The history of European cinema is really nothing but a series of random events. At any point in the last century, the winds of fashion could easily have changed direction and changed the cinematic landscape forever. What would Four Weddings and a Funeral have looked like if the French farces of Louis de Funes had caught on over here? How different would The Long Good Friday have been had the post-narrative strangeness of L’Avventura become the chosen style of noir thrillers? For every step European film has taken, there is a step that it did not take and for every step it did not take there is a parallel history lurking in the penumbral depths between being and not. Some films legitimise this series of random events by choosing to toe the line and deploy the same cinematic vocabulary as everyone else. Some films are quite content to show audiences what they already know, and others are not. Walerian ‘Boro’ Borowczyk’s Blanche is one of those films that contain enough creative potential to sustain an alternate history, an artistic procession made in its own image. Blanche is not just a great film, it is a film that reminds you how shocking and revolutionary cinema can be. It is a film with the courage to confront you with the fact that things could always be different.
Based on a play by Juliusz Slowacki and set in medieval Poland, the film revolves around the beautiful, innocent and entirely blameless young wife of a wealthy but aging nobleman (Michel Simon). Introduced to the King (Georges Wilson), Blanche (Ligia Branice) finds herself at the apex of a love triangle featuring her husband’s son Nicholas (Lawrence Trimble) and the King’s amorous page Bartolomeo (Jacques Perrin). Desperate to be left alone and entirely uninterested in cheating on her husband, Blanche tries to politely disentangle herself from the swarm of amorous men but every white lie and evasion seems only to encourage her suitors and set them against each other. Cynical and blood-spattered despite its chaste motifs and courtly language, Blanche can be seen as a vision of hypocrisy and a suggestion that selfish, horny men will always twist the rules and undermine the laws to suit their own ends.
As gripping as Blanche’s plot may be, its true revolutionary potential lies in its utterly unique aesthetics.
Film can be thought of as a language that has been built up over time. Older films look and feel different to films produced today because they lacked many of the techniques used by contemporary filmmakers and so used different tricks to achieve similar results. Blanche is a revolutionary piece of filmmaking as it seems to strip the vocabulary of European film right back to its foundations. Looking less like a film and more like a work of medieval art such as the Bayeux tapestry, Blanche takes place almost entirely in two dimensions; characters enter and exist from the left and the right of the screen but they rarely advance up-stage towards the camera. This peculiar piece of staging combined with Boro’s fondness for shooting characters’ feet and having disembodied faces staring at the characters through windows and holes in the walls produces a film that is unlike anything else in the history of European film. Limited to two dimensions for most of the film, Boro only ever has his characters move up and down stage when they are breaking free from the rules of polite society and doing something profoundly transgressive such as killing a romantic adversary or trying to seduce a married woman. Boro’s economy of staging pays off massively at the end of the film when a succession of modern cinematic techniques explode across the screen in a manner that signals’ the characters complete estrangement from their own moral universe. The effect is completely mesmerising.
Also spectacular is the decision to equip the film with an early music soundtrack. Performed by shrieking counter-tenors accompanied by period instrumentation, the film’s score seems to perfectly capture the blend of Eastern and Western cultures that defined Poland in the middle ages.
Included as part of Arrow Films’ magnificent Camera Obscura: The Walerian Borowczyk Collection, Blanche comes with a spirited introduction by the director Leslie Megahey, an interview about the film’s production and two documentaries about Borowczyk.