Fairytale indeed, but Disney it's not.
Image: New Wave Films
For many years, French director Catherine Breillat’s name has been synonymous with films that explore the dark recesses of female sexuality, but her latest effort might at first glance appear to be something of a break from form. There are no naked young women in Barbe Bleue (Bluebeard), and no scenes of actual or simulated sex. However, in watching the film it is clear that Breillat has lost none of her desire to externalise the dark and mysterious innards of female sexuality, nor her willingness to refuse the audience simple answers. Barbe Bleue is Breillat’s reimaging of the classic fairytale, and the story of the young woman married off to the monstrous and murderous husband is present and correct, situated in a world of muddy pageants and imposing castles far removed from the banal (albeit sometimes bizarre) reality of much of Breillat’s oeuvre.
The obvious touchstone when examining reworkings of fairytales from the female perspective Is Angela Carter, who adapted the Bluebeard story herself as ‘The Bloody Chamber’. However, Breillat denies having ever read Carter, and it is certainly true that they offer very different interpretations. Breillat leaves the story firmly in a mythological context, creating a surrounding storyline wherein a young girl reads the story to her easily frightened older sister. Much has been made of the supposedly autobiographical aspect of these segments, but it is hard to accept that any element of realism is being attempted. Indeed, these scenes, while supposedly set in the 1950s, seem almost as ethereal and fable-like as the tale being told within them. The girls are too young for even Breillat to attempt to sexualise them, and so instead they function as innocent sounding boards, not quite capable of understanding the highly erotic nuances of the story that they are reading.
Breillat subverts our expectations over and over, perhaps most notably in the scene where young heroine discovers the secret of the locked room in her husband’s castle. Where the story offers a scene of gothic horror, Breillat instead chooses to show something which is beautiful and artistic; entirely unbelievable and yet somehow completely appropriate. The surrounding story with the two sisters is also something of a surprise, offering a unique vision of childhood in Breillat’s oeuvre, although one which is not without its dangers, as the complex and almost inexplicable ending attests.
Breillat draws layered performances from her leads, including what should be a star-making turn from Lola Créton as the young girl who proves to be more than a match for her giant husband. Bluebeard himself, meanwhile, comes across as strangely likeable, albeit in a perverse and dangerous way, and genuinely surprised by his latest wife; this intelligent and complicated waif who refuses to consummate their marriage and seems almost as manipulative as he is. The scenes in which they eat dinner, tearing at their meat in a manner at once both flirtatious and disturbing, sparkle with genuine chemistry. That Dominique Thomas, who plays the titular ogre, can bring new dimensions to a classic character speaks volumes about his abilities, and it is a shame that he does not have more screen time. The two young girls who appear in the wraparound story are equally good, especially the younger sibling who manages to be both cute and uncanny, relishing the horror within the story even as she struggles to fully comprehend it. If anything she is even closer to an archetypal Breillat woman than the heroine, precociously desperate for new experiences, eager to gain access to the locked room of impossible knowledge. It becomes more and more obvious just why Breillat settled on this story to adapt, and we are left eagerly anticipating her next work, rumoured to be an adaptation of ‘La Belle Aux Bois Dormant’ (‘Sleeping Beauty’).
What we have in Barbe Bleue, then, is an intelligent reworking of a classic fable, filled with memorable performances and some gorgeous images which will stay with you long after the credits have rolled. Like the heroine’s enigmatic expression at the climax of the film, the viewer is left with a sort of glorious uncertainty as to what exactly we have just witnessed. That this film will not suit all tastes is certain. That it will be discussed for years to come is equally sure. It is worth seeing for this fact alone.
A pleasingly taxing film which will delight and anger in equal measure, proving that Breillat has not lost her marvellously anti-Hollywood edge.