director Catherinne Breillat
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.