'Bluebeard': This Innocent Is Surprisingly Resilient

Dominique Thomas, Lola Creton

hide captionA Marriage Of Unequals? Young Marie-Catherine (Lola Creton) proves surprisingly sturdy when it comes to managing her forbidding new husband, Lord Bluebeard (Dominique Thomas) — at least until her curiosity gets the better of her.

Strand Releasing

Bluebeard
(La Barbe Bleue)

  • Director: Catherine Breillat
  • Genre: Fairy Tale/Fantasy
  • Running Time: 80 minutes
Not Rated

With: Dominique Thomas, Farida Khelfa, Lola Creton

French with English subtitles

(Recommended)

Curiosity kills in Bluebeard, Catherine Breillat's subtle and serene exploration of extreme sexual politics and 17th century economic realities. Accessing Charles Perrault's famous story of la Barbe-bleue through the relationships of two sets of sisters — one long ago and adolescent, the other children in the 1950s (stand-ins for the director and her sister) — Breillat plumbs the power of fairy tales to enchant, disturb, warn and teach.

"I find it surprising that young girls ... read this tale in which they are taught to love the man who is going to kill them," Breillat said in a recent interview, revealing how those lessons resonate through the centuries in the droll conversation of the more contemporary sisters. Their reading of the story in a cozy attic not only frames the movie but illuminates its themes, providing an incisive commentary on female romantic expectations and the myths that sustain them.

In Breillat's feminist hands, the dark secrets of the ogrelike Lord Bluebeard and his gloomy castle inspire a touching romance, its misshapen villain (wonderfully played by French stage actor Dominique Thomas) temporarily tamed by sexual purity. His latest wife, Marie-Catherine (Lola Creton), may be a virgin, but her backbone is pure steel: When she and her older sister (Daphne Baiwir) are kicked out of their convent school following the death of their father, she is eager to meet the wealthy lord. This is not a girl to be deterred by rumors of unprepossessing looks or mysteriously missing wives; she's much more afraid of poverty and starvation.

Once married, Marie-Catherine quickly uses her innocence and physical fragility to control her colossal husband. Flatly refusing to sleep with him until she is of age, she retreats to a tiny bed accessed only by a doorway too small for his gargantuan shoulders. Fondly tolerant, Bluebeard shuffles off, but his young bride is curious: Spying on him as he disrobes, she discovers not the monster of local gossip but a sad, weary mountain of pale flesh. The moment is pivotal, and its message will be repeated throughout the film as Breillat frames and lights Marie-Catherine's slender body so as to dominate her husband's impressive bulk. Bluebeard may have size, wealth and reputation, but Marie-Catherine has the power — at least for now.

Marilou Lopes-Benites and Lola Giovannetti i i

hide captionSibling Rivalry: The chronicle of Bluebeard and his wives runs parallel to the story of two 1950's-era siblings, the younger of whom (Marilou Lopes-Benites, left) provokes her older sister (Lola Giovannetti) by reading the fairy tale out loud.

Strand Releasing
Marilou Lopes-Benites and Lola Giovannetti

Sibling Rivalry: The chronicle of Bluebeard and his wives runs parallel to the story of two 1950's-era siblings, the younger of whom (Marilou Lopes-Benites, left) provokes her older sister (Lola Giovannetti) by reading the fairy tale out loud.

Strand Releasing

Visually captivating, slyly funny and only briefly gory, Bluebeard finds Breillat in a more playful and less sexually confrontational mood. Her familiar explicit imagery is notably absent — no shots of the vagina here — as is the lavish production design of her previous (magnificent) period feature, The Last Mistress.

Her themes, however, are as ideologically provocative as ever, albeit encased in an atmosphere of wonderment and exploration. This makes the film feel cooler and more tranquil than we expect from both the material and this director, but the chill is only superficial: Underneath there's a veritable opera of greed, passion and casual cruelty. "I can't do without it," Marie-Catherine tells her sister at one point, gazing around at her luxurious lifestyle and foreshadowing the film's chilling final shot.

And though the impossible demands of patriarchy remain at the heart of the story — Bluebeard gives his wife a key to a room she is forbidden to enter — Breillat's interpretation turns on sibling rivalry. This becomes shockingly literal in the film's tragic climax: Intercutting between the two pairs of sisters, and allowing the younger to triumph in both cases, the director (herself a younger sister) observes the consequences of one-upmanship without obvious approval. Viewers will note, however, that Breillat, always the provocateur, doesn't exactly condemn it either.

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