Tales of Yore is a series of articles about fairy tale adaptations. Adaptations can be direct or loose, and these reviews attempt to consider the films in the context of the stories upon which they are based.
Ah, fairy tale movies. As evidenced by the six parts of this series, there’s a spectrum. There are the Disney movies that—while problematic—are wonderful in their ability to capture the magic those tales of yore have had for centuries. There are romantic comedies, action flicks, cinematic classics, television episodes, and many more that I haven’t covered. Today, I’m going to travel down another path in the vast woods of fairy tale adaptations—into admittedly more pretentious terrain, with trees that bear a strange resemblance to accordions with pastel leaves—and hopefully map out some more interesting territory that has no wolves but a lot of artsy shots of a big dude with a blue beard.
Bluebeard [Original: Barbe Bleue] (2009)
Plot: Two young sisters, Catherine (Marilou Lopes-Benites) and Marie-Anne (Lola Giovannetti), find an old book with the story of “Bluebeard” in an attic from which they are forbidden to enter by their parents. This frame story contextualizes the revamped version of the famous tale that Charles Perrault immortalized, wherein two young sisters, Marie-Catherine (Lola Créton) and Anne (Daphné Baiwir), mourn the loss of their father. Due to their family’s poverty, they attend a party held by the infamous Lord Bluebeard (Dominique Thomas), who people claim has murdered all of his past wives. He and Marie-Catherine develop a unique relationship, and after they marry, he travels away and leaves her a key to a room which she must not enter. This story is pretty familiar, but director Catherine Breillat reworks it in style that is admittedly associated with overwrought independent French cinema; however, she has a clear understanding of the story and how to use the cinematic medium to capture her version of it. The most obvious device is the frame narrative, wherein the two sisters read the story. The name reversal of the two main characters captures the way that fairy tales draw us in to stories far outside of our frame of reference in terms of time, place, and reality in order to help us learn more about ourselves. There’s more to it, but not much I jump into without discussing the whole plot.
The retelling of Bluebeard adds a surprising amount to the original story, or at least draws out what has often lingered in the background for storytellers to play with as desired. The issue of poverty is really well-handled; the father dies, and the family barely has time to mourn before the daughters must try to get married so that they can survive. They have to go to the party of an older, estranged yet wealthy man in order to make ends meet. But there is also an interesting reworking of the ways that society’s perception of Bluebeard has possibly made him monstrous; he is massive in size, and the ostracizing by society has no doubt affected his psychology for much of his life. Bluebeard in classical renditions doesn’t always garner sympathy as a character, and it’s fascinating how Breillat manages to make him both despicable and incredibly human.
Breillat also reworks the nature of the female protagonist—in this version named Marie-Catherine, who is played brilliantly by Lola Créton—who is often relegated to the fairly sexist undertone that curiosity in young women is a terrible, even fatal, character trait. Breillat emphasizes Marie-Catherine’s positive relationship to Bluebeard, but also that she is a young girl with an inquisitive streak, and for Bluebeard to tempt her is clearly his fault—a realization of his inner evil. Breillat cleverly captures the castle with formalistically repeated shots (e.g. Marie-Catherine running up a spire over and over) and in doing so makes us feel both the exciting possibility and terrifying confusion of the massive castle. The artsiness is only meant to enhance the story, and it does so wonderfully and eerily.
Bluebeard is a really solid movie and a great adaptation, one that considers all of the underlying social implications of the original story while maintaining its magical qualities. I have yet to see any of Breillat’s other work, but her ability to manipulate the story and visuals has put her on my radar as a director to pay attention to. If you’re interested in fairy tale movies, or well-directed stories with an artistic touch, then you should take the short amount of time (less than 80 minutes) to catch this movie.