CAPSULE: BLUE BEARD [BARBE BLEUE] (2009)

DIRECTED BY: Catherine Breillat

FEATURING: Lola Créton, Dominique Thomas

PLOT: A young girl from a poor family is married off to a local aristocrat with a blue beard and

Still from Bluebeard [Barbe Bleue] (2009)

a reputation for murdering his brides.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LISTBlue Beard‘s weirdness, while detectable, is mild; and, despite its tragedy and enigmatic tone, as a film its impact is surprisingly slight.

COMMENTSBlue Beard is not merely a period piece in setting, with its authentic medieval gowns and tapestries and frescoes and gloomy stone castles, but it’s also a throwback to an older, subtler age of storytelling with its slow, clam, and detached style.  The primary actors—Lola Créton as the doomed child bride and Dominique Thomas as the unexpectedly sympathetic ogre—never raise their voices, and their expressions remain staid and repressed: obscure emotions flit across their faces, but their subtexts never fully emerge into the light of day.  Even the nobleman’s trademark chromatic bristles—the mark of his supernatural origin—look black and gray in the film, only showing a slight steely blue cast in just the right light, when viewed in private with the luxury to examine it.  Pacing is slow, camerawork languorous.  The flatness of the film serves two purposes: it gives us the freedom to project our own interpretations on the characters, and it causes a few key images to suddenly burst into three dimensions and startle us, like pages from a children’s pop-up book.  Director Breillat takes a weird approach in revealing the fate of Bluebeard’s previous wives, and the effect is successfully memorable and eerie.  The enigmatic final image, a psuedo-Biblical shot that strangely casts the young girl as Salome while effectively encapsulating the spectrum of her unresolved emotions, also fairly pops.  Breillat layers a framing story on top of the fairy tale wherein one little girl is reading the story to her more sensitive and easily frightened sister.  It’s an interesting directorial choice, but it would be hard to claim that this device is entirely successful.  In terms of pacing, it at least provides a little respite from the plodding medieval segments; thematically, the conceit highlights the difference between the carefully sculpted tragedies found in stories and the randomness of real life catastrophes.  With its child bride (diminutive Créton was 15 or 16 years old at the time of filming but looks 12 or 13, at her absolute oldest), the main narrative hints at institutionalized perversion and exploitation.  The story thwarts those expectations, however, in the way that the relationship develops: Marie-Catherine is grateful to Bluebeard for rescuing her from poverty and boredom, the older man is a perfect gentleman who reveals no overt predatory tendencies, and the two develop a chaste mutual fondness and in their own unique way make a happy couple.  Many will want to interpret this open-ended film as reflecting Breillat’s typical themes of female sexuality and gender politics, but it remains true to the mysterious core of the folktale as well.  Like Eve in Genesis (and Ofelia in Pan’s Labyrinth), the heroine here is threatened with death by a supernatural entity who holds her fate in his hands if she breaks a seemingly arbitrary rule.  The fairy tale is a wish-fulfillment that allows the protagonist to turn the tables on God, experiencing the forbidden while at the same time escaping death.  In real life, however, fatal dangers are not always so clearly and neatly marked out by dire prohibitions.  If you’re interested in pondering these sorts of weighty issues, you’ll find Blue Beard a useful meditation aid; if you’re looking for any sort of action, flash, or escapist fantasy, however, you’ll want to steer well clear of this often ponderous tale.

The legend of the murderous aristocrat Bluebeard is an old French folktale that possibly derives from, or incorporates, the biography of 15th century French nobleman Gilles de Rais, who was accused of murdering hundreds of children.  The legend was first reduced to print by Charles Perrault in 1697.  The story has been adapted for film dozens of times, never quite successfully, usually removing the supernatural elements and relocating the action to the present.  Edgar G. Ulmer‘s 1944 version starred John Carradine as an artist who strangles his models, and there was a sleazy 1973 Italian-produced version with ample nudity starring Richard Burton as the misogynist murderer and Raquel Welch, Sybil Danning and Joey Heatherton as some of his victims.  Cinematic pioneer Georges Méliès made a nine-minute silent version in 1901 with dream sequences that may count as the best and weirdest version of the tale ever filmed.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a surreal little film with an intriguing Freudian subtext and a haunting blend of magic and gritty realism.”–David Edwards, Daily Mirror (contemporaneous)

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