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Berlinale 2009: “Bluebeard” and telling dangerous fairy tales

Above: Dominique Thomas (left) and Lola Creton (right), as Bluebeard and his young bride.
Would you expect Catherine Breillat to have something in common with Manoel de Oliveira?  Surprisingly, Breillat's new film Bluebeard shares the same vital interest in the chaste strictures of an older society as Oliveira's romance in Berlinale, Eccentricities of a Blond Hair Girl.  The affinity is especially strong because the classic Bluebeard fairy tale is far from being subverted by Breillat; if her last film, The Last Mistress, proved anything, it was that this famously provocative director is tempering her explicitness in favor of straight dramas which allow contemporary viewers to confront older forms of social, shall we say, intercourse.

Like the Oliveira, Bluebeard has a framing story as well: two young sisters in the 20th century are reading the fairy tale, the younger one, provocative and precocious (a director stand-in, perhaps?), needles her more "sensitive" older sister by reading her the uncomfortable tale of maidenly murder.  That tale is of a young girl (Lola Creton) who is married off to Lord Bluebeard (Dominique Thomas), rumored to have murdered his previous wives.  Yet with love and respect, the couple miraculously seems to get along, ignoring, at least for a while, the horror that lives within a story that demands a moral.

That horror is necessary.  Indeed, the utopias of fairy tales and times past are fragile; and what would we learn if they did not break?  One gesture, one breach of faith, one defect in character—in this more chivalrous and unforgiving time—is sure to forever ruin this romance (that we root for a murderous ogre and his preteen bride—why, it must be ruined!).  Breillat, ever the provocateur even inside this surprisingly calm drama, makes sure that there are severe repercussions to these seemingly small things.  So alien to our own time and significant to theirs, Breillat makes sure these gestures of the past effect our young storytellers who have share the same skepticism of old stories as we do.  By framing the story as a story—a fairy tale told inside the film itself—Bluebeard unpretentiously shows that while the behavior of the past may be long dead, that behavior channels something universal, something true, and something disturbing to our own time.  Fairy tales aren't only fantasy and imagination if they still get under our skins, and still have the power to kill.
Catherine Breillat’s Barbe Bleue and Feeling Beautiful I had a strange sensation leaving this film: I felt beautiful. I felt infused with beauty. Even though when the credits were rolling I jumped out of my seat and thought “Well, that was boring.” I’m not easily bored (or I’m easily bored and so avoid situations that are boring), maybe because I have a hyper-active imagination and meaning-seeking tendency so I find meaning and entertainment in a lot of films, events. I was disappointed in myself to leave with the judgment “boring” but I knew I wasn’t over the actual savoring of what I had just seen. Especially since this film was by a brilliant French feminist film-maker, notoriously “out of the box” and yet very French, and so I knew KNEW I wasn’t done realizing what had just happened to me. It took a little while for me to realize the presence of beauty sitting in me. At first I thought it was just the lingering taste of French that I found myself muttering in the bathroom, or on the train platform. First thought: French makes me feel beautiful. But I don’t really speak French. Just tasting it, infused with it, something was holding me in its spell. It wasn’t just the French. The period costumes, the period setting, flavor. Sumptuous! Not decadent, not overtly sexual. Poverty and wealth, their envy of one another… in this age, the rich and poor are really in the same world, longing to be free of it, to live for or as something higher. The beauty of the costumes, the props, the piano, the chairs, the castle, the landscape… Perhaps this was what I was infused with. But in writing about this film on my train-ride home, I realized that it was the way the story was presented through the imagination of little girls that had completely pervaded me with a kind of beauty that I had never felt from a film. The story is the old tale of Bluebeard and has the “startling effect” (one critic wrote) of switching between the tale – in medieval period – and a modern period setting of two little girls, sisters, who go up into a dusty ol’ attic full of curiosities to read this “scary” story they’ve read to one another, so it appears, many times before. The film switches between the tale and the telling, Marie- Catherine and her sister Anne are in what appears to be a medieval convent and suddenly a 6 (?) year-old is narrating the story of a powerful and dangerous lord who takes into marriage a young girl who just lost her father. He is dangerous because he has married many women and they disappear within a year, no one has ever seen them again. The switching is mesmerizing, a little like “The Never Ending Story” but darker. I’m not going to go into the story. But what is important to me, and why I realized I was feeling beautiful, is that the story, both within the tale and in the modern telling of it by the little girls, carries all the innocence and guile, pride and creative empathy, of the kind of fantasy that little girls, sisters, conjure amongst themselves. That sharing, whether it be between actual sisters or girlfriends, is known to many of us; the film suggests a matrix of meaning and semiotics known to those of us who’ve experienced this. There’s an intimacy and playful, sometimes hurtful, competitiveness between the sisters in the modern setting, as well as between the two sisters who are forced to return home from a Catholic boarding school after the death of their father, the younger will marry a wealthy and ugly lord, the older will profit from her younger sister’s impetuousness. The competitiveness creates a tension that is not destructive. Or is it? The ending of the tale and that of the modern setting give different answers to this. But it is clear that despite their individual fates, they are in this together. I loved how we see Marie-Catherine, the too young bride for the “ogre-like” Bluebeard, fall, it seems, in love, or in sympathy, for this man. She wants to live in a castle. She recognizes his virtue. She’s different, he’s different. It kind of makes sense. We recognize through her (though she does not fully understand it) his virtue. It’s not ideal by any means, yet we can almost identify with his “disappointment” in the world, how he is searching for someone who will be noble and trustworthy, pure, honest, who will rise above his expectations for betrayal. He is amenable to her requests. He is kind to her and giving. But, because of the affliction of his own ideal for infallible obedience and honesty, he sets her up for failure (you know the story, on one of his lengthy departures, he gives her keys to every room in the castle but says “you are forbidden to go into this one room — here’s the key” and it’s the room in which the bodies of his previous wives are dangling above a pool of blood and of course she goes in). I wanted more time exploring the castle, more scenes of the girl alone being curious, but there was no time for that. The girl rushes to the room and, instead of entering as herself, Breillat has the storyteller 6 year-old girl enter the horrid chamber in a white gown. It’s shocking and so real… because this is how I remember it when my sister and I heard the story for the first time from her mother (my stepmother). Who enters the fairy tale but you, the listener, the little girl? The film’s narrative structure and meaning are held by the presence of a girl’s imagination, and not a girl alone, but a girl sharing her story, necessarily, with her sister. Language is shared. Even our most personal and private longings are co-created by our earliest cohorts, influences, by the very fact that we create ourselves in a world of language given. Even Marie-Catherine seems lost in the castle without her sister; independent and proud as she is, she doesn’t seem to know who she is without her sister present. “I’m glad to be rid of her” she says, but her other part is the boundary of her growth against which she stretches into her new identity as the young and isolated bride in this cold castle. She is not dependent upon her sister, but her story, and its end, are known to (and tragically or heroically empowered by) that other part. Within the tale, the film, the costumes, the sound, the sparse but effective spatial coordination, there is an immediacy that longs to be recognized by a grown woman’s inner girl. In recognizing this, the film recognizes back and fills that woman with a sense of beauty… the beauty of the shared imagination and fantasy of a little girl.

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