Catherine Breillat has been exploring female sexuality onscreen since the seventies, as both writer (notably for David Hamilton’s Bilitis and Jacques Baratier’s The Satin Spider) and writer-director (Une vraie jeune fille onwards). With these films has come an increased explicitness bordering on the pornographic and, arguably, a decline in audience interest since the cultural talking point that was 1999’s Romance. As a result a shift was to be expected and so it was, with 2007’s The Last Mistress, that Breillat made the move into period dramas and rediscovered a more enthusiastic critical response. (The film was also entered into main competition at that year’s Cannes Festival.) Since then she has remained in the past with a pair of fairytale-derived features that retain the seventeenth century settings of their stories; one made for the cinema, the other for television. First came Bluebeard in 2009, followed the next year by Sleeping Beauty. The latter is currently without a UK distributor - though it remains easily obtainable thanks to a US disc - whilst Bluebeard is only now following its brief theatrical run with a British DVD edition.
Bluebeard is Breillat’s tamest film by some margin. Explicit imagery is out as is nudity of any kind; the ‘15’ certificate has been earned, according to the BBFC, thanks to “infrequent gory moments”. And note the use of the word “moments” for they are just that; there is no lingering here. Yet, as with so many Breillat works from the past, Bluebeard is nonetheless a provocation of a film. At barely 80 minutes in length it can arguably be little more - this is too lightweight a production to be anything more substantial. But without the frank sexual content, or indeed the unguarded look at teenaged sexuality, the provocative nature instead comes down to the source and its onscreen treatment. After all, Charles Perrault’s original tale is that of a serial killer and commonly read as being about the perils of female sexual curiosity. Furthermore it has served as an influence for many a writer and filmmaker, from Angela Carter and Margaret Attwood to Georges Méliès and Edgar G. Ulmer.
Breillat’s take is characteristic and littered with elements familiar from earlier works. Her Bluebeard is a tale of two sisters, twice told. One pair exist in seventeenth century France, the other in a modern-day attic illicitly reading Perrault’s story. The latter duo are the younger of the quartet. Catherine, intentionally named after the director, does the reading and the interpretation, though her understanding of the adult themes is clearly that of a young mind (evoking recollections of Breillat’s earlier À ma sœur!/Fat Girl). Furthering this sense of an ‘as seen through the eyes of a child’ perspective is the similarity between the names of the pair of girls: Catherine’s sister is named Marie-Anne (inescapably similar to Marie-Hélène, Breillat’s actress sister), whilst the seventeenth century duo are named Marie-Catherine and Anne. The one pair mirrors the other suggesting that the Bluebeard as we see it is essentially young Catherine’s, one that is shaped by her experiences and developing comprehension. In other words it is Bluebeard from a feminine viewpoint, that is to say exactly as we would expect from Breillat.
Needless to say, this is a film that comes with a certain analytical distance. The decision to shoot digitally reflects this, its slightly lifeless sheen at odds with the period setting despite the rich colours and tableaux-like compositions. The acting exists at a similar remove, lacking the effervescence of our young modern day storyteller. When Bluebeard is first seen opposite his child bride you almost sense that Dominique Thomas and Lola Créton were cast for their respective builds - the height and bulk of Thomas literally and symbolically dominating Créton’s tiny and comparatively frail figure. Furthermore, our Bluebeard is as self-aware as the film itself, fully recognising his status as a monster - he refers to himself as “a kind of ogre” - and the responsibilities and the burden that come with such a tag. This may not quite be the overly-knowing post-modern spin on things in the manner of the Shrek franchise, but it’s near enough to warrant the comparison. Essentially Breillat wishes for the viewer to consider what is unfolding onscreen rather than simply be entertained by it. Which perhaps also explains its somewhat low-key, ultimately rather sombre nature.
This lack of forcefulness is an interesting development for Breillat and makes for a stark contrast to the shock tactics of 36 fillette, Romance, Anatomy of Hell and so on. It’s odd to come across a film of hers that doesn’t confront its audience and, as a result, demand immediate reactions. Indeed, the tone here is more contemplative and far less insistent. Yet I wonder how audiences will respond in the face of this unusual restraint. One of Breillat’s key weapons is no longer present which for some viewers could be seen as a major omission, whilst others will likely welcome the change of pace. Either way - and for all the familiar themes being dealt with - this does produce the side-effect (alongside the brisk running time and use of digital) of Bluebeard appearing to be a somewhat minor entry in the Breillat filmography. It’s an interesting work, as per the vast majority of her output, albeit one that almost refuses to grab you.
New Wave are releasing Bluebeard onto UK DVD on January 23rd. Their package is a simple one, but it comes with a fine presentation and a weighty additional feature in the form of a 30-minute interview with Breillat. The film itself has been transferred in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio and comes with its original stereo soundtrack (in French with optional English subtitles). As should be expected from such a new production the image is pristine with no signs of dirt or damage plus a clarity that makes it immediately apparent that Bluebeard is a digital production. The soundtrack is just as crisp, though it mostly has only dialogue to contend with plus the occasional burst of period-perfect score. The subtitles similarly offer no problem and are acceptably sized. Special features amount to the original theatrical trailer and that half-hour interview with Breillat. Conducted in French, this is a worthwhile addition and an in-depth one. The writer-director discusses her thoughts on fairytales, her approach to adaptation, takes us through the casting process and the main concepts, plus she has time to delve into particular scenes or moments and address their significance.