• Blanche



    Released by: Olive Films
    Released on: April 25th, 2017.
    Directed by: Walerian Borowczyk
    Cast: Michel Simon, Georges Wilson, Jacques Perrin, Ligia Branice, Denise Peronne, Jean Gras, Lawrence Trimble, Michel Delahaye
    Year: 1971
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    The Movie:

    By the time he made Blanche, director Walerian Borowczyk had made innumerable short films (mostly animated) but only a few feature films. Fans of his work familiar with such productions as Immoral Tales (1973), The Beast (1975), and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne (1981) may at first feel some disappointment that Blanche is so radically different from those later works. For one, it’s a much less sexual film, at least on the surface. The only nudity, a female full-frontal shot, occurs early on when Blanche exits her bath before being quickly covered by a dry towel. From that point on, the film wallows in a perverse sexuality without actually ever showing anything—and it’s all the better for it. Men seek the beautiful young Blanche’s sexual affections with abandon, but she refuses to submit, remaining loyal to her husband despite his age, weight, and apparent infirmities.

    Based on the tragedy Mazeppa, Juliusz Slowacki’s dramatic literary work of 1839, Borowczyk’s 1971 cinematic interpretation focuses on the beautiful Blanche (Ligia Branice), a young woman married to an older man (Michel Simon), the lord of the castle. Their home is also occupied by his handsome son, Nicolas (Lawrence Timber), who desires to be with Blanche. Tensions flare when a king (Georges Wilson) comes to visit, along with his womanizing knight-in-training, Bartolomeo (Jacques Perrin). Naturally, both men also come to desire Blanche, but she steadfastly remains faithful to her husband. When the king attempts to force Blanche’s hand, he is stopped by Nicolas. Bartolomeo has his own designs on Blanche but is dismissed from the household, leading to a series of circumstances and events that leave the home in bloody disarray.

    Blanche is a fascinating work, one that today would be called a feminist masterpiece. Blanche’s loyalty to her husband is viewed as suspect, given their age differences, and try as she might, she cannot convince others of her faithfulness. When she acts to save others, she is misunderstood, and the paranoia of the sexually obsessive men around her, including her husband, lead not only to her downfall but to most of theirs as well. She is even called a witch, accused of casting spells to entice the men around her. Borowczyk shoots the entire affair in such a way that the sets and costumes do not reflect the men’s obsessions so much as Blanche’s innocence. Drab grays and browns echo her failure to recognize what is plainly going on around her; she cannot see the world in rich tones, and as a result, she misreads the actions of the men around her, often assuming the best despite evidence to the contrary. In essence, the men are vampires draining Blanche’s life force, a fact she cannot readily admit and leading to her demise.

    Borowczyk’s work has never been for everyone, and Blanche is no exception to that rule. In many ways, it’s his best film precisely because he stays his hand in executing the obvious sexual situations with his usual relish. The result is a film that is as subtle in some respects as it is forthright in others.

    Video/Audio/Extras:

    Olive Films have released Blanche on Blu-ray with an MPEG-4 AVC encode in glorious 1080p high definition at the film’s original 1.66:1 theatrical aspect ratio. Despite the fact that cinematographers André Dubreuil and Guy Durban shot much of the film in a very slight soft focus, detail is resplendent. Nary a mole, nor an age spot, nor wrinkled skin suffers; the stony walls of an ancient castle reveal every crack and pore; costumes reveal fine detail and deep textures; trampled grasses on muddy earth stand out in their verdure; all supported by an organic layer of grain that adds to the filmic elements. Helping in that regard are minor speckles and occasional, though never prevalent or off-putting, dirt and debris. Colors tend toward pale, with skin tones appearing a bit soft and light, while reds tend toward pink. This, too, actually helps the film. Rather than looking bright and colorful, the film suggests the period in which it’s set was dirty and drab, with even the rich living in conditions that, today, would be difficult for some in the struggling classes. There is a slight loss of detail during nighttime or darker sequences (this has more to do with the lighting and camera used than it does the transfer), but never to the point of obscurity, and grain does not become more prevalent; in other words, there’s no issue with crush. Some reviewers have negatively compared this to the Arrow BD release in Great Britain, though both clearly utilize the same transfer. If there are any real differences, it likely has to do with gamma tweaking. (Note that Arrow’s release does have a higher bitrate; it is placed on a BD50 while Olive’s is placed on a BD25. Regardless, there are no serious compression issues on the Olive disc.) A comparison of specific images, such as when the master’s wife walks across the log to be met by her would-be love, detail is comparable but the Olive release is mildly brighter. Why anyone would consider a mildly brighter image as a bad thing is beyond this reviewer; also note the level of detail in the following shot, when the would-be lover walks along a path of dead leaves. It’s really quite astonishing that a film so little known even among its director’s works should be given the kind of loving care that has resulted in an image this gorgeous.

    There’s only one sound option, which seems fitting given that the film was likely never released with an English dub. (If I’m mistaken, someone please correct me here.) The track is presented in lossless French DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0. Music is relatively sparse in the film, mostly period pieces that, more often than not, are performed onscreen and reflect the mood of the times. Dialogue is not mixed too low, and the sparsity of the music means that there’s little competition for viewers’ ears. Sounds are appropriately distinct if not exactly robust. Optional English subtitles for those who can’t speak French or are deaf or hearing impaired are provided.

    Olive’s release features two extras ported over from the Arrow release (which is Region B and another reason why American collectors without a region-free player will want to pick up Olive’s disc). The first is an introduction by filmmaker Leslie Megahey, who directed the 1979 film Schalcken the Painter (available on dual-edition Blu-ray and DVD from the British Film Institute). Shot for the BFI and running at slightly less than four minutes, the short intro has the British director discuss how his discovery of Blanche (and, consequently, Walerian Borowczyk) influenced his own approach to filmmaking.

    The second and final extra is a documentary featurette titled “Ballad of Imprisonment,” which runs just shy of half an hour. It features a number of people related to Borowczyk’s film in one way or another: Patrice Leconte, who was being trained as an assistant director on this picture; André Heinrich, who was the actual assistant director; Noël Véry, who was the camera operator; and Dominique Duvergé-Ségrétin, who was its producer, among others. The men discuss how they became involved with Borowczyk and/or his film, as well as offer behind-the-scenes anecdotes. Some are quite fascinating, but we don’t want to spoil them here.

    The film contains eight chapter stops, and the disc is locked to Region A.

    The Final Word:

    While some foreign film fans may consider this a sacrilegious statement, Blanche may be Walerian Borowczyk’s best film. In many ways, it’s an understated classic, one with fine performances and a keen eye toward realism. Olive’s Blu-ray release does the film justice in the visual department, while the sound is more than serviceable. There are also enough extras to more than justify a purchase for fans sitting on the fence.

    Christopher Workman is a freelance writer, film critic, and co-author (with Troy Howarth) of the Tome of Terror horror film review series. Horror Films of the Silent Era and Horror Films of the 1930s are currently available, with Horror Films of the 1940s due out later this year.

    Click on the images below for full sized Blu-ray screen caps!