Stepping Into the Story: Catherine Breillat’s Bluebeard and The Sleeping Beauty

January 20, 2012 § Leave a comment

Part One: Bluebeard

Bizarre, enchanting, sparsely told yet thematically intense. Bluebeard and The Sleeping Beauty, parts one and two of a triptych of fairy tale films (Beauty and the Beast will be third) by director Catherine Breillat are, for my money, touchstones, criterions, truly exceptional examples of what a fairy tale adaptation can be.

In other words, they’re pretty boss.

As entertainment for a casual viewer, let me tell you, these two are flawed. Breillat doesn’t allow her films to be entirely self-explanatory, and believe me, I’ve had quite a time trying to parse out a concise thesis from the myriad impressions swimming through my brain. Even for the more discerning film viewer, there are flaws: Breillat espouses some narrative devices that are just, to put it kindly, awkward as all-get-out, and thematic explorations that take at least two more viewings to get even a handle on. In this review, I’m not going to try and argue that these films are perfect—but that for a fairy tale lover (and you know what I mean—we’re not talking Disney here, ever), these are required viewing.

Though I can see these two films working thematically in tandem, I’m going to start by talking about each separately, beginning with Bluebeard.

Bluebeard is deceptive.

It seems, at first to be a fairly straight-forward telling of the French tale by Charles Perrault, with an added framing device: two young girls, sisters, playing in a rarely-visited attic and reading the story aloud. The tale within Breillat’s tale features two sisters as well: Anne and Marie-Catherine, who have just lost their father. Anne is prettier, but Marie-Catherine is feisty.

illustration by Kay Nielsen

Plot-wise, the tale that is read by the girls in the attic and played out on screen for us doesn’t deviate from the tale written down by Charles Perrault. But for those readers unfamiliar with “Bluebeard,” I’ll go into plot just a bit:

Word spreads that Lord Bluebeard is looking for a wife, and all eligible girls are invited to a soiree at his estate so he can choose. His dangerous side is no secret: everyone knows that his former wives disappeared shortly after their weddings, and the notion that Bluebeard murdered them seems to be the accepted rumor. Yet Marie-Catherine (who doesn’t have a name in the Perrault tale), young and pale and headstrong, isn’t afraid of him the way her sister Anne is, and so Bluebeard chooses her as his bride.

illustration by Gustave Dore

Once married, the young wife has her run of the castle. When Bluebeard must leave on a trip, however, he tells her that she can visit any room in the house except for one, which is opened by a small gold key. Naturally, she can’t fight her curiosity, and she opens the forbidden door. There she sees a pool of blood on the floor, and reflected in it, the murdered bodies of Bluebeard’s previous wives hanging from the walls. Shocked, she drops the key, which becomes stained by the blood on the floor (in some other versions, it’s an egg that she drops—don’t ask me why—and she sees only the heads of the wives, or a tub of their remains, or what have you. Mmm, variations).

illustration by Hermann Vogel

Try as she might, she can’t wash the blood off, and so when Bluebeard comes home and demands his keys back, the blood betrays her. He says she must die just as the other wives did for disobeying him. She stalls by asking to say goodbye to her sister, by praying, etc., and just when Bluebeard is finally about to cut off her head, her brothers arrive and cut Bluebeard’s head off instead. Yay! Happy ending for wifey, who gets to stay in the castle and inherit all Bluebeard’s wealth.

Charming story, no?

And as I said, Breillat’s Bluebeard sticks remarkably close to Perrault’s literary tale—and yet manages to be something entirely different and new through a few subtle (and not so subtle–the end is a tad bizarre) tweaks.

As Bluebeard, Dominique Thomas is huge, intimidating, but surprisingly gentle and world-weary. His attachment to Marie-Catherine, played by the appropriately tiny and young Lola Creton, is as close to paternal as Breillat will allow without becoming uncomfortable. This in itself was a surprise for me, since Breillat’s films are known for being unabashedly sexual. And watching the couple’s formal marriage ceremony filled me with dread—their starkly contrasted statures alone made me uncomfortably anticipate the implied or explicit sex in their future. But then we arrive at the castle and the couple is alone… and Marie-Catherine is presented with a tiny bed of her own, which she will sleep in until she’s “of age.” I breathed the biggest sigh of relief I think I’ve ever breathed while watching a film. The physical act in Marie’s future is hinted at, but then wisely cast aside in favor of a more meaningful relationship between her and her murderous husband.

Yes, I said meaningful relationship.

Marie-Catherine is genuinely drawn to him, and he is tender towards her. They both possess a vulnerable self-awareness, almost as if they both know that they are playing roles in a story, and that that makes them complicit—partners in their outcast state, he for his ugliness and the lore that follows him, she for accepting his hand. Watching their odd little marriage unfold, I knew that I would feel sorry to see him attempt to kill her (which I was), and sorry to see him die under her watch (which I was, oh, so much).

Despite my unexpected emotional attachment to Bluebeard himself, it was clear that the inherent logic–or rather, illogic–of the fairy tale itself isn’t tinkered with. We never do know why Bluebeard feels the compulsion to kill his wives, or why he plays the naughty game of tempting them, only to punish them when they succumb. He has always been a symbol, and Breillat’s Lord Bluebeard is not denied that status, even if we may feel empathetic with him in Breillat’s version. Any tinkering with the tale simply makes it more lush and understandable in the moment, for these two people in their bubble—and doesn’t attempt the impossible by explaining larger character motivations as though these are characters that exist in a logical world.

Where Breillat makes her bolder moves is with the two sisters in the attic, reading “Bluebeard” aloud. The film cuts back and forth: we have the girls in the attic discussing the tale, their mother, school, even trying to one-up each other on topics of marriage and bravery and smarts, and then we have Marie-Catherine and Bluebeard each time the girls take up the book again and start reading…with the exception of one important scene.

The most important scene, you might say.

Marie-Catherine’s portion of the film is realistically filmed, albeit a tad bare-bones (a move that I think was deliberate—the sense that the cast of the story within the story is almost playing dress-up seems appropriate), and so the scene in which she opens the door and finds the murdered wives could have been a complete gore-fest. We could have seen Lola Creton act her horrified butt off upon discovering the bodies. We could have had a scene straight out of a B Horror film. Oh noes! Bodies! We could have, but we didn’t.

Instead, the all-important discovery scene is given to the little girl reading the story to her sister—suddenly she’s not in the attic anymore, but alone, creeping up a stone staircase in a nightgown. She’s unlocking a door. She’s walking around in the puddle of blood under a gruesome trio of bodies that look almost like a stylized stage set, swishing her feet around in the corn syrup and saying “I’m not afraid, I’m not afraid, I’m not afraid,” in a move that is almost as adorable as it is disturbing.

In Breillat’s film, the moment of discovery is not important as a plot device–her goal is not to shock us, because she’s counting on her audience’s familiarity with the tale, and perhaps even their jadedness with it. Instead, the story of “Bluebeard” serves as mirror in which the reader can see herself. The same little girl who, earlier on in the film, was jumping up and down on an old trunk and shouting gleefully, “Do you know what I do when I read ‘Bluebeard’? I laugh and laugh and laugh!” has entered the story alone, without her sister looking on, and is trying to convince herself that the story, and the blood around her feet, doesn’t scare her in the least.

Where the plot moves quickly in Breillat’s film is where we, like the little girl, know the story best, where we don’t need the added characterization or the exposition. What happens isn’t what matters, it’s who’s reading it that does, and together the two parts of the story—what happens and who’s reading it—form a narrative all their own.

Reviews have called Breillat’s film a feminist retelling, but that seems to me to be a knee-jerk reaction to a woman making a film of a fairy tale in which women are threatened with death but come out victorious and rich. It’s a popular label, and thus is becoming a lazy one. Angela Carter’s retelling, the 1979 short story titled “The Bloody Chamber,” had more obviously feminist elements—the mother coming to her daughter’s aid rather than brothers, the intense examination of marriage and sex—but Breillat’s aiming for something slightly different. The film can be described as feminine, to be sure.

Rather than questioning the man’s actions towards the woman, which is more akin to what I’d call feminist, the film is occupied with women’s actions towards and feelings for each other, and how they interpret their relationships with other women via the roles they cast for themselves. Both Marie-Catherine and the little reader, Catherine (haha, get it?) are jealous of their sisters, Anne and Marie-Anne (yeah, you get it), and their sisters are jealous of them. But there’s also kinship and dependence in their relationships, which are severely tried by the end of the movie. Marie-Catherine and Catherine cast themselves in roles: the wife, the heroine, in order to break out of the role of “sister,” and one-up both their own sisters and their previous notions of their own identities. This is why it’s important that Marie-Catherine seem much too young for marriage–not because of any perverse desires on Bluebeard’s part, but because she is a reflection of a younger girl’s tendency to imagine herself as the heroine of a stories, to overcome the restraints of childhood and imagine herself independent and important.

But if Breillat’s Bluebeard reflects a tradition of girls inserting themselves into stories to explain who they are, it also teaches us that that kind of projection isn’t an easy fix for those girlhood crises of self-awareness. Little Catherine, the gleeful reader, isn’t as brave and independent as she might want her sister to think, in face of tragedy outside the confines of her book. And the prolonged look into Marie-Catherine’s wide, regretful, and knowledgeable eyes as she strokes a bit of hair on Bluebeard’s severed head in the final shot of the film tells us that we can’t check this one off as a happy ending, despite Perrault’s chipper morals in the literary version. Marie-Catherine stares into the camera, her face surrounded by a soft light, making her look like a religious icon for the all the readers who would insert themselves into her victorious story, daring them to enter and not find a tragedy instead.

…In other words, I liked this movie. You should check it out.

For more Bluebeard-y goodness, you can’t do better than a look through Maria Tatar’s Secrets Beyond the Door: the Story of Bluebeard and His Wives, published by Princeton University Press. It includes the history of the tale, a survey of notable retellings, and some fantastic insight into the cultural significance and the endurance of the “Bluebeard” tale.

Stop by again soon for Part Two of this double-feature,on the continuation of these themes of girlhood, storytelling, and growing up in Breillat’s The Sleeping Beauty.

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