Ken Wlaschin, artistic director of Filmex and in charge of selecting movies for Filmex, practically jumped up and down and squealed with glee about this movie. I'm not quite sure why. Blanche is a French film from 1971. It was never released in the US, which is a mild pity. The director is a Pole, Walerian Borowczyk, one of the finest animators in the world. Lately (like the last fifteen years), he's been doing live action films; more recently, those films have featured explicit sex and extreme violence (The Beast and Immoral Tales). Blanche is from before that period. Basically, Borowczyk took one of the warhorse melodramas from the 19th century, changed the setting from 17th century Poland to 13th century France, and made an exquisitely detailed film of it. The problem is that Borowczyk has more interest in period details than the story itself. Not to the extent that the film becomes boring, but certainly enough to hamper the movie.
The lord of a castle (Michel Simon, excellent in his last screen role) welcomes the king who has come by on a visit. Simon has recently remarried, to the beautiful and chaste young Blanche (Ligia Branice). Simon also rejoices in the return of his only son (Lawrence Trimble) from the Holy Land. The honor of entertaining the king seems the crowning glory of his life. Alas, the king is a randy sort, and so is his page. They both lust after Blanche. Moreover, Trimble is also deeply in love with her. Despite Blanche's insistent defense of her virtue, circumstances lead to tragedy.
Borowczyk starts out playing this for comedy, with mixed results, then switches over to tragedy, with equally mixed results. The failure of Blanche rests in Borowczyk's obsession with period detail, while failing to deal with a period story. The plot of Blanche seems vaguely off for the period in which it is set. Maybe it plays better in 17th Poland, but it doesn't seem true to the milleu which Borowczyk so carefully arranged in all other ways. His insistence on showing us, in detail, every authentic prop and costume, to the detriment of the characters and story, suggests that Borowczyk's mind wasn't on matters at hand, but was wandering through the museums he had visited to research Blanche. When the king hands a message (encased in a special box) to his page, we see every detail of sealing the box, and the camera depicts the king's pencase with just as much emphasis as the king's hand. We don't see his face at all in the shot. Borowczyk wants to make sure that we get a good look at the authentic period pencase and message box. They're nice, but this is a film, not a museum case.
Borowczyk is also rather clumsy and opaque with his symbols. In retrospect, I see that his constant return to shots of the king's mischievous pet monkey and Blanche's imprisoned dove were meant to symbolize their respective natures, but while the film was running these shots seemed little more than irrelevancies. Even now that I see their meanings, these symbols look like little more than artistic conceits. They add little or nothing to the film.
The acting is all quite good, and the film is physically very attractive. (The print shown at Filmex was unfortunately faded, but the prints for the upcoming American release should be new and beautiful.) The various castles and woods used in the filming are impressive and evocative of the period, as are the props, costumes, and fine (if sparsely used) score by the French Le Group des Instruments Anciens de Paris. The song sung over the opening and closing credits is particularly fine. As a narrative, Blanche is acceptable but unexceptional. Members of the Society for Creative Anachronism should not miss Blanche. Others might enjoy it, but should expect a bit less than a masterpiece.
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