Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Oct 02, 2009 2:15 pm 
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Feminist angle on first serial-killer-of-women tale

Catherine Breillat, who once made provocative contemporary feminist features about women’s sexuality, has recently moved in a new direction with costume dramas. But it's not like she's cast aside her feminist outlook. In The Last Mistress/La derniere maitresse (2007) she adapted a controversial novel that straddles the 18th and 19th centuries; Asia Argento got the juicy lead role of the bold courtesan who refuses to yield to a nobleman's squeaky-clean new young wife and keeps on living a grand passion with the groom, her old boyfriend. The story dramatizes a marriage of 18th-century libertinism and 19th-century notions of romantic love. In La Barbe bleue Breillat works out her own take on the famous French folktale about the rich serial wife-killer who gets his comeuppance. Famously, the legend was transcribed by the 17th-century writer of fairy tales, Charles Perrault, and this is Breillat's source, but she rings some interesting changes on it, endowing it with more psychological depth and adding more comments on the historical subjugation of women.

In Perrault's version, though all young women are terrified of the rich old man because of his blue beard and his series of wives who've never been seen again, the younger of a neighbor's two daughters accepts to marry him.

Then he goes away for a spell and leaves the young wife the castle keys, forbidding her to use one little one. She can't resist, and in that room she finds the murdered wives hanging on the will and a puddle of blood into which she drops the key. There's a spell on the key, and she can't wash the blood off. So when Bluebeard comes home, he knows she's been in the room and decides to kill her. But her two brothers come and kill him and save her and she inherits Bluebeard's estate and remarries and lives happily ever after.

Breillat expands the story (after all, it's only three pages long in Perrault). There's also the reveling in period flavor -- the walls of a castle, the horses and carriages, the creaky floors of a nunnery, and above all the rich old fabrics sewn with semi-precious stones (the costumes were lavish and authentic in The Last Mistress too). The two sisters, red-headed Anne (Daphne Baiwir) and younger Marie-Catherine (Lola Creton) are students at a school run by nuns, and their father dies, whereupon they're kicked out of the school by a nasty (and young) head nun (Farida Khelfa). The father leaves their mother with nothing, and they're forced to sell furniture and a harpsichord out of their house to pay bills. The sisters are vocally annoyed at their mother for dyeing all their dresses black: how are they supposed to appeal to potential husbands so drably dressed? Their mother is almost as much of a damper on things (and agent of male oppression) as the head nun.

The younger sister chooses to marry Bluebeard because she is the more fearless and independent one. Bluebeard is fat and old and a little pathetic, and he seems to love his new young bride. He turns out to be something of an old softie. (A good role for Michael Lonsdale, but Breillat makes use of the less known Dominique Thomas.) There are several elaborate eating scenes at a long table, which underline the family resemblance between this film and Rossellini's super-authentic, deliberately stilted history films, especially the most famous, The Taking of Power by Louis XIV (1966). There are also several sequences of well-dressed young people dancing and celebrating, which tend to underscore Bluebeard's un-fun existence and lack of youth.

We don't know how she does it (she engineers several delays and changes of weapon) but Marie-Catherine seems to do away with Bluebeard on her own, without the help of brothers. The last show shows her sitting proudly in front of a large plate with Bluebeard's severed head mounted on it, like Judith with the head of Holofernes (another proudly feminist story from the past).

Breillat's Bluebeard is beautiful but unlike the sprightly Last Mistress creaks and drags. It's livened up by interposed scenes throughout of two very lively (and sometimes combative) sub-teen girls of the 1950's in an attic with a copy of Perrault, Catherine (Marilou Lopes-Benites) and Marie-Anne (Lola Giovannetti), and the younger and more bumptious of the two, Catherine, reading from the tale of "Bluebeard" and mocking her older sister when she protests that it makes her afraid. That's the point, and apparently Breillat's inspiration; that young girls like to be safely "scared" for the titillation of it. And partly of course the film is about the relationship between young girls and such tales. There's a surprise twist, the 1950's kids linking the Perrault tale with 'actual" events in a haunting, dreamlike way that also lightens up the stilted, slow, and rather gloomy progress of the "Bluebeard" dramatization.

Though a classy French film in every way, this is less fun than The Last Mistress. Though this may be a cheaper production than the latter (which Breillat said cost more than all her other films combined), it does not look cheap as the Variety reviewer argues, and the DV isn't "drab" as has been said. No doubt at all that if Rossellini were working today on his historical films, DV would be his medium, and he'd work wonders with it. Breillat hasn't done badly herself.

Shown at the Berlin and other festivals, including the New York Film Festival, when it was seen in October 2009.

There's an interesting comment on the film by Brannavan Gnananalingam in The Lumiere Reader.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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