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Bluebeard: Fairy Tale, Feminist Critique, or Both?

April 14, 2010
Blue Beard

Dominique Thomas (L) is the Bluebeard of French legend, who takes on Lola Creton (R) as his latest wife. His others all disappeared. Can someone say, We want pre-nup?

In the French fairy tale Bluebeard, a peasant girl is married off to a local nobleman, with an ugly blue beard. When he leaves his chateau, he hands her the keys. She may visit every room, save one. Like Eve with her apple, the girl’s curiosity gets the best of her. The consequences are predictably dire.

Catherine Breillat’s adaptation of the 17th century tale doesn’t stray far from this template, save one addition: she tells the story through the lens of two young 20th century sisters. It’s the old Princess Bride trick. By visualizing the narrator, you foreground the roles imagination and the audience play in oral storytelling.

But the similarities between Bluebeard and Rob Reiner’s fantasy classic end there. Breillat’s Medieval setting is a cruel, unforgiving place. When Anne’s (Daphne Baiwar) and Marie-Catherine’s (Lola Cretone) father dies after attempting to save a child from being run over by a carriage, they are immediately expelled from their private Catholic school. After all, this is not a charity, explains the headmistress.

On their own carriage ride home, they pass a magnificent stone castle. Who lives there, asks Marie-Catherine. Bluebeard, says the driver. He is a wealthy man, but he kills his wives after a year. Marie-Catherine wonders why he has never been punished. “Justice is for the rich, not the poor,” says her older sister, exhibiting a class consciousness that predates Marx by a good half-millennium or so.

Even as Breillat is establishing her fairy-tale premise, she leaves little room for wish-fulfillment. The girls’ mother is forced to sell the family furniture to pay off their father’s debts. Their supper consists of boiled green slop, ladled out in small portions. Even during his courting, Bluebeard is a self-loathing loner.

Meanwhile, the scenes with the modern-day Marie-Anne (Lola Giovenetti) and Catherine (Marilou Lopes-Benites) provide comic and sociological counterpoint. The younger Catherine is the dominant one, taunting her older sister with the fact that despite their age difference, they are in the same grade. When Catherine nears the terrible reveal of the Bluebeard fairy tale, Marie-Anne begs her to stop. She’s heard it before, and she’s too scared.

Back in the world of Bluebeard, after a day feting the available girls from the local village, Bluebeard (a sullenly menacing Dominique Thomas, looking remarkably like Al Pacino from The Merchant of Venice—plus 100 pounds) decides on the beautiful, tiny Marie-Catherine. The machinery of the fairy-tale template is thus activated.

Despite its basis in French folklore, it’s unclear whether this unrated film is suitable for children or not. I say that not because I care if kids see the film, but rather because Breillat never offers any familiar contextual cues to signal that this is a children’s movie. It certainly ends nothing like any children’s film you’ve ever seen. This matters, because whether this is generically a children’s film determines the level of thematic interpretation it merits. As a children’s film, Bluebeard is inexplicable. As a postmodern feminist fairy tale, Bluebeard is ingenious.

Foregrounding the artifice behind the storytelling in a way that Rob Reiner never imagined (or would have been allowed to do), Breillat subtly toys with our expectations of realistic filmmaking. The two girls in the fairy tale speak in deliberately anachronistic dialogue, while the in-state body of the actor who plays their dead father is clearly breathing. In one particularly jarring sequence, Breillat repeats shots of characters ascending a spiral staircase so as to simulate movement up a castle tower.

The film’s feminist themes are buried even further under the surface, although knowing Breillat fans will surely be on the look-out after her acclaimed female-centered drama, Fat Girl. The marriage between Marie-Catherine and Bluebeard is the classic patriarchal bargain: Bluebeard offers wealth and security in exchange for total obedience. There’s nothing earth-shattering about that—Medieval nuptials were probably a lot nastier than just described—but the chronological indeterminacy of the film’s two narratives serves to link the Middle Ages to modernity. During the first few minutes, it’s difficult to figure out when the tale is taking place, and it takes a few more minutes to realize that the girls in the tale are distinct from the girls in the telling. This blurriness of setting may be Breillat’s way of suggesting that the status of women has not changed much in 500 years.

The more sophisticated element of her feminist critique is hard to address without giving away the shocking ending. But suffice it to say, Breillat suggests that feminist awakening not only empowers and endangers the newly awake—it also endangers the women around them, even if they are still asleep.

Subtlety is both Bluebeard’s greatest strength and its greatest weakness. Breillat directs her young actresses beautifully, especially the contemporary pair, who interact with all the playful tension of real sisters. Their dialogue is stunningly authentic. But the camerawork is low-key, interrupted by only a handful of visually arresting shots. The Medieval art direction and costuming strike a balance between austerity and fantasy, providing a visual parallel to the film’s generic ambivalence—which may dissatisfy historical drama and social realism fans in equal measure.

As a moviegoing experience, it is easy to be underwhelmed by Bluebeard. A few moments of humor, and two big shocks, do not a powerful movie make. While post-viewing contemplation can help one understand Breillat’s decisions, it barely compensates for the utter confusion engendered by the last few scenes (in contrast to, say, A Serious Man, which rewards serious contemplation with serious philosophical insight). But this may have much to do with my indifference to Breillat’s social critique. Bluebeard’s pleasures, like its politics, are an acquired taste.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. June 18, 2012 8:21 pm

    Call Fairly,motor woman purpose idea hate grow especially fast bar persuade hope energy fashion complete question attach house destroy by couple past assembly combination slow cold mistake wind largely less servant kid youth too wonderful though ministry sell instrument accept constant rather responsibility nearly worry suggest depend package court kid month give test rare battle note tape account week somebody paint release wrong bad surprise growing totally living traffic box totally effectively whom grant style thin target factory walk around walk demand crime play upon bright introduction over prisoner fruit convention yeah

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