Bluebeard (1972)

Bluebeard (1972) movie poster

director Edward Dmytryk
viewed: 07/07/2013

When I embarked on my mini Bluebeard moviethon, oddly enough it was this 1972 Edward Dmytryk-directed Richard Burton-starring film that was lingering at the back of my mind.  For whatever reason, I recalled it being an older film, not relatively contemporary, which it must have been when I saw it in the 1970’s/1980’s.  Howsoever I saw it, howsoever I remembered it, I’m almost positive that this was the film that was in my brain.

I mainly recalled the discovery of the many wives by the young current wife of the evil nobleman and then the recounting of the deaths of his numerous prior brides in their unique details.  I read now that this was perhaps influenced by Italian Giallo films, but at the time would have been more recognizable to me as akin somewhat to the camp and gothic horror of Hammer horror films.  Because the film is indeed campy, gothic, and strange.

What was more surprising to me this viewing than anything was the high titillation nudity of the many female stars.  In ironic retrospect, that may be what the film is actually most remembered.  I probably saw it edited for television and could only follow the sexual subtext without appreciating the topless actresses.

Richard Burton plays the Bluebeard of the film, with beard of blue.  He’s a 20th Century figure, a WWI air hero now turned Nazi.  He’s also given some explicit reasoning behind his murderous misogyny.  He’s impotent.  And obsessed with his mother.

The film has the odd structure of the main narrative taking up the first half of the film, which includes his wedding to Joey Heatherton, who plays his current wife and main protagonist.  When she discovers his frozen vault of dead wives, she vies for time against his need to kill her as well in getting him to speak at length on what led to the deaths of his many other women.  The second half is the series of flashbacks showing his wives as obnoxious, feminist, over-sexed, bisexual, or merely shallow, all reasons he cites for their various executions.  Heatherton does get to call him on this, though it falls in between misogyny and a critique of misogyny.

The film features a very nice score by Ennio Morricone.  It also features Raquel Welch, Sybil Danning, Nathalie Delon, Agostina Belli and others as the sexy (often topless) women he is driven to kill.

It’s far from a great movie.  It’s overlong and gets tedious.  But it jangled something in the old cobweb-encrusted mind.  So strange.

Bluebeard (2009)

Bluebeard (2009) movie poster

director Catherinne Breillat
viewed: 07/01/2013

I have so many themes or tropes in my movie-watching that it’s probably hard to recall all of them.

I’ve only seen one film by Catherinne Breillat, her 1988 film, 36 Fillette, which I found quite interesting.  Interesting enough to keep queuing up her films.  Netflix, however, no longer carries most of her films.  Some, I assume because the discs perhaps got damaged over time and may not be readily available anymore.  Others, such as her 2001 film, Fat Girl, which is available on Criterion, I can’t explain.  Her work deals largely with feminine sexuality, and in particular with young women, even girls’ sexuality.  It’s an area that is perhaps touchy in film, worrying towards pedophilia, but is perhaps all the more interesting because of its resultant blind spot in culture.  Bluebeard being only the second of her films that I’ve gotten around to seeing, I can’t really draw my own conclusions on her work other than that this film falls well into her area of exploration.

The Bluebeard story was written originally by Charles Perrault about a wealthy nobleman who goes through his young wives with great alacrity. He’s really a serial killer if you want to get plain-spoken about it.  He was inspired by the real life character of Gilles de Rais, who may or may not have been an extremely brutal an prolific serial killer himself.

Breillat’s film follows the story quite traditionally, though it is framed by a more comical element, two young sisters reading to one another in an attic, the story of Bluebeard.  They are both horrified and titillated by the gruesome tale, especially the precocious younger one who leads the way.

The main narrative is of a family of two teenage girls who with their mother are left in ruin when their father dies trying to save a child.  Breillat’s world of the feminine is also feminist and the critiques are pointed as the girls note that their father abandoned them, leaving them nothing, no money, no power, better off dead.

When the notorious Bluebeard’s servant comes looking for new prospects for the big, creepy man, the younger of the two sisters, Marie-Catherine, is intrigued and interested to one-up her elder sister.  They attend a feast at his castle and she meets the man/beast, much like Beauty and the Beast, and sees humanity in him, not finding him as fearsome or ugly as everyone else does.  She agrees to marry him (though she is about 13 or s0).

Their relationship is platonic (he agrees not to try to bed her until she is older) but it is increasingly loving.  He finds her an angelic, strange girl, and she is fascinated by his worldliness.  He gives her fancy new clothes and run of his castle.  It is only when he begins to go on long trips that she is given a warning that there is one room she is not to enter, a room to which she is given the golden key even though it is forbidden to explore.

She of course immediately explored it and finds the hung bodies and pooled blood of the other young wives that came before her.  Bluebeard returns, realizes her transgression and is compelled to kill her.  She cleverly delays him until rescuers arrive, as she escapes death.  The final image is of the beautiful young girl stroking the hair of her beheaded husband, with the same affection she had for him in life.

So the themes are here, the young girl’s fascination with the sophistication of the older man, and of course the older man’s fascination with her.  While the sexuality is chaste, the violence below is implicit, the ultimate, inevitable violence of this man on women.

The girls in the meta-narrative also find violence and death, though a much more ambiguous type, one bereft of the male presence.  Perhaps it is the thought that murder or death is a knowledge imparted from man to woman, from adult to child, something secret and provocative.

I wouldn’t say that Breillat’s Bluebeard is a great film.  It seems oddly low-budget at points and awkward in the strange dance scene at Bluebeard’s feast.  But it’s intriguing and curious, and certainly at times amusing.  She seems to really enjoy the little girls, especially the precocious, provocative one.  She is clearly the point of identification, if embodied as well in the younger sister in the fairy tale portion as well.

It was the second of a Bluebeard double feature for me, second after Edgar G. Ulmer’s 1944 film of the same name.  Breillat’s Bluebeard not only has a beard, but it is indeed blue.  And its adherence to the traditional story is part of what evoked further my memory of seeing a film of this story in childhood.  I now am guessing that the version I saw was the one from 1972.  So my Bluebeard investigation will continue.

Bluebeard (1944)

Bluebeard (1944) movie poster

director Edgar G. Ulmer
viewed: 07/01/2013

In working my way through the films of cult director Edgar G. Ulmer, I happened upon a side theme, that of Bluebeard movies.  I had/have this vague memory of watching a movie about Bluebeard, the fairy tale serial killer of wives, when I was a kid.  And for some reason, I thought the film was an old one.  The memory is most vague.  So, this film, starring John Carradine, made on the cheap at PRC studio in 1944 seemed like it could well be the thing.  And with the only two other Bluebeard films that I could find, from 1972 and 2009, I figured it had to be it.  Since the latter film was directed by Catherine Breillat, I also had it in my queue, so I thought to pair them up as a double feature.  Since the 1972 version didn’t seem as relevant to my interests, I didn’t bother with it.

Well, now I don’t know.  I can easily suppose that I never saw Ulmer’s Bluebeard before.  It certainly wasn’t the Bluebeard that I thought I had seen.  For one thing, this Bluebeard doesn’t even have a beard.  So, I have since gone and queued up the 1972 version.

This Bluebeard is a period film, shot on sets, seemingly with more budget than films like Ulmer’s Detour (1945) or Strange Illusion (1945).  There is a serial killer in Paris, but it’s a Victorian era Paris, not some more long ago pastoral time.  Girls are being found in the Seine.  And John Carradine, not entirely sinister here, a vaguely tragic villain, is the unknown murderer, to whom people refer as “Bluebeard”.

What’s most amusing about this film is its extremely convoluted plot.  Carradine is a puppeteer, who puts on a show of Faust, apparently one of Ulmer’s most cherished elements of the film (he was famous for his sets and miniatures).  He has been a painter.  In fact, his devilish landlord, who is also his art dealer, blackmails him into painting.  So when he meets the charming Lucille, he quashes his desire to paint her.  You see, he kills all the women who sit for his painting.

This all gets explained toward the end in a long flashback narrative.  As a poor young painter, he found a collapsed woman on the street, brought her home to help her, and fell in love and painted her.  She then disappeared.  His painting was accepted at the Louvre and his career was on his way.  When he went to find this woman, upon whom he had projected the finest of qualities while she slept, he finds her a coarse harlot who throws money in his face. His illusion shattered, he strangles her and throws her body in the Seine.  Now every model he sits to paint inspires this awkwardly Freudian toxicity.

It’s just a little convoluted, right?  His landlord knows his secret but keeps getting him to paint (and kill) for money while he goes on to be revered for his work?  Well, if that wasn’t enough convolution for you, Lucille’s sister Francine is an undercover agent for her boyfriend the Inspector who is hunting Bluebeard the serial killer.  And when they think they have identified the murderer as a painter, she gets to sit a session with him, while he tries vainly to not be inspired to murder.  Though in the end, he does do her in.

The film is strange, though hackneyed, not my favorite of Ulmer’s so far.  But John Carradine gives a very sympathetic performance as the troubled serial murderer.  There is indeed a classic tragedy amid the odd psychological quirk of the villain.  Carradine, who was also great in Stagecoach (1939), shows himself to have been a very adept, unusual character actor.

While not a great film, it is good fun. And it has its moments, most significantly when Carradine’s eyes bug out in a masked close-up as he turns to kill.

Still, a Bluebeard without a beard is an odd thing.