A faithful adaptation of Perrault’s fairytale, Bluebeard nevertheless conceals a bevy of Catherine Breillat’s favourite themes. But where’s the eroticism?
Lady Weeping At The Crossroads by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers.
Ever since her groundbreaking and controversially sexy Romance X, Catherine Breillat has hit the headlines with her frank depictions of sex. Yet, now she’s on a journey, heading into the past on a white steed of female rebellion. Following her 2007 period piece The Last Mistress, she’s travelling further back into the dark ages of patriarchy and loosening her grip on female sexuality. And while there are clear sexual overtones to the Bluebeard fairytale, Barbe Bleue murdering his disobedient wives and locking them up in a cell for the next curious newlywed to find, the sexual relations here are more conjugal. And dare I say it, chaste?
Instead of porn stars and sexual freedom, Bluebeard is a lavish, chiaroscuro rendering of Gustave Doré’s wood engravings with two tales of two sisters at its heart. In the framing story, Catherine and her older if not so precocious sister Anne discover a copy of Perrault’s Contes in a forlorn hayloft. Their squabbling and reading is intercut with the tale of ‘Bluebeard’, of Marie-Anne and Marie-Catherine, two fictional sisters who are forced to abandon their convent studies after their father dies in a coaching accident. Impoverished, they return to the family hovel with a glum choice – marriage or a nunnery.
Breillat lavishes great attention on her wimpled, nettle-eating heroines, a poverty to which Perrault dedicates barely a paragraph. But as much as it’s a fairytale about curious women and demonic men, ‘Bluebeard’ for Breillat is foremost a story about sisters. And just as in her framing story, Breillat pitches the rivalry and petty jealousies between the siblings perfectly. Marie-Anne and Marie-Catherine are different; the elder sister shallow and egotistic, the younger generous and thoughtful. And when they go to Bluebeard’s castle on a chaperoned group-date, Marie-Catherine is happy to lie by the river, relaxing in the chateau’s grounds talking with Barbe Bleue, while Marie-Anne dances a saltarello, or bats eyelashes at a hunky messenger.
This sororal inflection harks back to A Ma Soeur, where a younger, fatter girl alternately despises and envies her older and lither sister. (And with just as brutal an ending.) In her made-to-measure wedding dress, Marie-Catherine shows off to her sister, piquing her jealousy with her new clothes. But as she takes the long postnuptial journey on horseback from church to castle, Breillat deftly exposes the dizzying role-shift from sister/daughter to lover/wife that Marie-Catherine faces. She’s a sensitive soul, so she finds Barbe Bleue honest and clever, happy to obey her porcine husband’s will for sanctuary under his ample wing. She’s not all submission though, and rejecting any untoward advances until she’s 20, and refusing to lie in the little cot at his feet like a lap-dog, Barbe Bleue’s new wife is now a girl with a womanly responsibilities.
Giving her the keys to his ermines and pearls, Breillat’s Bluebeard can be read as a treatise on trust and love. He goes away on business, trusting her with his fortune, his life. The second time he goes away, he entrusts to her the key to his heart; his past loves and his faults – quite literally the skeletons in his closet. Quickly overcome with curiosity, she breaks his injunction, running down to the cellar to discover his true nature. With glee.
Bluebeard is a curious fairytale with no easy, edifying moral; there are two crimes – the wife’s curiosity and disobedience, the husband’s murderous intransigeance. But that Breillat cuts to the girl, Catherine, eagerly descending the stairs is a masterstroke; an original sin transmitted through reading, through gender. It’s all about Eve, with Barbe Bleue as both God and Adam. Marie-Catherine is given away by a bleeding magic key (a strangely menstrual tip-off that recalls Henry VIII and his heirless bloodlust), but saved by her sister, expediting help from a couple of passing musketeers just as she comes under the knife. But that Anne should take a fatal tumble through the loft hatch is an unexpectedly violent blow. And like A Ma Soeur‘s brutal finale, there’s a female assumption of male violence here. The two sisters work together to bring in the cavalry and behead Barbe Bleue, but instead of a gory decapitation, Bluebeard‘s violence jumps across the mise-en-abyme gap to dispassionately kill a hapless sister in the here and then. Punished perhaps for salivating over Barbe Bleue’s uxoricidal tendencies. Or like the slaughtered, slow-dying duck, a cruel reminder of death’s indifference.
A sumptuous realisation of Perrault’s ‘Barbe Bleue’, Catherine Breillat’s film is like a bizarre hybrid of Bresson’s Mouchette and Demy’s La Peau Douce, a despondent girl in taffeta gowns. Its exquisite medieval opulence harks back to a pre-revolutionary age of inequality and gender simplicity where women’s choices were between conjugal, religious or financial bondage. Its intra-narrative parallels may be obscure, but its light shines brightly on the precipitous fate of those unwilling to look male violence in the eye.
Bluebeard is released in the UK on 16th July 2010.