(2008)3.5Nathan SouthernFor nearly 35 years, Catherine Breillat has staked her claim as one of a handful of international directors capable of deftly and intelligently exploring the psychology and emotionality of sexual politics. In so doing, she consistently projects an utter fearlessness in the limits to which she pushes her actors, characters, and scenarios, within the boundaries of arthouse eroticism. The irony of Breillat's Bluebeard -- a revisionist take on Charles Perrault's now-infamous 17th century folktale of a wife murderer -- is that it qualifies as one of the most brazenly sexual of Breillat's films, but contains not a single act of intercourse or an iota of nudity. This is possible because the heavily allegorical film focuses, thematically, on young women's pre-coital perceptions of sex -- and the fantasies and fears that often grow so confusingly intertwined. While not completely successful, the film does qualify as one of the most provocative and intriguing titles in Breillat's catalogue.
Narratively, Breillat sets up two separate threads, each in a distinct time frame. A contemporary one finds two sisters, younger Catherine (Marilou Lopes-Benites) and older Marie-Anne (Lola Giovannetti), heading up to their attic, where Catherine reads Perrault's tale aloud to Marie-Anne in a successful bid to frighten her. Meanwhile, in the tale-within-the-tale (which actually commences before the contemporary one does) the Bluebeard story plays out onscreen in a period context, starring two different teenage characters whose names are slightly transposed versions of those in the contemporary story: younger sister Marie-Catherine (Lola Créton) and older sister Anne (Daphné Baiwir).
That story finds the two French adolescents forcibly pulled out of a Catholic school following the self-sacrificial death of their father. They rejoin their mother in a rural hamlet, but must grapple with the constraints of dire poverty, until an invitation arrives to a fete hosted by the notoriously ugly and sinister nobleman Bluebeard (Dominique Thomas), a man fabulously wealthy, but so hirsute and physically filthy that he evokes mass revulsion -- and is rumored to have killed off multiple wives. Bluebeard, it seems, is seeking a new marital partner, and the lure of the wealth that would accompany this is too overwhelming for the young women to resist. A short time later, Bluebeard casts his eyes on Marie-Catherine at the event and the two are wed, putting Marie-Catherine's life in grave danger.
It can hardly be an accident that the same Catherine Breillat who worked as an assistant director to Bertolucci on Last Tango in Paris would script and direct this curiosity. Like Last Tango, Bluebeard immerses itself in a woman's darkest and most subconscious fantasies -- fantasies about hairy, bullish, rough-hewn men prone to acts of the most brutal sexual violence and domination. As played by Créton, Marie-Catherine seems instinctively drawn to Bluebeard, and not simply for financial reasons -- this fatherless girl responds to him on a deep-seated Freudian level. And yet, at the same time, we witness a fear of crossing over from adolescence into womanhood, articulated both literally (when Marie-Catherine refuses to consummate their marriage for several years), and metaphorically, when the young woman defies her husband's order not to venture into a forbidden room during his absence, ends up with (heavily symbolic) blood on her feet and hands, and earns a death sentence from Bluebeard, who vows that he'll slice her throat open with a cutlass.
These elements of the tale are fascinating, as are the interiors of the castle, with its psychologically and sexually labyrinthine corridors. On a psychological level, they suggest tunnels running through the mind and an endless journey into the subconscious, inevitably recalling Olivier's Hamlet. On this note, one of Breillat's best visual jokes involves a multilevel spiral staircase that she films entirely with a single fixed shot, as Marie-Catherine and Bluebeard round the same stretch over and over again.
Less successful is the contemporary story. It makes conceptual sense for Breillat to want to throw the period tale into bas-relief, by framing it with a commentary that sets up the story as an extension of the females' imaginings, but the children reading the story are so young (several years even from preadolescence) that its darker symbolic and thematic underpinnings lack the credibility that they would possess if these girls were slightly older -- especially when the director substitutes the younger of the contemporary girls for Marie-Catherine in the sequence involving the forbidden room and the blood. Moreover, the modern thread suffers for being too cute, too precious. It also leads up to a twist ending that is less than plausible.
These represent the film's key weaknesses. The only other weakness is a slight narrative drag near the end of the second act that temporarily weighs the story down. Even at a breezy 75 minutes, one senses that Breillat could have told the same story at a slightly more rapid clip. Nevertheless, the breathtaking denouement of the period chronicle helps the film rebound by offering a fitting and perfect wrap-up for everything that has preceded it.
Controversial filmmaker Catherine Breillat puts a new spin on an ancient story in this multileveled drama. In France in the mid-'50s, Catherine (Marilou Lopes-Benites) enjoys toying with her older sister, Marie-Anne (Lola Giovannetti), by reading her the story of the murderous and oft-married Bluebeard, embellishing the story with plenty of gore and scaring the girl out of her wits. As Catherine rereads the story, we're taken back to the year 1697, as Lord Bluebeard (Dominique Thomas) prepares to make Marie-Catherine (Lola Créton) his seventh wife. Marie-Catherine's youth and innocence make her an especially attractive quarry to Bluebeard, and rather than murder her right away, he decides to wait a while in order to savor the terrible joy of claiming her life. However, as Bluebeard becomes caught in a cycle of events that keep him from following through on his wife's murder, the two slowly become something like a normal couple and Marie-Catherine begins to turn the tables on her spouse. Barbe Bleue (aka Bluebeard) received its world premiere at the 2009 Berlin International Film Festival.