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With Bluebeard, Catherine Breillat—perhaps the most willful feminist provocatrice in cinema today, whose stroke in 2004 made her even more determined to keep working—slyly subverts Charles Perrault’s gruesome fairy tale about a young bride married to an aristocrat who has murdered his previous wives. Of the many adaptations of Perrault’s 1697 story showing at Anthology’s “Bluebeard on Film” series this week, Breillat’s version is the most personal: By inserting semiautobiographical scenes of two sisters in the 1950s who are fascinated with this grisly narrative, she creates a clever framing device to explicate a 300-year-old tale, itself a story involving two sisters. As the film toggles between the 17th and 20th centuries, the director makes keen observations about sibling rivalry, sexual curiosity, notions of purity and innocence, and the power of language and imagination. In town last October for Bluebeard‘s New York Film Festival premiere, I met with Breillat, 61, to talk about sororal breakups, reconciliations, and Naomi Campbell.
What’s your connection to Perrault’s fairy tale? I like that Bluebeard isn’t an ogre or a giant—he’s a man. It struck me that girls read this tale at a very young age: I myself read it when I was five. It’s a story that teaches these little girls to love the man who’s going to kill them.
Bluebeard is a story about the dangers of female curiosity, a theme that runs through many of your films. Must it always have such dire consequences? In my film, the consequences are dire for him, not for her. In the past, we’ve had stories like Eve, who takes the apple of knowledge and tempts Adam to bite into it. So she’s the one who’s guilty—she’s responsible. Here, it’s he who’s responsible. He’s the one who holds the tiny key out to her. As a very young girl, I was drawn to the image of the [murdered] wives hanging in the room—I love this image of the eternally fresh blood that was like a mirror under them. That, to me, is a vision of the eternity of women.
In both Bluebeard and 2001’s Fat Girl, about two siblings on summer vacation, you explore the ties between sisters. What is it about this relationship that fascinates you? Because I am the younger sister, and my sister was the older sister. [Laughs.] We’re very close in age, separated by only 13 months, so we always loved each other, but we also hated each other passionately. My sister never wanted me to deal with the subject of sisters in my films, and I respected that up until Fat Girl. And though she didn’t see the film, it made her furious with me, and we had a rupture as a result. When it came time to make Bluebeard, I figured I didn’t have to pull any punches and I could kill her off, since we weren’t on speaking terms anyway. [Laughs.] But she saw the film, and, oddly enough, we’ve reconciled.
Is the relationship between sisters inherently a sadomasochistic one? It depends on whether the parents contribute to that or not. Our parents forced us to be together constantly. I had to be my sister’s best friend, and she had to be mine. There’s no escape valve in a relationship like that. On top of that, because of the small difference in our age, people outside the family were constantly mistaking us. That’s something that’s unbearable to you as a child.
When we met in the fall of 2007, you mentioned a project that you were working on with Naomi Campbell called Bad Love, about a woman in a destructive relationship— Naomi, Naomi. Naomi’s a wonderful actress, but because she doesn’t speak French, we’d have to shoot the film in English. And it’s impossible to find funding to shoot a film [in France] in English unless you’re a very commercial director. That said, I’m a very stubborn filmmaker, and I haven’t given up hope. The only problem is that I’m getting older every day.
I’ve read that Bad Love won’t be made because notorious con man Christophe Rocancourt, the film’s male lead, swindled you out of 650,000 euros. Is this true? No, it is not true. Christophe Rocancourt is totally replaceable. Doing a film in English is a major problem. [Note: Breillat published a book about the Rocancourt incident called Abuse of Weakness in November 2009.]
If Naomi agreed to take French lessons and do the film in French, would you be able to secure funding? You need a certain truth. We did some tests in English, and she was magnificent. The problem, however, is that French with an English accent just isn’t very pleasant to hear. There’s another complication: A crime took place in France with a similar story [to mine]—a wonderful French actress [Marie Trintignant] was murdered [in 2003] by her boyfriend. The feeling is that if I make this film, even though women are so often killed by their boyfriends, it will somehow reawaken the pain of the mother [Nadine, a writer/director], who’s also famous. People suspect that I’m trying to draw on the box-office appeal of that story, even though it’s a subject I’ve wanted to make a film about for more than 10 years. I absolutely want to do the film.
Bluebeard screens March 3 as part of Anthology’s “Bluebeard on Film” and opens theatrically March 26 at the IFC Center