It’s high time that Polish auteur Walerian Borowczyk (1923-2006) was due a thorough reappraisal and Arrow Films have gone all out in breathing new life into the director of over 40 short films and a dozen features. They are re-releasing, naturally with high definition transfers and a raft of extra features both as a limited edition Cinema Obscura boxed set and stand alone discs, a selection of short films entitled Theatre Of Mr And Mrs Kabal, Goto Island Of Love (1968), Blanche (1971), Immoral Tales (1974) and The Beast (1975); the latter trio I will be dissecting review wise.
Deciding to ease myself back into his world I plumped to first view a 65 minute documentary included with Blanche, Obscure Pleasures: A Portrait of Walerian Borowczyk. This new 2014 feature comprising of clips and BFI archive interviews is a fascinating look into his mind. As images fill the screen the visions draw parallels to me from mainly surrealist directors such as Cocteau, Buñuel, Svankmajer, Jodorowsky and Gilliam. There is a lot of emphasis on his animation works of the 50’s and 60’s here and these shorts are discussed with the alchemy and artistry at the heart of them being represented in his cinematic media. The works strike as somewhat anarchic and experimental with a scientific emphasis at times and it is impossible not to view clips and realise that they must have no doubt inspired Gilliam and the Monty Python troupe. “I believe in vivacity and life” claims their director and true his work is full of it, certainly as far as features are concerned, sumptuous in every sense. Animation may have been something that he could work on in relative freedom but it is his films that fascinate me and many others the most and have led to accusations of him being “a genius who also happened to be a pornographer”. As the interviewer (I am guessing tongue in cheek) says that having seen his films he considers him a pervert, Borowczyk defends himself stating “who is not a pervert, our fantasies are identical” and furthering this by saying that by making a film about drugs you are not necessarily an addict; touché! Still claims that his work is no more erotic than Disney is stretching it a bit far. Talking about painting and graphic artwork something that also was very much part of his life, the documentary is wrapped up and I was more than keen to watch Blanche again.
None of the excesses of Borowczyk latter works are found here and Blanche plays things relatively straight but this does not make it any the less compulsive viewing. This is in essence a medieval melodrama, part dark passion play, part morality tale and a work that is almost Shakespearean in execution. Based on the tragedy Mazepa by Juliusz Słowacki this is a dark ode to innocence, lust, jealousy and vengeance; great themes that have been the spice of many highly regarded pieces throughout history. Set in a castle in Medieval France Blanche (Ligia Branice, Borowczyk wife in a role that is played to perfection) is an innocent and chaste countess married to a much older man (or a choleric dodderer as he is once described) The Master (played with expressive fortitude by Michel Simon). It is all gaiety at first in the gloomy castle as the king (Georges Wilson) is visiting along with his randy Page Bartolomeo (Jacques Perrin) his pet monkey (yeah slightly odd) and assorted companions. The problem is that everyone who claps eyes on Blanche seems to fall head over heels with her, the Page and King both pursue her spurned affections and there is a bit of a thing going on between her and stepson Nicolas (Lawrence Trimble).
The first part of the film introduces the characters in a jovial scene of much merriment as minstrels play period music and a dwarf causes mischief as members of the clergy sit around feasting amidst it all. It all looks sumptuous and colour and contrast within the camera frame looks fantastic, the music drives the narrative into a dizzying medieval romp and it is all good humoured before things move onto the night and an almost comedic kiss chase sort of scenario is played out with the unwitting Blanche being at the centre of various suitors lusty intentions. The only person that does not seem interested in her is naturally her husband but it is very obvious he considers her his property and will not put up from any advances on her even from his own king. Things get dark very quickly and this has you hanging literally on the edge of your seat as the age old story leaves you wondering if anyone will come out of its denouement unscathed and intact.
Apart from on a somewhat rare BFI video cassette (which I very stupidly sold years ago) Blanche has not been available on any format and will never have been seen by many lovers of European cinema. I found it as fascinating now as I did on first catching it and this is a film I have been hungering to see again for ages. Of Borowczyk’s films that I have seen it is possibly one of the most accessible and it flows quickly engaging the viewer but also leading them into a tale from which literary roots will no doubt make it easily identifiable. Naturally it looks fantastic and as for the music, well it all adds to the joy and historical sensibilities of the film and lingers in the head long after heard.
Naturally there’s a ream of other extras. You have an introduction to Blanche by Leslie Megahey director of Schalcken The Painter and Hour Of The Pig (another film begging for a DVD / Blu release) who raises plenty of interesting points about the film’s composition. This is definitely best watched after the feature due to spoilers. As is the half hour featurette ‘Ballad of Imprisonment: Making Blanche.’ This is a look back on both the film and indeed the career of Borowczyk by those involved in the production of Blanche and it is more of a series of recollections than footage of the original shoot, which probably do not exist. There are plenty of interesting anecdotes including the fact there was a bit of a stand off due to the fact producers involved wanted Catherine Deneuve to play the title role. Naturally Borowczyk stuck to his guns and rightly so considering the natural grace and innocence Ligia Branice put into her part, so well realised I doubt anyone would accuse the director of nepotism. Paradoxically although everyone fell in love with Blanche the same could not be said for the actress who was pretty much loathed on set. This led to all sorts of tensions which made for a strained shoot with the renowned Michel Simon for one thinking of Borowczyk as a ‘little asshole!” This insightful piece is also well worth watching for camera assistant Noel Very’s garish dress sense.
Finally there is a short 1972 film Gunpoint plus a making of it. This is set in a pheasant farm showing them packed in as chicks through to adulthood when they are free range and end their life being blasted out the sky. Morally I found this reprehensible and once I sussed what was going on pretty much skipped through it. The making however conducted by writer and critic Peter Graham goes on to reveal that the two of them had made this as a bit of a hatchet job against the hunters who were made up of the bourgeoisie of France’s biggest public works company so all was not quite as I first thought.
As far as Blanche itself is concerned though, I think the general consensus is that it was Borowczyk most accomplished feature film and from those that I have seen I would definitely agree (it was hardly going to be Emmanuelle V though was it). I wouldn’t say it was the most enjoyable due to the hysterical fever dream of The Beast which was to follow but Blanche is a unique and marvellous movie that is really worth catching now in all its glory.
coming next things get saucy with Borowczyk’s Immoral Tales http://www.avenoctum.com/2014/09/immoral-tales-walerian-borowczyk-arrow-films