Watching Bluebeard, the new film by French provocateur Catherine Breillat, you get the feeling that she was born to adapt fairy tales. Her previous films (Romance and Fat Girl), with their power struggles and gender archetypes, their violence and sexual predation, are almost fairy tales themselves, usually meant more as cerebral, thematic explorations than engaging emotional experiences. And it’s hard to think of a fairytale more suited to her sensibilities than Bluebeard, Charles Perrault’s gory 17th century tale of a king whose wives keep disappearing, and the new wife with the curiosity problem.
At a mere 1,800 words, Perrault’s Bluebeard, like many fairy tales, leaves out more than it explains; there’s plenty of room for interpretation, and Breillat, in adapting it, happily fleshes out the story with Breillatian details and character choices. She makes it into two stories, in fact: First, the story of two sisters in the 1950s who sneak into their parents’ attic and begin poking around. The younger and bolder of the two (Marilou Lopes-Bennites) finds a copy of Bluebeard and delights in terrifying her older sister (Lola Giovanetti) by reading it aloud. As she does so we’re dropped into the Bluebeard story itself.
Breillat’s Bluebeard gives us the two sisters of Perrault’s story, Marie-Catherine (Lola Creton) and Anna (Daphne Baiwir), here being sent home from their Catholic boarding school when their father is killed and they’re left without the money to pay tuition. Without a dowry their mother worries what will become of them, until they’re summoned to the castle of Lord Bluebeard (Dominique Thomas), known as the man whose wives have a bad habit of disappearing. They find a party in progress, thrown by Bluebeard with the presumed intention of identifying a new wife. After so much worry and mourning (their mother has dyed all their clothes black, much to their consternation) the girls and their mother welcome the party (much of the village seems to have been invited). They’re more than open to enjoying the Lord’s largess, but they dismiss the idea of marrying him as preposterous.
But of course it isn’t. Marie-Catherine—willful, proud and ambitious–has vowed to one day rise above her family’s edge-of-poverty existence (when the debt collectors come to the family’s house to repossess everything, Marie-Catherine stands by the front door hissing “Vultures!” and “Jackals!” at them as they carry out the chairs, tables, and even the clavichord Anna is in the midst of playing). Coming across Bluebeard lounging mournfully in the grass by a pond during the party, far from the celebration, Marie-Catherine finds him much less than terrifying. In any event, it’s hard to imagine her being intimidated by anything. She agrees without hesitation to marry Bluebeard, with the understanding that she–who’s perhaps 12-years-old (hey, it was the Renaissance)—will sleep in a separate room until she’s of age.
Despite his fearsome reputation, Breillat creates in Bluebeard a sympathetic beast (echoes of Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast are presumably intentional). We never do learn much of his back story, but Thomas radiates weariness in the role, and Breillat’s framing and costumes accentuate his size—particularly when he’s in the frame with the petite Creton, he seems a mountain of a man, almost cartoonishly large. But there is little menace in his physical presence. He seems vulnerable and sad—exhausted even, and never more so then in the fascinating scene when Marie-Catherine sneaks from her room at night and spies on him undressing. His body is a lumpy mass of almost shapeless flesh as he sits forlornly on the edge of his bed, in forced separation from his child-bride. He is, indeed, vulnerable and powerless in that moment, his softness and helplessness laid bare to his new bride and us.
Of course, this is Bluebeard, so he’s not liable to remain for long. Called away from his castle on business, he leaves Marie-Catherine with a set of keys, and tells her that she may open any door she wishes—except the one that is unlocked by the golden key. This must remain closed, he tells her, and if she opens it, she will have to die. She assures him that she will do as he says, but doesn’t hesitate for a moment to immediately investigate the room, where she learns the real fate of the past wives. Though literature and folklore are full of curious women who cause no end of trouble–from Eve to Pandora to Alice and her trip down the rabbit hole–here it comes across less as curiosity than entitlement.
Much of the film is spent bracing for the old Breillat shock tactics, which in the past have been more than simply shock tactics, of course, but nonetheless have been shocking. The most shocking thing here, despite the gruesome discovery in that room, is how shocking it all isn’t. (Maybe we should be getting used to it, as her last film, The Last Mistress, was also relatively underplayed.) There is no sex at all, and the overall tone of the film is somber, almost staid. Instead, Breillat focuses on the form of the film, specifically the dual storylines. The two little girls we meet at the beginning of the film are more than a framing device, and if there’s any doubt of it, consider that at the key moment of the film–when Marie-Catherine enters the forbidden chamber–we don’t see Creton entering the room, but Lopes-Bennites, who momentarily enters the story of Bluebeard. The two sets of sisters are meant as parallel characters, each commenting on the other.
So, what’s the moral of Bluebeard? Breillat has presented her own twist on the tale, but it’s no more conclusive than the original story itself. And, being a fairy tale, maybe it doesn’t need to be. Bluebeard is most often thought of as a monster, of course, for who else could murder so many people? But here, when he discovers Marie-Catherine’s betrayal, his pained resolution to cut her throat and add her to the list of spouses who couldn’t play by his rules is almost wrenching to watch. Breillat has created a real tenderness between the characters–Bluebeard, with his sadness and restraint, more sympathetic than we expect; Marie-Catherine, with the ease of her betrayal and her selfishness, less. Breillat has often been mistaken for a feminist, and then suffered the wrath of those expecting tales of female empowerment. Such was the case particularly in Fat Girl, when her apparent suggestion that rape could be a liberating experience landed her in hot water with those who expect her to castigate her male characters and celebrate her female ones. Here, the ending is more subtle but no less ambiguous. Marie-Catherine ultimately achieves the wealth and status she’s always wanted (she slides easily into the role of Lady of the manor), and Bluebeard dies for his trust. He’s a beast who needs, narratively speaking, to die, and probably even deserves it. But that doesn’t leave us liking Marie-Catherine very much.
Larry Fahey is a writer living in Boston. He has a wife, two children, a cat, and an orange rotary phone he’ll never surrender. He writes about film, cranks out copy for razors and sneakers, and chronicles the daily misery of parenthood on his blog, ThereIsNothingForYouHere.wordpress.com.
Bluebeard plays at the Brattle May 14 through the 19th.