Walerian Borowczyk’s medieval tragedy fools audiences into expecting one of the erotic films for which the director later became infamous. In the opening sequence of Blanche, the title character is seen emerging, completely naked, from her bath. The camera’s lascivious eye sets the scene for a tale of forbidden desire, but Blanche herself is as pure as her name (French for ‘white’). For the rest of the film she always appears, nun-like, in long gowns and modest caps that hide all but her hands and face. Young, beautiful, and married to an elderly baron, Blanche must flee the attentions of other men, starting with Bartolomeo, the notorious young page of a visiting king.
With its elegant costumes and set design, Blanche could be described as a historical drama, but the film’s sophistication exceeds conventional models. Borowczyk’s background in fine arts allows him to bring an additional layer of authenticity to the film by drawing on the representational style of the Middle Ages. Shots, composition and framing pay homage to medieval landscape and religious painting. Windows, doors and alcoves dramatically divide interior shots. Exterior long shots emphasise the harmonious juxtaposition of hilltop, pasture and road, with grazing animals and passing cavalcades reduced to minute decorative detail. The film also employs an animal symbolism characteristic of the period. The king arrives with a monkey on his shoulder, a disquieting emblem of insinuating, irrepressible sexuality that has free run of the castle, hiding away only to pop up unexpectedly throughout the film. In contrast, Blanche’s gentle, vulnerable innocence is mirrored by the caged white dove in her bedroom. Tempering the film’s loyalty to a medieval aesthetic, Borowczyk introduces self-reflexive techniques, such as disorientating point-of-view shots, which situate the film within a current of modern cinematic experimentation.
Daniel Bird, who is responsible for the restoration of Borowczyk’s films, says that Blanche (1972) inspired Terry Gilliam’s vision of the Middle Ages in Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975). I would suggest that Blanche itself appears to have been inspired by Jacques Demy’s Peau d’â;ne (Donkey Skin, 1970), a camp fairy tale about a princess (Catherine Deneuve) who must run away from home when her father decides he wants to marry her. The baron in Blanche is played by Michel Simon, who made his name in 1930s French poetic realist films like Boudu sauvé; des eaux (Boudu Saved from Drowning), L’Atalante and Le quai des brumes (Port of Shadows). He was in his late seventies when he appeared in Blanche opposite Ligia Branice, Borowczyk’s wife; as the baron is old enough to be her father, an early shot of him kissing Blanche on the mouth appears incestuous, echoing the theme of Demy’s film. Jacques Perrin, the young actor who played Prince Charming in Peau d’â;ne, reappears in Blanche as Bartolomeo, another role in which he ultimately defends the heroine’s honour.
The baron justly describes his wife as ‘a saintly woman, above all suspicion’, but halfway through the film he suddenly loses his trust in her. As he becomes irrationally hostile towards Blanche, we may assume that the old man is suffering from dementia. His condition seems to infect the film’s narrative, which loses its grip on the thread of logical coherence. Still, Borowczyk has woven such a mesmerising tapestry that the audience can’t help but continue to watch as it slowly, senselessly unravels.