I never could figure out where I stood on Catherine Breillat. Her daring meditations on sex fascinated me, but she always seemed to take it just that much over the line. At 75 minutes, Breillat's take on Charles Perrault's deliciously wicked, grimmer-than-Grimm fairy tale Bluebeard cuts the waffle. Maximizing her minimalist structure, Breillat subtracts the gore from her work and delivers what is nevertheless her most provocative movie to date.
Split between the tale set in 1697 and two young girls reading the story in the 1950s, Bluebeard's bifurcated story gets to the heart of her controversial views on sex with surreptitious wit, not blunt force trauma. Somberly, the film opens in the past timeline at a Catholic school as two sisters (little 's') are called to speak to the Mother Superior, who informs them that their father threw himself in front of a horse and carriage to save a child. The nun praises the man's sacrifice, but Breillat gets her jabs in early when the nun then says the girls must leave school because they can no longer afford it and a religious school is not a "charity case." Even wittier, the nun forbids them from crying over the matter, only for the director to cut to the girls returning home, dressed normally and finally getting out their pain like real human beings. Upon returning home, the girls find their mother unable to afford their already modest lifestyle, and the family sells all but the bare walls of their cottage.
Hope at last comes in the form of a courier who announces that Lord Bluebeard is interested in marrying, and that both sisters are to come to his palace. The only catch? Bluebeard has been married six times, and he's killed all six of his previous wives. When the younger sister, Marie-Catherine (Lola Créton) asks how he can get away with murders if everyone knows about them, the older sister merely responds, "Justice is for the rich, not for the poor."
Through Breillat's lens, the story of Bluebeard becomes almost explicitly about the compunctions and hangups over losing one's virginity, particularly from the woman's perspective. By including the seemingly extraneous storyline in the '50s, Breillat shows two even younger girls discussing the sexual symbolism of the story, symbolism they don't fully understand but indirectly touch upon anyway. The stereotype of old sex education for women is girls never being told about sex until mother vaguely mentions something about closing eyes and thinking of flowers, but Breillat demonstrates how women even today are conditioned early on to embrace their socially acceptable role. By setting this second narrative in the '50s instead of the present -- for there is no other reason to explain it -- Breillat dispels any interpretations that would have her blaming lax social mores in modern life that sexualize our children before they even reach puberty. The director points out that this is nothing new and even touches upon how young women used to be when they were married compared to average wedding ages now. "In those days, girls got married at birth," says the young sister when the elder protests the age of the girls in the story.
Breillat's mostly static mise-en-scène unfolds in darkly comic tableaux. While the other young women of the land meet at the castle and dance and frolic, Marie-Catherine wonders off and finds Bluebeard resting under a tree. Dominique Thomas, the actor who plays the murderous lord, was perfectly chosen by Breillat: as she has insisted in interviews, he really is that big. He is not so much fat -- though he is overweight -- as massive, a tall, hulking force whose gentler side clashes with the horror of the fairy tale and initially suggests Breillat might be softening her act. Instead, she complicates the psychology of the narrative: her gently composed juxtaposition of young, slim Créton next to the lounging behemoth suggests Marie-Catherine has an interest in the lord beyond setting up her family for life. "Don't I frighten you?" asks the lord. "No, I'm more afraid of hidden evil." Before the festivities end, we know Bluebeard will choose her as his next bride.
What Marie-Catherine, left without a father, sees in the hairy mass of testosterone could provide Sigmund Freud with a number of boat payments. The only significant camera movement of the film occurs once Marie-Catherine has been picked by Bluebeard, drifting with blissful grace around her as she twirls in the royal robe that's been made for her. Her innocence attracts the gentle side of Bluebeard, but as she spins around her older sister, feelings of Freudian lust, material greed and even oneupsmanship radiate from Créton off the screen. Upon arriving at the castle, she displays an instant ingenuity, as well as a confident feminism, by refusing to sleep in her husband's room in a miniature bed at his feet like a dog -- also, the size discrepancy makes her bed look to much like a crib at the end of daddy's mattress. Wisely, she moves her bed to the broom closet, a seemingly modest transition revealed to be brilliant when Bluebeard finds that he is too large to fit through the room's door, thus unable to come snuff her in the night. Marie-Catherine also refuses to sleep with him for several years, aware that the man will not kill the Madonna until he has turned her into the whore. Alternately, her flurry of excitement gives way to the nervousness of losing virginity, and the camera's return to static shots show the cooling joy. And if you can't catch the double entendre of Marie-Catherine's teasing "My husband is too big for me," just give up now.
The sexual imagery of Bluebeard is overwhelming in its sly brilliance. The wedding ritual between Marie-Catherine and Bluebeard involves spilling gold coins over the girl's head, a blatant acknowledgment of the lord essentially making a prostitute of the young woman. When Bluebeard leaves on a trip and gives his bride the keys to the castle with the mere caveat that she not enter a single room, Marie-Catherine of course waits just long enough for her husband to leave before running down to the room. Inside are the hanging corpses of Bluebeard's previous wives, their legs splayed open as clotted blood soaks the floor. With the corpses' legs open, the blood on the floor takes on a blatant metaphorical property, both for menstrual blood and for burst hymens. When the girl drops the phallic key in the blood and cannot wash it off later, the symbolism only deepens. (Interestingly, Breillat substitutes Marie-Catherine for the even younger girl reading the story, having her stumble around the dark, unsure of what's really in the room, communicating the little girl's own inability to process the meaning of the moment as Marie-Catherine literally doesn't understand what she's gotten herself into.
The blood also, of course, recalls Macbeth, while the labyrinthine structure of the castle -- created by some sly direction on Breillat's part, making what in reality is an unimpressive tower into something that feels far more vast -- duplicates the psychological corridors and dead-ends of Hamlet. When Bluebeard returns and discovers his wife's disobedience, he knows he must kill her, and he actually communicates that specific reaction: instead of flying into a rage, he signs deeply as if the totality of masculine (d)evolution forces him to take vengeance upon her. But he does come after her, and Breillat hilariously repeats shots of Marie-Catherine fleeing up a tower and Bluebeard giving chase as if making a Scooby-Doo cartoon.
The twist ending puzzles me -- partly because it's one that's genuinely surprising, but if I might offer an explanation that may not satisfy even myself when I go back to the film (and I will, repeatedly and enthusiastically), I would say this: the conclusions of both stories are a sly subversion of what we expect at the movies. One subverts the helplessness of the fairy tale heroine by proving her capabilities even when physically outmatched. The other shows the role of fantasy in life, which can be negative as well as positive. When the film abruptly cuts from its stunning climax to a haunting final shot, which lasts so long I wondered if it was simply a still until I saw the fingers of one hand gently moving, we've seen narratives in both timelines turned on their heads in Breillat's usually abrupt fashion, but for once I felt enriched by the experience, not cheated.
There is such cheek to Breillat's retelling that Bluebeard, for all its provocative imagery and suggestive themes, it may just be the comedy of the year. Breillat's dialogue is, as usual, stiff, but here it serves the narrative, casting the past as a fairy tale being read by children. Back in the 20th century, the two younger girls give remarkably natural performances, occasionally jumping off on such bizarre, raucous tangents that you wonder if Breillat simply let them roll. Best of all is when the youngest girl believes that homosexuality describes two people in love and adamantly defends her definition when the older sister specifies the true meaning.
It is a silly thing to wonder about the ranking of films, nothing more than a bit of fun that some people take far, far too seriously. Yet I found myself asking whether I'd place this above Inception on my meager list of favorite films of the year so far. Surprisingly, they're not that different: Christopher Nolan's blockbuster is about addressing hangups via labyrinthine dream navigation. Bluebeard is about specifically sexual hangups addressed through the safety of a fairy tale, which grows more and more complicated with each telling. By blurring the power of fantasy on real life and the ability to shape stories into tales that reflect real-life concerns even when the teller doesn't realize what he or she has injected into the story, Breillat dives into the psychology of her characters with more grace than Nolan, even if her budget likely couldn't cover the catering on Inception. At long last, I can embrace Catherine Breillat fully, and what a happy day it is.