Does Catherine Breillat instinctively think in pairs? There was something dizzyingly baroque to the catalogue of sexual encounters in her internationally scandalous breakout Romance (1999), while her brilliant follow-up, Fat Girl (2001), felt pleasingly chamber-like by comparison. Fat Girl itself became part of a pairing, since that film was soon followed by Sex Is Comedy (2002), which functioned as a fascinating fictionalized meta-study of the making of a particularly arduous sex scene in its predecessor. Now comes Bluebeard (2009) and, while also a period piece, it feels as lean and efficient at 80 minutes as its predecessor The Last Mistress (2007) felt luxurious at 115. Breillat's films possess an unusual balance of incendiary subject matter and elegantly cool and controlled mise en scène. It's intriguing that the sequencing of her output seems equally calculated for maximum effect. That being said, this effect only functions if people can actually see Breillat's films. Bluebeard, which is itself another diptych, balancing one narrative within a framing device that proves to be a parallel narrative, arrives on DVD via Strand Home Video without having ever enjoyed a theatrical release in Canada.
The source material for Breillat's latest is the fairy tale first rendered into literature in the 17th century by Charles Perrault, who also delivered the beloved woman-in-peril fables Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and Little Red Riding Hood into posterity. Unlike those other stories, Bluebeard has failed to find itself repeatedly adapted into movies. The titular serial wife-killer can be found lurking in the DNA of a handful of nasty adult thrillers, but it doesn't seem very malleable to the tirelessly sanitizing forces of Disney. Yet as an allegory of sexual curiosity and feminine oppression rich in enduringly strange detail it seems tailor-made for Breillat, whose work has brought continual rigour to such themes, sometimes employing scenes of explicit sex, sometimes not. If Breillat's films are shocking it has more to do with what they imply about the crosscurrents of sex, power and gender than how they push the envelope on anatomical depictions. If you think you've got Breillat pegged as a feminist, you should be equally aware of the fact that she's also labeled herself, quite accurately I think, as a Puritan. Bluebeard suggests that mortal punishment may indeed await young ladies who choose to penetrate the forbidden territories of Eros. In fact, the movie makes this suggestion twice!
The dominant half of Bluebeard, set in what appears to be 17th century France, concerns a pair of sisters, the elder Anne (Daphné Baiwir) and the younger Marie-Catherine (Lola Créton), forced to leave their convent when their father's death leaves their mother financially unable to continue their schooling. They return home, where the furniture is being carted away by debt collectors, mom boils their wardrobes in black, and the dinner menu consists of such humble fare as grass soup—there's an inspired black comedian behind these scenes, though humour is an aspect of Breillat's cinema that's often forgotten.
Salvation of a most dreadful kind arrives in the form of a handsome young messenger inviting the bereaved family to a garden party held on the grounds of the wealthy and colossally corpulent Lord Bluebeard (Dominique Thomas). It's commonly whispered about throughout the county that Bluebeard has murdered each of his wives. The sisters go anyway. Marie-Catherine is fascinated by the gentle giant, who recalls Cocteau's Beast more than, say, Joseph Cotton in Shadow of a Doubt (1943). Bluebeard is equally drawn to the wide-eyed, optimistic and barely pubescent Marie-Catherine. She accepts his proposal of marriage. Among the most memorable images in Bluebeard are those of Bluebeard's immense paw hovering over Marie-Catherine's tiny hand, and of Marie-Catherine nestled like the tinniest sparrow in the crook of Bluebeard's elephantine arm. Other memorable images include a trio of paper doll-like corpses suspended from a ceiling, and the arguably gratuitous close-up of a decapitated duck, a phallic spinal stump wriggling from its neck.
The other half of Bluebeard features another pair of sisters, the elder Marie-Anne (Lola Giovannetti) and the younger Catherine (Marilou Lopes-Benites), their costumes placing the period sometime in the middle of the 20th century, making their belated appearance something of a flash-forward. They sneak into the family's off-limits attic where Catherine finds a book and, much to her sister's repulsion—though, crucially, not her direct refusal—she begins to read the sordid story of Bluebeard aloud. Between passages they discuss somewhat related matters, including their humorously imaginative notions of what the term "homosexual" means. What's most interesting in these short, often sinisterly playful scenes isn't necessarily how they reflect a reading, both literal and analytical, of the movie's primary text, but how they contribute to a particular idea of sisterhood as a potentially volatile testing ground for the push and pull of adolescent transgression. And it is no surprise that in each case the younger, braver, potentially doomed sister is named after Bluebeard's writer/director. The original French title of Fat Girl, incidentally, was À ma soeur!. You've got to wonder just what it would be like to be Catherine Breillat's sister. The final minutes of Bluebeard make you glad you don't have first-hand experience. V