Bluebeard (Barbe Bleue)
Curiosity killed the cat…
Depending on who you listen to Catherine Breillat is either a fiercely intelligent, courageous libertine, justifiably notorious for 1999’s Romance with it’s frank, explicit depiction of a woman’s search for sexual fulfilment or she’s a jaded pornographer courting controversy by livening up her ennui-laden films with the sort of hard-core sex scenes best watched in the privacy of your own home with a jar of goose fat and the curtains drawn.
A consummate button-pusher, Breillat’s work can sometimes feel more like punishment than entertainment. For every thoughtful, meditative study of burgeoning adolescent sensuality like 36 fillette or (despite its incredibly nasty shock ending) À ma soeur! there’s an Anatomy of Hell, a film so ludicrously determined to shock it includes laughable scenes where the female protagonist flavours a glass of water with a soiled tampon and where the male protagonist, overcome with disgust and desire, inserts the handle of a garden fork into the sleeping heroine’s, ahem, lady garden (a gardening tip I’m glad Alan Titchmarsh never performed on Charlie Dimmock during Ground Force). AND SHE DOESN’T WAKE UP! So given Breillat’s track record in recent years, Bluebeard (Barbe Bleue), feels like something of a change of gear. But beneath the surface lurks Breillat’s familiar preoccupations; female sexuality, sibling rivalry and her customary jaundiced vision of male/female relationships (here explicitly portrayed as a transaction as gold coins rain down on the young bride during her wedding).
In a dark, dusty 1950s attic, a mischievous little girl (Marilou Lopes-Benites) spends the afternoon scaring her older sister (Lola Giovannetti) with her own reading of the fairytale Bluebeard; the tale of a monstrous nobleman who murders his wives and the virginal new wife who’ll prove to be his downfall. Meanwhile in the Renaissance (or at least a Medieval reanactment society version of the Renaissance), impoverished sisters Marie-Catherine (Lola Créton) and Anne (Daphné Baiwir) are forced to leave the tranquil cloisters of their convent school and return to the family farm when their father dies unexpectedly. The local nobleman, a corpulent, melancholy brute named Bluebeard (Dominique Thomas), is in the market for a new wife and the vivacious teenage Marie-Catherine catches his eye. Brushing aside the rumours that his previous wives have mysteriously disappeared, the impetuous girl marries him and moves into his fairytale castle. Life is pretty idyllic until Bluebeard leaves on business, entrusting Marie-Catherine with the keys to the castle. She can go anwhere she wants but is warned not to enter an ominous locked room. And in fairytales, curiosity kills more than cats…
Stylised and static, Breillat’s telling of Charles Perrault’s classic fairytale is both faithful and surprisingly staid. An audience expecting a feminist revision of the story along the lines of Angela Carter’s masterful and erotic The Bloody Chamber will be sorely disappointed. While there’s inevitably a whiff of paedophilic desire suggested by Bluebeard and Marie-Catherine’s relationship, the film is remarkably chaste, though given Breillat’s fondness for frequent, often gratuitously explicit nudity, it’s refreshing that the only character in Barbe Bleue who gets their tits out is the fleshy man-mountain Bluebeard while a curious Marie-Catherine spies on him.
Despite Lola Créton’s sprightly performance as Marie-Catherine the film never really engages and Thomas’ Bluebeard never feels like much of a threat, more a henpecked big galoot with a taste for the young stuff than the wife-snuffing proto-serial killer of the fairytale. The framing story of the two little girls reading the story feels like padding of what is already a pretty slim tale and, as fairytales go, the film lacks the sensual romanticism of Cocteau’s La belle et la bête or the dark, erotic power of Neil Jordan’s The Company of Wolves. Shot on DV, the images lack the lush, deep feel of celluloid and the film often feels more like a home movie, as if Breillat has shot the local am-dram society production. At only 80 minutes the film still feels ponderous and drags, particularly in the first third.
While there are flashes of the more provocative Breillat (Marie-Catherine watching a cook decapitating a live chicken, the twitching body and gouting blood neatly prefiguring Bluebeard’s fate, the petite Marie Catherine tip-toeing barefoot through a pool of blood) and the last act is just grand guignol enough, Barbe Bleue is a relatively subdued affair lacking both the magic and horror to satisfy as a fairytale or the biting revisionism of a feminist reimagining like The Bloody Chamber. Hopefully Breillat’s next film, her version of another Perrault classic, Sleeping Beauty, will prove to be more transgressive.
Lola Créton, Dominique Thomas, Daphné Baiwir, Marilou Lopes-Benites, Lola Giovannetti
Catherine Breillat, based on the fairytale by Charles Perrault