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Sunday, March 1, 2015

Catherine Breillat | Barbe bleue (Bluebeard)


a mad salome
by Douglas Messerli

Catherine Breillat (writer and director) Barbe bleue (Bluebeard) / 2009

In the 1950s, two young sisters sneak into an abandoned attic to check out the space, play games, and read their favorite storytales, including the gruesome Charles Perreault fable, Bluebeard. Marie-Anne (Lola Giiovanetti), the eldest, is a highly sensitive and frightened child, who, although having been charged to care for her sister, Catherine (Marilou Lopes-Benite), is very much controlled by the precocious younger girl, who reads the tale to the elder.

     The girls’ storytelling alternates with the tale of two other sisters, Marie-Catherine (Lola Créton) and Anne (Daphné Baiwir), living in 1697. The fairy-tale sisters are attending a private school run by nuns, when they are called to the office of the Mother Superior, who tells them their father has just been killed and, since the family no longer will be able to pay for their educations, sends them immediately home. On the voyage home, we gradually discover that the younger of these two, like the sister of the 1950s, is strongly independent of mind and acutely aware of the economic and social future with which the children will now be faced. It is, an unjust world, where monsters like the infamous Bluebeard, rumored to have murdered his previous wives, live in enormous castles, while they, without dowries and now deeply in debt, must either submit to becoming nuns and join the court as ladies-in-waiting, neither of which perceive as viable futures. Here too, the elder is obedient and religious, much like her mother, a pious girl, who, despite her great beauty, is conventional in her thoughts and emotions; the younger sister, Marie-Catherine, on the other hand, is determined to live in a castle just like Bluebeard’s, and chides her mother for forcing them into black clothing and penitent behavior—particularly as many of the family’s possessions are being taken away as payment.

     It is only a matter of time before an emissary of Bluebeard shows up to the house to invite the financially strapped daughters to a party at the castle. From the invitees, the overweight and ugly Bluebeard (Dominique Thomas) will choose a new wife and give financial support to her family. With no dowries and a life of poverty ahead, the mother and her children have choice but to attend the affair, while secretly hoping, perhaps, that they may be spared from being the subject of his attentions.
    The forceful outsider, Marie-Catherine, however sees it as an opportunity to obtain all the things she has missed in life. Moving away from the other celebrants, she attracts Bluebeard’s attention, and after conversations with him, in which she expresses no abhorrence for the man who recognizes that almost everyone sees him as an ogre, he determines to marry her. The young girl is simply delighted to have a new dress—her first—made for her alone and, after a quick ceremony in the cathedral, she enters the castle of her dreams.
    Although willful, the girl seems, as Bluebeard himself describes her, as innocent as a dove, but the self-assuredness of a hawk. Having agreed not to sleep with her until she becomes of age, Bluebeard has prepared a small bed for her in front his own. But she refuses to serve as his connubial lap-dog, and demands her own room—a very small one, however—again something she has never had before. She forces the monster to agree to never enter her room without her permission (a condition, incidentally, made also by Claudette Colbert character in Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife, as described above); yet in the middle of the night she sneaks into his room to observe the rotund man in his sleep.
    Indeed, it first appears that she has taken the upper hand in the relationship. The girl actually appears to be happy in the company of this elderly and educated being, who shares some of his immense knowledge with her, as he appears ready to share with her everything he owns. When he travels away on a long business voyage, he happy hands over the keys to every room in the house and encourages her to invite her family and friends to the castle in his absence. Marie-Catherine does so, but is seemingly caught in the arms of a young knight when Bluebeard unexpectedly returns. In fact, the girl has been telling the young man just how comfortable she is alone with Bluebeard in the castle; and soon after, she convinces the ogre that she is overjoyed at his return and pleased that they can retire once more into their own private world.

     Soon after, however, Bluebeard again sets out for another business trip, once more handing over all the keys, yet this time adding another golden key to an attic room that he forbids her to enter. She promises to obey his orders, but obviously cannot resist attempting to discover what lies behind that one door. No sooner has he left, than she enters the room to discover the bodies of Bluebeard’s ex-wives hung, like carcasses of meat, upon the wall, with pools of their blood welling upon the room’s floors. Shocked and terrified by what she has discovered, she drops the key into the blood; upon leaving the room she attempts to wash the blood away, but cannot rub out its stain. While she is still attempting the clean key, Bluebeard unexpectedly returns to find her face pale. As they sit down for dinner, he demands back the keys. She quickly gives up the large keys, but claims to have lost the small golden one. Forcing her to produce it, Bluebeard discovers blood upon it and condemns her to immediate death.
     Marie-Catherine pleads, unsuccessfully, for mercy, but does get permission to spend a short time in the highest tower in order to pray. There she attempts to summon troops and family members to come to her aid; but Bluebeard soon appears, ready to cut off her head with a large saber. Once again, the girl coaxes from him one more concession, that he kill her instead by stabbing her with a jeweled dagger through the heart. As Bluebeard returns to the able to retrieve the knife, arriving musketeers take over the castle, evidently killing the monster before he can destroy his latest wife. 
     This beautifully filmed tale alternates with the storytelling by the two young 1950s siblings. Increasingly, as the younger girl tells the story—seeming to modulate it with her own embellishments—the elder grows more and more terrified, ultimately attempting to escape from hearing Catherine’s words, and, in so doing, falls through the attic trap-door to her death. At the same moment that Marie-Anne rises to see her sister laying below, their mother comes to call them home, apparently unable to see the cause of her daughter’s tears: the other, now dead daughter, dressed in blue-gingham, lying below on the concrete floor.
     The film ends with Bluebeard’s wife, Marie-Catherine, stroking the head of her former husband, laid out on a platter like the pate of John the Baptist over which Salome rejoiced. Suddenly these two stories seem to shift, almost as if we have discovered a new pattern in a kaleidoscope: Bluebeard’s death, which will now allow his wife to live out her life in the manner of which she has dreamed, has required the death of her more timid and pious other, the sister who has admittedly used her time and again as a scapegoat. The stronger, feminist woman of the future has won out over the meek and mild maiden of domesticity and despair. But at what cost, director Breillat seems to ask, has she achieved her victory? Might it even lead to the madness of Salome? The viewer alone must determine whether to celebrate or despair over the young girl’s lack of moral vision—or wonder whether she ever had a choice.

Los Angeles, December 22, 2009

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