10th Belfast Film Festival review
A film adaptation of a fairytale would seem like a bit of a departure for Catherine Breillat, but arguably, there is just as much a cautionary-tale element to many of her films as much as there is often a dark side to many fairytales. That’s certainly the case with Charles Perrault’s Bluebeard, the story of a rich lord who is notorious for the serial marriage of women who he murders when he tires of them, moving on to the next one. The moral of the story, that women should be discreet and not pry into the affairs of men or face the consequences of finding out rather more than they would really wish to know, would seem to be one that is rather dated and scarcely applicable to the distinct world-view that we have come to associate with Breillat, but inevitably, while remaining completely faithful to the spirit and intentions of the original fairytale, Breillat manages to put an interesting spin on the story and its present-day application.
Breillat’s adaptation of Bluebeard consequently is split between the playing out of the fairytale and a modern-day reading of the story by two young children who have found a book of fairytales in an attic. The fairytale side of the story features two sisters, Marie-Catherine and Anne, who at the start of the tale are brought before the Mother Superior and informed of the sudden accidental death of their father. Rather than offer much in the way of sympathy, the Mother Superior advises the young girls that they run a private school and are not a charity and promptly sends them packing back to their grieving mother. As an alternative to facing poverty, and with a peculiar sense of self-preservation, the youngest girl determines to marry a rich local lord, Bluebeard, despite his notoriety and the fact that all his many previous wives have never been heard of again. With a twist of names, in the modern-day, two young sisters, Catherine and Marie-Anne provide a commentary on the story, from an amusing and childlike viewpoint, but one that also reveals much about attitudes and characteristics that are innate in the female character as much as they are revealing about the social attitudes that encourage them.
Despite the frequent switches between the present-day and the fairytale, Breillat maintains an even tone, with balance and counterpoint well achieved. It’s a strange tone, certainly, playing both sides largely straight seemingly without any obvious irony, self-referencing or clever, arch, post-modern spin. Rather than using the modern-day reading as a framing device to distance the story for example, the film opens rather with the Bluebeard story, which does tend to suggest that the emphasis should lie there. Contrary to what you would expect from the depiction on screen of a fairytale moreover, in place of fabulous costumes, dazzling sets and a sumptuous musical score, Breillat goes for a strictly realist depiction of the period, the locations real-life, partly run-down castles and country houses, the furnishings sparse, but looking appropriate and authentic. The characterisation in the fairytale side of the story also aims for authenticity, and although played out in a low-key, sombre fashion, with no great outbursts of emotion or expression, there is a deep, melancholic undercurrent of fatalistic and idealistic love that runs through the story – something that is certainly eminently a characteristic of Breillat.
Despite the warnings of the local people and despite the misgivings she herself might have about Bluebeard, the young Marie-Catherine cannot however contain her curiosity over the mystery of the male character. Refusing even to sleep in the same room as her new husband, albeit in an individual cot prepared for her at the foot of his large bed, on account of her age and his promise that they will not sleep together until she is older, Marie-Catherine many assert some independence from the rights of male dominance in marriage, but curiosity gets the better of her, and later in the evening, she slips down the corridor to secretly observe the masculine form of Bluebeard as he undresses in preparation for bed that night. This curiosity, and certainly what seems to be a true, deep love for her dark, silent, secretive and dangerous husband, causes Marie-Catherine to poke her nose into those shadowy secrets of his notorious past, and the consequences are to prove fatal.
Rather than being a cautionary tale about a wife’s curiosity in relation to a husband’s affairs then, Bluebeard would appear to have more of a twist towards the flaw, quirk or characteristic that lies within women towards some fatalistic attraction for the darker side of masculinity, simultaneously attracted yet repelled by where those drives can push a man, a conflict of interests that almost dooms the relationship to self-destruct. The alternative, as presented in the modern-day reading of the story where one of the girls finds that the story offends her delicate sensibility and comes to a rather unfortunate end, would appear to be a warning that walking blindly in denial of those impulses as something belonging to the dark ages, isn’t a wise option either.