Bright Lights Film Journal

Bluebeard: Breillat on Myth

There’s a strange defamiliarization going on in Catherine Breillat’s films. It could result from her frequent use of a stable camera, or what must be a controlled directing style. Through the approach she has a distinct way of monitoring the female body – it’s face, physicality, evidence of desires, signs of libido: the results are critical yet sensitive studies of women. In her debut, A Real Young Girl (1976), she develops the psychology of a teen character who tries to understand herself and how she must fit into the culture of sexuality. Fat Girl (2001), which approached the theme from the “ugly” sister’s point of view, was just as sympathetic, even if it cumulates into a bizarre yet telling rape/murder fantasy. Breillat’s masterful The Last Mistress (2007, and oddly still awaiting a U.S. DVD release!), stars an excellent Asia Argento and looks to French history and the psychology of the “other woman.” All of these women are a subject, a thing to be revealed, understood.

In Bluebeard – Breillat’s latest, and coming to DVD on June 22 – the filmmaker looks through myth to continue her investigation. Naturally, we get a deconstruction of the eponymous folktale. The film concerns ultimate misogyny – a wife-killer most likely inspired from countless women’s fears of marriage. To many young readers, the world’s worst husband could be a mere ceremony away.

In Breillat’s telling, a father of two pubescent girls dies, necessitating their departure from a nun-run boarding school. The headmistress delivering the news is so cold she could quiet a whole girl’s school in an 80s glam rock video. Both without a dowry, the sisters return home to mother, who treats them like two more weights thrown upon her shoulders. But Bluebeard, the rich castle-dweller nearby, is fine with taking a wife sans a money-prize. Word around town is that he’s been taking wives a-plenty, but for the mother, the burden of keeping young women without a father weighs more than the suspicion.

Yet when Marie-Catherine (Lola Créton), who describes herself (confusingly) as the ugly sister, arrives to Bluebeard’s castle, we have a unique turn – a delicate a posteriori courtship. Bluebeard’s physicality notwithstanding – played by woolly mammoth of an actor Dominique Thomas – his mysteriousness leaves her curious and flirtatious. Even if older, he looks to her as if sensitive, perhaps a little needy, wanting to connect, not scare or destroy. She even becomes the boss, demanding a bigger bedroom as Bluebeard agrees to keep their relations nonsexual until she matures. Breillat shows this relationship as nothing but honest. In our own curiosity, we ponder such a predator’s motivations. When she extends beyond her role, breaking the rule of so many folktales, Breillat goes to promised territory. Marie-Catherine uses a forbidden key while he’s away, and finds the terrible, which soon brings the her to face fate after fear. More subversion comes from the watchful, cunning Breillat.

Entwining this narrative is a frame tale, of two girls circa 1950s reading the folktale. Here Breillat gives relief to the somber narrative proper, and shows more evidence of her strength with young performers. The end result is headscratching, leaving us to wonder if the title character can haunt though through time and print. Marie-Catherine’s end is something very different and, as usual for the filmmaker, very fresh.

Bluebeard is released in the U.S. by Strand Releasing.