970s-early 1980s. Still widely considered as one of the finest and most innovative animators of his age, his film career is most widely known for his later, more “adult” features, which included prominent degrees of nudity and became the films’ talking points. ‘Blanche’ is one of his earliest and best films, included in Derek Malcolm’s Century of Film list no less. Much like the equally feted ‘The Story of Sin’, it’s a mostly tragic account of a naive, innocent young woman whose unconscious sexual allure becomes the undoing not only of her, but those who lust after her.
Based on Polish legend, but also influenced surely by the Byron poem ‘Mazeppa’, Borowczyk has taken this template and moved it to France of the Middle Ages. Initially playing as farce, ‘Blanche’ recalls some of the more satirical aspects of Chaucer’s ‘The Canterbury Tales’, notably ‘The Miller’s Tale’, in which a young wife of an older man is lusted after by two prospective lovers. Every man who has contact with Blanche immediately falls in love with her, though she herself is unaware of her attractiveness to men. Certainly she never encourages Nicolas, the King or Bartolomeo at any point, remaining defiantly loyal to her husband. In the case of the King and his page, they attempt to manipulate circumstances and each other to put themselves in a better position to win her love. Ultimately though, it’s the King’s arrogance and jealousy of Bartolomeo that sets the tragic course that the film takes in the second half.
This shift from near-comedy to tragedy is what provides ‘Blanche’ with much of its emotional depth. It would have been simple to continue the farce element (along the same lines of Pasolini’s own adaptation of ‘The Canterbury Tales’, made around the same time), but this remarkable turnaround in approach feels right and draws in the sympathy of the viewer, identifying with the unjustly accused Blanche, who is a victim of the vices of those who seek to pursue her. Later Borowczyk films seldom concerned themselves with empathy or depth of characterisation but ‘Blanche’ hits the correct notes. Blanche’s situation is perfectly captured by the recurring symbolism of a trapped dove in a cage, starting from the opening scene in fact (another reference to ‘The Miller’s Tale’ perhaps?); she is woman whom men wish to trap and confine, yet is hopelessly stuck. Contrast this with the animal symbolism of the King and Bartolomeo; a manic and misbehaving monkey, which possibly embodies their mutual desire to tear this dynamic apart.
For a former animator, Borowczyk is certainly a gifted visual film maker and approaches his films with a fetishists’s eye (as this podcast by Graeme Hobbs suggests). Borowczyk has taken great care with ensuring that ‘Blanche’ reflects its period setting as accurately as possible, including a score composed from contemporary instruments, props, costumes and so on. It’s as immaculate a reconstruction of the age as you’re likely to see outside of a museum. Not that the interest in the aesthetics of the film really undermines the depth of the film much, but you wonder what Borowczyk’s overriding interest was. Numerous shots showing the secluded estate from a distance reiterate its confining aspect, described by the King as ‘gloomy as a Holy Land prison’. Borowczyk is also able to use this environment for psychological purposes; perhaps it’s not just Blanche who is trapped but everyone – caught in a web of deceit, love and jealousy that can only have one inevitable and tragic outcome.
For those who only know Borowczyk as a director of more notorious, soft-pornographic films, ‘Blanche’ is a welcome rejoinder and an indication that Borowczyk was once a gifted film maker who for whatever reasons allowed this talent to be squandered on undeserving films. The sole concession to nudity is in the opening scene, where Blanche bathes, but that’s as much as there is. There’s an emotional resonance that subsequent films, ‘The Story of Sin’ apart, never featured, possibly because both are based on famously tragic pieces of literature rather than contemporary screenplays. The acting is largely impressive; Michel Simon (known for his performances in early Renoir classics) in his last role captures his character’s jealous and temperamental nature well, though Lawrence Trimble as Nicolas is rather vacuous. Although not quite the classic that Malcolm and others have suggested, ‘Blanche’ is still an entertaining and intriguing period piece.