Walerian Borowczyk’s artwork for Blanche
One of Walerian Borowczyk’s most critically acclaimed films, Blanche (1971) was produced by Abel et Charton, a production company jointly set up by Borowczyk and Dominique Duvergé to bring to fruition the diector’s most ambitious project to date. With Duvergé producing and assistance on set from André Heinrich, a fixture of the Montparnasse Left Bank set, Borowczyk was able to realize his medieval masterpiece with complete artistic control.
This control extended to the materials created around the film’s release, too. In this age of laser precision promotion, what is perhaps most startling is Borowczyk’s involvement in every facet, including not just the poster design, but also the fold-out soundtrack, and invitations to market screenings in Cannes and previews in Paris.
All images © Friends of Walerian Borowczyk.
This was a continuation of the freedom Duvergé had afforded Borowczyk at his own production company Pantaleon Films, where Borowczyk designed the pressbooks for his films, along with promotional postcards. Poster art was, of course, a stepping stone Borowczyk took in the journey from printing to filmmaking, back in his native Poland during the late 1950s. His artwork for Blanche is notable for its austerity and simplicity: monochromatic, restrained use of custom Futura style fonts, and, above all else, Borowczyk’s own distinctive handwriting. Throughout the 1970s, he honed this graphic approach even further, developing a technique where, according to his editor Khadicha Bariha (like Heinrich, another close collaborator of Chris Marker), he would take the dailies, cut out individual frames, which he would then use to blow up as if they were slides.
For Borowczyk, every one of his films could be distilled to a handful of key images, which he would use for his poster designs. During the late 1970s, he would also create animated trailers using the same technique, with still images from his films cross fading from one into the other (1979’s Immoral Women and 1981’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne being perhaps the two best examples).
Blanche was a critical if not commercial success in France, which baffled its co-producer, Philippe d’Argila. The son of Anne Desclos (aka Pauline Réage, author of Story of O), d’Argila was also married to the great Dutch costume designer Piet Bolscher, who had worked with Borowczyk on Gavotte (1967) and would create all costumes for Borowczyk over a 10-year period beginning with Blanche. According to d’Argila, Blanche was bought for distribution in the Polish People’s Republic, but never released. Krzysztof Zanussi has speculated that Borowczyk’s failed attempt to make Blanche in Poland during the late 1960s may have had something to do with the association with the historic character of Hetman Mazepa (in Borowczyk’s film, the King’s rebellious page Monsieur Bartolomeo, played by Jacques Perrin) and the Ukrainian independence movement.
Blanche was based on a drama by the great Polish Romantic poet Juliusz Słowacki. The character of Mazepa, who fought with King Charles of Sweden against Peter the Great at the Battle of Poltava (located in Eastern Ukraine), exerted a particular fasciation amongst romantic poets throughout Europe. Unlike Andrzej Wajda, Borowczyk’s politics were rarely concrete, and often more general. Noël Véry, the camera operator on Blanche, recounted an episode where Borowczyk insisted on filming the ankles of both Trimble and Perrin during a dual scene, explaining that he wanted to show the audiences wild mushrooms growing in the forest being crushed, collateral damage in Man’s follies. Nevertheless, with war raging in Eastern Ukraine, it is perhaps worth considering Blanche as a dissident film, made not in Poland, but France. After all, Słowacki’s original, as the credits note, was published in Paris during the 19th century when Poland was partitioned.
Blanche never received proper US distribution, either. The closest it got was thanks to the determination and effort of the American actor Lawrence Trimble (Nicolas in the film), who brought a 35mm print to North America for screenings which he organized himself.
Blanche, however, was a success in the UK, particularly London, where it played for over a year at the Paris Pullman cinema. Enthusiasts included documentary filmmaker Leslie Megahey, whose own Schalcken the Painter (1979) it influenced, Monty Python’s Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam (the latter cited Blanche, along with Pasolini, as key references when conjuring the medieval onscreen), and the novelist and critic Marina Warner, who included Blanche in her study of fairy tales From the Beast to the Blonde.
Half a century later, two aspects of Blanche remain particularly striking: the way Borowczyk creates a flat, face on world, animated like an animated tapestry (think Wes Anderson remaking Bresson’s 1974 Lancelot du Lac), and its soundtrack, which set out to reconstruct the sound of authentic 13th-century musical instruments. The French musicologist and composer Roger Cotte created a score based on fragments from the Carmina Burana song book. For his soundtrack jacket design, Borowczyk not only writes out the lyrics, but also provides biographies of sorts for the musical instruments—objects, as always, are the real stars in his films.
Fifty years after its initial release, Metrograph finally honors not just Borowczyk but also realizes Trimble’s dream of bringing Blanche stateside.
Daniel Bird worked as Andrzej Żuławski’s assistant and is the co-founder of Friends of Walerian Borowczyk. He directs the Hamo Bek-Nazarov Project, which is concerned with film preservation and restoration in the South Caucasus and Central Asia. Recently he has co-produced restorations of Franciszka & Stefan Themerson’s Europa (1931), Stephen Sayadian’s Dr Caligari (1989), and Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975).