Catherine Breillat’s Bluebeard

Catherine Breillat’s Bluebeard is a fairy tale told by two pairs of sisters close in age. The first pair play the characters in the Charles Perrault story Bluebeard and are sent home from school after their father dies since there is no more money to pay for their education. The second pair of sisters locate a copy of Bluebeard in an out-of-the-way attic that they’re not sure is forbidden, and they tell each other the story (with their own variations) in tandem with the first pair. Which set of sisters will come to a violent end? In a Catherine Breillat film, it’s only a matter of time.

Sisters are a major theme in the Breillat films I’ve seen, Fat Girl and Bluebeard, with the younger sister playing the role of the put-upon child and the elder being the beautiful, arrogant one. With the two sets of sisters in Bluebeard, Breillat varies this arrangement somewhat, and it makes me think of sisters as they have appeared in fairy tales I’ve read or heard, where one is the most beautiful or the pluckiest or the most clever.

With the actual Bluebeard part of the movie, the contrasts are marked, which seems to be a crucial element of fairy tales. There is the family with two marriageable daughters shown dealing with mean poverty while the castle of Bluebeard and the feasts at his manor are displayed with grandeur and decadence. There is the child-aged and -sized bride contrasted with the much older, uglier, and mammoth groom. Her innocence with his experience, his kind, generous side with his unbending murderous side, and so on, and so on.

Bluebeard is an adult’s fairy tale that focuses on the darker side of human nature rather than the picture-perfect marriage of a princess at the end of a Disney cartoon. Here, the movie ends with two images: One similar to Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith Slaying Holofernes and the other like one of the terrible ends that happens to Edward Gorey’s creations. It’s a movie that I think of in terms of images and colors rather than a story line.

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