Review: ‘Blanche’

[Originally published in Movietone News 46, December 1975]

I think I would find Borowczyk’s feature films insupportable if they weren’t so much fun. Come to think of it, I did find Goto, île d’amour insupportable: I walked out on it. Having recently seen and greatly enjoyed Blanche (1971), it seems to me in retrospect that all I really needed to enjoy Goto equally well was a cocked eyebrow and a few grains of salt. This guy used to make cartoons after all, right? OK, he made Animated Films Shot Through With Lacerating Black Humor. Yeah, like: cartoons.

You take Blanche. Exquisitely controlled camera setups and color, the master in as total a command as if he were putting together a series of steel engravings or drawings. Prowling sleek dogs; helmets, armor and fearsome weaponry; authentic medieval music; a labyrinthine castle in unidentifiable countryside; birds in free flight, a dove in a cage—it all seems personal enough and truly felt, like Buñuel’s recurrent motifs … and yet at the same time it strikes me as a bit heavy, even oppressive. Blanche, the caged dove, releasing uncontrollable passions in the men around her. Her aging husband the Baron (Michel Simon), so maniacally suspicious of her that he walls a man up alive in her room. Blanche’s stepson (Lawrence Trimble), ablaze with a filial love that dare not speak its name. The King (Georges Wilson), a visitor in the Baron’s castle, a troublemaking royal lecher, half dolt, half brute. The King’s page (Jacques Perrin), a philandering but openhearted young man extricated ashen-faced from the innocent Blanche’s walled-up room only to be tied to a horse by the vengeful Baron’s men and dragged across the rough countryside. Stabbings—poisonings—hacking with halberds: mamma mia!

Borowczyk’s hand is steady enough to keep these Jacobean hijinks honest, and there were times when I was even caught up in them sufficiently to respond with the shudder they seemed to demand. The brief, horrible fight between the hapless stepson and the page who has recently befriended him was one such time; Borowczyk’s strangely lyrical treatment of the page’s own death reminiscent of the subjective from-the-coffin sequence in Vampyr was another. I could appreciate Borowczyk’s joy in his ability to get inside this lurid material, to make it at the same time vivid and yet sober enough to generate a classical feeling of inevitability. But … what I will probably remember best about Blanche, a year or two from now, is the sudden delight of seeing its preternaturally innocent and pokerfaced young heroine bend over her impetuous stepson, who has just swooned (literally swooned, Victorian-maiden style—I can’t remember why anymore), and then without the slightest disarrangement of her impeccable features, attempt to revive the youth by slapping him repeatedly across the chops with a bouquet of ethereal red roses. And subsequently—this time with some sacrifice of her virginal dignity—trying to haul the swooned kid’s heavily armored bod up off the floor.

Another memorable scene, in which Perrin, her supposed lover, suffers the aforementioned walling-up, plays much more like a Feydeau farce, actually, full of excited comings and goings within a small area. than it does like straight melodrama, and despite the gruesome developments that ensue, the scene lingers pleasantly in the mind. Finally, it’s not those goddam Borowczyk dogs that haunt Blanche , not the destructors, graceful though they are, loping lethally across the frame behind the ostensible action or leaping and barking with implacable fury at the lens, but a mere monkey, ubiquitous, quick, intelligent, irrepressible. There’s a quick cut of Perrin, with a gesture like that of a falconer who releases his bird into the air, throwing this higher-spirited little creature from his forearm up towards a straw rope at the top of the frame; and in this sudden, liberating trajectory Borowczyk catches the page’s own emblematic lightness and generosity of spirit, compared to which the courtly graces and consuming passions of the highborn people of the castle seem like dross.

BLANCHE
Screenplay, direction, editing, and art direction: Walerian Borowczyk. Cinematography: Guy Durban. Music: 13th century, performed by Le Groupe des Instruments anciens de Paris.
The players: Ligia Branice, Michel Simon, Jacques Perrin, Georges Wilson, Lawrence Trimble.

Copyright © 1975 Ken Eisler