Female curiosity and “Bluebeard” (2009)

7 July 2010

When I was about three or four, my best friend told me that if a man asked you to marry him, you had to do it.  It seemed barbaric but believable, and I spent a couple of years terrified that some strange, horrible man would approach me on a sidewalk and abruptly demand that I marry him.  Do we all believe this stuff when we’re kids?

Ever since seeing Catherine Breillat’s retelling of the Bluebeard tale (“Le Barbe Bleue”), in which the husband hands his new wife a tiny golden key and tells her, “Whatever you do, don’t use this to open the door at the end of the hall,” I’ve been trying to remember what I made of fairy tales as a kid.  While 20th-century children’s books urged us to explore (Curious George, Harold and the Purple Crayon, Harriet the Spy, even Little House on the Prairie…), fairy tales demonized curiosity, the most human of all tendencies.  Fairy tales were opaque, mysterious — so much so that I wonder if Charles Perrault felt the same way back in the 17th century when he adopted the nostalgic title for his volume Histoires ou contes du temps passé (Stories or Tales of the Past, which included Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, and Little Red Riding Hood as well as Bluebeard).  Was it the gore, the bizarre morality, or the novelty of these tales that kept my attention?

The director Catherine Breillat seems to wonder this as well, as this is the second of Perrault’s stories she’s made into a feature-length film (and her next will be Sleeping Beauty).  Here she inserts a version of herself into the tale, as a fearless little girl in pink gingham reading it aloud to her more timid older sister, while they explore a forbidden cluttered attic.  On the whole, however, the film takes us deep into the medieval past to tell an expanded version of Bluebeard’s new child-wife, Marie-Catherine (Lola Créton), a girl who actually quite likes her hulking husband, even though she has long heard the rumors of his missing earlier wives.  If Perrault’s tale was spare, Breillat fleshes it out to show that marriage to the wealthy landowner is a kind of solution to Marie-Catherine’s problems — her family’s poverty, her plainness compared with her sister’s beauty, her loneliness.  In fact, it’s because she is such a curious, odd child that the mysterious Bluebeard suits her.  My absolute favorite thing about this film is that it makes this girl’s motives (as well as her personal charm) more clear while retaining the weirdly fantastic and unknowable element of the fairy tale genre.  Frequent scenes of their eating dinner — gnawing together on an enormous leg of mutton, or eating eggs that match their disparate sizes, as above — emphasize the unexpected equipoise between them.  Bluebeard (Dominique Thomas) even appears uxorious, giving her full run of the castle and permitting her to dominate him in ways that are both surprizing and believable.  In one scene, she sneaks down the hallway toward his bedroom and cracks open the door to watch him remove his clothes at night:  he sits at the foot of the bed peeling shirts off his enormous chest, staring glumly into space.  When she closes the door and clatters back down the hall with a childlike exhiliration, he slowly turns his head toward the noise with a kind of tragic self-defeat.  Does he choose his wives because of their irrepressable curiosity — because they inevitably give him the chance to murder them — or does he hope each time that the new one will finally obey his wishes?

Fairy tales build strangeness upon strangeness, creating their own internal logic — and this is a genre that Breillat understands at a cellular level.  (One blogger has even used the psychoanalyst scholar Lacan to explain her work.)  Inasmuch as she fleshes out Marie-Catherine’s personality, she does so in a way that still holds the viewer at arm’s length; her shots appear so staged as to look almost like a puppet theater.  This is not the kind of film or set of characters that prompt affection and empathy; it reminds you throughout that you are looking at it.  In one scene, the little girl races up a circular staircase in the castle, followed by the lumbering Bluebeard; Breillat offers this as a series of takes from exactly the same point on the staircase, spliced together to look like she’s running upstairs; yet it’s so transparently off that you get distracted by the odd feint.  It skips abruptly over transitions that would give the film better continuity, but it’s those abrupt jumps that make it feel so similar to the original.

That unknowability lasts till the end.  We are left in that same odd place:  wondering what the moral is, as it is in no way obvious.  This isn’t a film for those of us who need to like a film’s characters or who get allergic to films that draw attention to its film-ness.  But I can guarantee that you’ll think back to those odd things you thought about as a child — the mystery of marriage, the possibility that a wolf might eat a child, the presence of fairies and demons and sleeping potions.

One Response to “Female curiosity and “Bluebeard” (2009)”

  1. […] Catherine Breillat’s weak effort, The Sleeping Beauty – such a disappointment after I quite liked her Bluebeard (Le barbe bleue of 2009). I was also less impressed with Tangled than most critics. I […]

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