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Psychologically rich, unobtrusively minimalist, at once admirably straightforward and slyly comic, Catherine Breillat’s Bluebeard is a lucid retelling and simultaneous explanation of Charles Perrault’s nastiest, most un-Disneyfiable nursery story. This gruesome account of a wealthy serial wife-killer (the most celebrated ogre this side of Shrek) picks up where other fairy tales end. As noted by novelist Alison Lurie, “the real trouble begins after the wedding.”
Though some have given “Bluebeard” relatively short shrift—child psychologist and author Bruno Bettelheim characterized it as a cautionary fable on the perils of female curiosity and “destructive aspects of sex”—the hirsute gynocidal maniac has been a rich subject for literary feminists. “Bluebeard” served as the basis for Angela Carter’s most famous story, “The Bloody Chamber,” and gave Margaret Atwood the title for one of her collections; it provided Maria Tatar with the basis for a book, Secrets Beyond the Door (which commented on Hollywood’s many wartime versions of the story), and occasioned a major essay by Marina Warner (who suggested that the bloody corpses stashed in Bluebeard’s secret room represent the “historic dangers of childbirth”).
Breillat, who prizes sexual curiosity above all and claims to have loved “Bluebeard” as a child, gives the tale her own spin. The idiosyncratic artist reimagines the perverse bedtime story as one of sibling rivalry, adding a measure of religion and soupçon of class awareness to the mix. Bluebeard opens in a 17th-century convent school, “Kyrie Eleison” trilling on the soundtrack, from which, due to their tuition-paying father’s sudden death, two teenaged sisters are expelled. En route home, the newly indigent girls pass Bluebeard’s castle: The younger, Marie-Catherine (Lola Créton), expresses interest, while elder sister Anne (Daphné Baiwir) primly notes that “the poor have to work their hides off for the rich.”
As blunt as the unconscious mind, this is a movie in which everyone always says what they’re thinking. The sisters fervently wish death on the mother superior even as their own mother curses her luck that they were born (“How will I marry you off?”), boiling their clothing in black dye. The furniture has been repossessed and the family is living on grass soup when a dashing young messenger arrives with an invitation to Lord Bluebeard’s party. “You’d have to be poor to love him,” Anne sniffs, as if her sister didn’t know; the inevitable, church-sanctified marriage ceremony ends with a cascade of gold coins poured over Marie-Catherine’s head.
A terse 80 minutes, Bluebeard has the modest period quality of Roberto Rossellini’s historical films. As lurid as her material is (and as provocative as she can be), Breillat is here remarkably restrained. The discrepancy in size between the expansive monster (Dominique Thomas) and his scrawny, barely pubescent child-bride teases the imagination, as does the scene when, having established that she will sleep in a broom closet until she turns 20, Marie-Catherine spies on Bluebeard’s enormous comatose body. It’s gross, to be sure, although the movie’s most explicit image is a lengthy shot of a decapitated fowl’s bloody, twitching carcass. Is it the end of Mother Goose or a premonition of the movie’s designated dead duck?
Adding to the chaste perversity, Breillat has framed and interrupted Perrault’s story with two small modern-day girls, the impish Catherine (Marilou Lopes-Benites) and her older sister, Marie-Anne (Lola Giovannetti), who are themselves reading “Bluebeard.” The girls are not only named for Breillat and her sister, but, according to the filmmaker, are wearing their actual childhood dresses. The irrepressibly provocative Catherine teases Marie-Anne, who is made anxious by “Bluebeard,” as a “scaredy-cat,” while offering her own extravagant notions of human nature (married couples are “homosexual when they’re in love”). The child is mother to the woman: As a pint-size theorist, little Catherine anticipates the grown Breillat.
The sister act has echoes of Breillat’s Fat Girl, as rival sibs negotiate their coming-of-age, and Bluebeard‘s ending is similarly abrupt. Actually, the movie has two punch lines. In one narrative, Breillat flips the original tale’s emphasis from the helplessness of women to their resourcefulness; in the other, she invokes the power of fantasy to disrupt your very life.