Director: Catherine Breillat
By Marilyn Ferdinand
In 1697, French author Charles Perrault published Bluebeard, a dark fairytale of a rich nobleman with the bad habit of murdering his young brides. Perrault is credited, more or less, with inventing the fairytale, and in 1901, the man credited with inventing motion pictures, Georges Méliès, filmed Perrault’s story. Since then, a number of filmmakers have approached the tale, sometimes following Perrault faithfully by sparing Bluebeard’s latest child bride, sometimes sending her to share the tragic fate of his previous wives. Regardless of the ending, however, Bluebeard is a tale affirming the power of patriarchy and the danger women face when they disobey the rules of men.
Now Catherine Breillat has unleashed her feminine point of view and cinematic ingenuity on Perrault’s invention. An acknowledged personal project of the veteran director, Breillat has two young actresses play sisters reading Bluebeard for the upteenth time—stand-ins for the children she and her older sister were in the 1950s—and intersperses their play and conversation with scenes from the tale. It seems more than likely that Breillat was exploring her own childhood fascination with the story while slyly poking at gender politics that infuse various traditional stories, from Cinderella to Salome.
Adventurous and imaginative Catherine (Marilou Lopes-Benites) and her timid older sister Marie-Anne (Lola Giovannetti) enter an attic filled with artifacts from their parents’ and grandparents’ earlier lives. They’ve been told not to go into the attic, but Catherine disobeys because playing there—which they’ve obviously done several times before—is so much fun. Catherine wants to read Bluebeard again, but her sister, claiming sensitivity, balks. Nonetheless, the headstrong younger girl persuades her and begins reading the story aloud.
We are transported to a choir of schoolgirls dressed in ridiculously severe white wimples that cover every strand of hair and, incongruously, grey dresses that expose their legs. One of the students, Anne (Daphné Baiwir), is fetched by Sister Barbe (Suzanne Foulquier) to see the severe Mother Superior (Farida Khelfa). Anne’s sister Marie-Catherine (Lola Créton) has eluded the old nun, to Mother Superior’s annoyance, and she is sent again to retrieve “the bad seed.” Once Marie-Catherine arrives, Mother Superior informs them that their father has been run over by a carriage as he leapt to save a small child from its wheels, and is now dead. With a quick prayer for the father’s bravery and a stern admonishment for the girls to stop their blubbering, Mother Superior banishes the now impoverished sisters from her uncharitable school.
As the sisters watch creditors cart away anything of value in their home—from furniture to a picture taken almost as an afterthought off the wall—Anne curses her dead father for acting without a thought for them and bellows at her ineffectual mother for dyeing all of their dresses black. Mary-Catherine has a much different reaction when viewing her father laid out on his bed—he looks more handsome, she thinks, and no longer intimidating. The very different attitudes of the girls—the older and prettier one much more conventional, the younger, darker one more reflective—will prove decisive when they are called to a party at Bluebeard’s castle where the lord will pick his new bride.
The young people gathered for the party dance and disparage the ugly Bluebeard. Mary-Catherine, younger than the rest, has gone off by herself; she plays with a grasshopper and walks in the woods. There she meets Bluebeard reclining against a tree. He tells her that people call him an ogre, so that is what he has become. Mary-Catherine is not afraid of him, nor does she think he’s an ogre. This is the first of several touching scenes between the two, together in their isolation and thirst for knowledge.
Breillat has a tricky balancing act in structuring a film with two rather fanciful, parallel stories. Although the girls in the attic represent the real world, they come from an earlier time, one in which a conversation about what a homosexual is, though charming and funny, is a little too modern. She also has a number of points to make—not only is she taking a look at masculine and feminine power, but she also has a go at sibling rivalry. By making her points in several ways, she ran the risk of diluting the film’s power.
And yet, Breillat pulls it all off magnificently well. She knows how to tell both stories in an engaging and appropriate way, using two extremely likeable little girls to keep us in the modern story, and casting the mesmerizing Créton as Mary-Catherine to humanize her stylized approach to the fairytale. Her fabulous locations for the Bluebeard story, particularly at the convent school, are like an instant time machine, with the authentically medieval office from which the authentically severe Mother Superior ruled without an ounce of humanity creating the threatening ambiance of the best fairytales right from the start.
Breillat graphically illustrates Catherine’s imagination to signal her attitude toward the characters, particularly the two sisters. When the girls are being carted back to their mother’s home, a single, angelic tear hangs under Mary-Catherine’s eye, while Anne has two disgusting columns of snot affixed between her nostrils and upper lip. Anne is shown to be bratty, disrespectful, and vain, rather like the wicked stepsisters in Cinderella. And like that fairytale, although Anne is prettier, Bluebeard chooses Mary-Catherine on whom to bestow his love and riches, emphasizing a theme Breillat has said she wanted to bring out—the competitiveness of siblings and how that competitiveness can play out in unexpectedly good or tragic ways.
Marie-Catherine matures quickly following her wedding, assuming the mantel of mistress of Bluebeard’s chateau seemingly effortlessly. She has the enormous Bluebeard wrapped around her dainty little finger, scolding him for putting her child-size bed at the foot of his own. “I’m not a dog,” she complains, and has the bed moved into a broom closet that is the right size for her and from which all persons but she are excluded. This space seems to contain her true Self, a place from which she can venture and feel her way toward adulthood. She does this on her wedding night, when she tiptoes silently across the ancient, wooden planks to watch secretly as her husband removes his shirt, exploring a sexuality she will have to grow into.
Marie-Catherine is always honest, and Bluebeard assures her that as long as she remains truthful, she will never have anything to fear from him. But when he returns from an extended journey to find party guests at the castle—something he encouraged Marie-Catherine to do—he grows cross and jealous. He cannot overcome his primitive nature, and chooses almost immediately to test his new bride. He gives her the gold key to the room that, unbeknownst to Marie-Catherine, contains the bloody corpses of his previous wives, but admonishes her not to use it. Ah, the weakness of Eve! Marie-Catherine’s curiosity sets up the grisly scene of three decaying corpses nailed above a huge pool of blood, which the horror-loving Catherine wades into, muttering “I’m not afraid” to herself as she passes between the discolored legs of one of the women. On Bluebeard’s return only a day later, he asks Marie-Catherine for the gold key, but she lies and says she lost it. Exposed to his violence and his capriciousness in telling her she could invite friends and then being angry when she does, she fears obeying him by being truthful. She has been forced to lie, to betray her own nature to save her life.
This is the way in which Breillat explores the gender dynamics that confront women. Marie-Catherine and Anne’s father was their sole financial support; even when trying to act in the most human way possible, he has compromised the welfare of his family because of the economic structure of their environment and doomed his daughters to a convent or worse because no man will marry a girl without a dowry. Marie-Catherine is a clever and empathetic girl, but she can’t tame the beast of patriarchy represented by Bluebeard. Even though Breillat is careful to show Bluebeard’s ambivalence about sending Marie-Catherine to her death, we are still faced with the entire weight of patriarchy (note Bluebeard’s enormous girth and appetite)—its suspicion of women, its demand of absolute obedience even as it makes obedience nearly impossible to practice, and the necessity of women to be untrue to themselves to survive.
The final two shots set up a parallel between Marie-Catherine and Catherine in an unexpected way. Marie-Catherine, now as wealthy in her own right as she hoped to be, stares vacantly as she gently strokes the severed head of her husband, which rests on a silver platter. This can be seen as a challenge to patriarchy that this film itself represents, but it also serves to reinforce negative stereotypes of women in its parallel with the wanton, amoral Salome. The delightedly “wicked” Catherine, too, finds that imposing her will on her gentle sister results in a form of wish fulfillment that has a price. Breillat provides an obvious moral to men, but an equal caution to women to care for their sisters in arms and avoid the excesses of conquest.